On drinking tea, typography, historicism, symmetry and asymmetry by Emil Ruder
Ever since I’ve learned that Emil Ruder, renowned Swiss typographer, wrote an article entitled “On drinking tea, typography, historicism, symmetry and asymmetry”, I’ve been on the hunt to track it down. All of the original publications has been out of print, but I finally found it printed in a Japanese design magazine, idea, of all places.
My relationship with drinking tea goes back to my childhood, spending afternoons sipping tea with my grandpa, who still to this day makes the most aromatic, nourishing cup of tea I’ve ever had. My father tells me it’s the Yixing clay teapot he uses, which, after decades, has developed a patina of tea oils. I plan on writing more about tea in the future, but what I want to say is that what I appreciate most about tea culture is what keeps me inspired about typography. The history, the craft and the necessary integrity one has to approach both disciplines if one is to do it well is on closer examination very similar. So it was such a delight to have what I’ve felt for a long time reflected in none other than Emil Ruder.
In the article, he mostly quotes The Book of Tea, a seminal text on tea culture written in 1906 by Okakura Kakuzo. Because I’ve already read this book, I didn’t learn anything new about tea per say. It was nonetheless interesting to learn how Ruder connects the two. And if you haven’t read The Book of Tea, the following article is definitely a worthy read. Here it is.
On drinking tea, typography, historicism, symmetry and asymmetry:
‘The heaven of modern humanity is indeed shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through a bad conscience, benevolence practiced for the sake of utility. The East and West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life. We need Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon light is brightening the bamboos, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.’
In 1906 Okakura’s the Book of Tea was published, in which he, as a Japanese, introduced to Europe the depth and refinement of Far Eastern culture. On reading through the pages of this small and narrow book one is surprised at just how much of general relevance is conveyed. In the sections Taoism and zen-philosophy, the tea-room, Evaluation of art, Flowers, and Tea-master, the major problems concerning philosophy, art and architecture are discussed in a stunningly simple way. Our domain of oft-recurring subjects in typography, such as symmetry, asymmetry and historicism, appear in a new light. Let’s look at the section ‘the tea-room’:
‘The tea-room is an Abode of the Unsymmetrical inasmuch as it is consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect, purposely leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination. In the tea-room it is left for each guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself. The art of the extreme Orient has purposely avoided the symmetrical as expressing not only completion, but repetition. Uniformity of design was considered as fatal to the freshness of imagination. In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence. The various objects for the decoration of a room should be so selected that no colour or design shall be repeated. If you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable. If you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular. A cup with a black glaze should not be associated with a tea-caddy of black lacquer. In placing a vase or an incense burner on the tokonoma, care should be taken not to put it in the exact centre, lest it divide the space into equal halves.
Here again the Japanese method of interior decoration differs from that of the Occident, where we see objects arranged symmetrically on mantelpieces and elsewhere. In Western houses we are often confronted with what appears to use useless reiteration.’
These thoughts appear to us worthy enough of providing enrichment to the subject of asymmetry/symmetry. Nowhere could we find so eloquently expressed, that asymmetry is allied to the simple, the natural, and also to freshness and to the highly imaginative - in contrast to deliberate and more monumental symmetry. As a result, however, we find ourselves already in contrast with today’s relevance. The increased tendency towards matter being set centred, is disquieting and painful for every advocate of contemporary typography. This retrograde movement, which has amassed followers in the widest circles, affects all fields, particularly architecture, and not just in Switzerland either.
The path to centered setting is often the path of minimal resistance, because one shies away or does not master the requirements of good asymmetry: the construction with typographical elements on a plane, the activation also of the unprinted plane. Admittedly, centered setting has much in its favour, for even a poor work doesn’t topple over; it has the central axis to support it. On the other hand poorly designed asymmetry is an altogether different story.
