You might have seen it on your Insta feeds, your Tik Tok or even on your online shopping binges. Kintsugi is a design craze that’s picking up serious momentum. Not only does it look lovely, but there’s also a fascinating and heart-warming philosophy behind it.
Kintsugi means “golden joinery” in Japanese. The basic premise is that when something like a bowl or glass is broken you fix the pieces back together with a strong lacquer and powdered gold, highlighting the cracks, making it even more beautiful than before. (It’s also another thing to add to the list of ways you can transform your home for spring.)
An ancient tradition
The Japanese tradition goes back more than 500 years. The story goes that, back in the 14th century, the Shogon of Japan, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, broke his favourite bowl. Distraught he sent it to China to be repaired, but on its return, he was unhappy with the ugly metal staples that had been used to piece it back together. He asked his craftsmen to devise a more appropriate solution, and they came up with, guess what? Kintsugi. This art became so popular that it’s reported that some collectors deliberately started smashing valuable pots so they could be repaired with gold.
While this all sounds quite fun, academics are pretty sure the lacquer and gold technique didn’t start until the late 16th or early 17th centuries. But we’ll stick with the other story.
However, don't go around your house smashing pots, like the 14th-century Japanese collectors did, just so you can have a go.
The lacquer that is traditionally used in Japan to fix the pieces comes from an indigenous tree in Japan. However, by extracting a cup of sap, it ends the tree’s life. The lacquer is developed by hand to become a strong glue, which hardens quickly. The whole process of mending can take around three months. This gives the practitioners time to reflect and time to appreciate the natural materials they are working with. This is what has become the true lesson of kintsugi: patience.
There are three main types of kintsugi practice:
– Using gold dust and resin or lacquer to fill in the clean breaks between broken pieces
– The piece method where a missing piece is filled with gold
– The join-call method where a non-matching fragment is used to replace the missing piece, like a patchwork
Valuable life lessons
In an age of mass production and in the midst of a throw-away culture, the art teaches us some valuable lessons. It asks us to embrace the old and broken, to use sustainable practices, and to re-use items in the same way people used to ‘make do and mend’ in the 40s.
It’s also a sort meditation-like practice to undertake. Kintsugi encourages you to be calm when a cherished piece of pottery breaks and requires patience to piece it back together. The practice not only accepts scars and flaws, but celebrates them. Some see this as a deeper philosophy for humanity. In fact, kintsugi is an extension of wabi-sabi, an ancient Zen Buddhist philosophy that sees beauty in imperfection.
The wabi-sabi philosophy is particularly rooted in the Japanese tea ceremony, a ritual in which masters prize bowls that are handmade and irregularly shaped, celebrating their imperfections.
You can see how this is still an attractive philosophy today, and why lots of artists are popping up to make kintsugi their own and tell the stories of lots of different pots, whether they’re broken family heirlooms or damaged love tokens.
A modern take on an ancient tradition
Now everyone wants to have a go. Interiors influencers online are creating their own and you can pick up some lovely kits over at Etsy, Not On The High Street, or the Design Museum, which sells a kit from Humade, and comes with this neat little video. These kits have swapped tree sap for glue and gold leaf for metallic powder – but the result is still very much the same.
If the whole DIY thing is one step too far for you, you can also buy your own pre-made kintsugi dishes, but it seems to defeat the whole point of the process and philosophy of doing it yourself.
Either way, don’t go around your house smashing pots, like the 14th-century Japanese collectors did, just so you can have a go.