We can only begin to understand contemporary typography when design is interwoven in the closest possible way with the spiritual, social, scientific and technical manifestations of today. We should not put aside the Book fo Tea without first reading what Okakura has to say about taking refuge from the present and historicism:
‘Art, to be fully appreciated, must be true to contemporaneous life. It is not that we should ignore the claims of posterity, but that we should seek to enjoy the present more. It is not that we should disregard the creations of the past, but that we should try to assimilate them into our consciousness. Slavish conformity to traditions and formulas fetters the expression of individuality in architecture. We can but weep over those senseless imitations of European buildings which one beholds in modern Japan. We marvel, among the most progressive Western nations, architecture should be so devoid of originality, so replete with repetitions of obsolete styles. Would that we loved the ancients more and copied them less! It has been said that the Greeks were great because they never drew from the antique.
The claims of contemporary art cannot be ignored in any vital scheme of life. The art of today is that which really belongs to us: it is our own reflection. In condemning it we but condemn ourselves. We say that the present age possesses no art—who is responsible for this?’
The situation today appears to us disturbing. In restraining our own restlessness we should not be praising the acknowledged high standard of our printed product without casting a sidelong glance at the educational contributions made by our polytechnics. We realize a resignation, a turning back, an uncertainty, a question for the continuity. One has the feeling that what is needed today is the same as that period which followed form-obscuring Impressionism: the search for a principle, conscious image forming and a unified view of life.
It is our conviction that, in the whole world, all of us are subject to the same principles. The Gothic woodcut artist, the Greek vase painter and the Egyptian hieroglyphic painter were all faced with the same task, our task: to place elements on a surface, to make them harmonize and to relate them to a higher order.
Sophie Walker on the meditative quality of gardening
This summer, I’ve been really enjoying taking care of my modest little garden (if you can even call it that) and a few houseplants. I didn’t know how to articulate the particular state of mind I get when gardening until reading this quote. I find that tending to my plants does not simply involve the physical act of say watering, it becomes me. They become a part of my psyche so that I know when to water, when to prune, when to clean their delicate leaves. I especially love this part of the quote: “it requires sensitivity for something beyond ‘I’, beyond ‘self’”. It seems that the more I step beyond myself, the more I feel connected with everything else.
“The garden is a tool of daily practice—something that is closely associated with Buddhism and Shinto. The very act of tending a garden requires care, it requires sensitivity for something beyond ‘I’, beyond ‘self’. The task at hand demands full engagement with no thought of anything else—it is a wholehearted act. Poet monk Basho said that because of this, ‘many a great thought occurred while weeding the garden’.”
– Sophie Walker on the connection between Japanese gardens on religious practice, in a Phaidon interview.
Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan
I finished reading the book, Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan, on the same day that the US Supreme court finally overruled the infamous Korematsu vs US case, which epitomizes the injustice of the 1944 Japanese internment camps. Even without this relevant coincidence, I’ve been reflecting a lot about violence justified by “otherness” that’s happening in the states and around the world while I was reading this book.
Foreign policies are complicated and I don’t claim to understand the full scope, but for me, it’s immediately eye opening to view current events through a historical lens. It urges me to reflect on what we take for granted and accept as fate in our current times. In 50 years, what current events will we look on with the same bewilderment as we view the internment camps today?
It is with these emotions that I stumbled upon The New York Times short documentary on the aforementioned book. I sobbed deeply the entire way through. The book and the documentary capture the story of John Roderick, a correspondent and prominent “China watcher” who opened China to the west in the 50s. He found a home in rural Japan in a 300 year old Minka, resurrected by his talented adopted son, Yoshihiro Takishita, who then went on to dedicate his life’s work to preserving Minkas, a disappearing form of architecture.
Yes, it ticks off so many of my interests, such as architecture, Japanese culture and aesthetics, and Chinese history during that time, but more than anything, it is a heart-wrenching and triumphant story of two people who loved and built something together against all odds. I want to share the following prologue from the book as it captures the spirit of the story perfectly.
Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan prologue:
“When the hurly-burly of today’s world overwhelm me with its news of the never-ending war between good and evil, love and hate, I hobnob with the rustic ghosts of centuries past in my restored old farmhouse on a hill, overlooking Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan.
Its steep snow roof, massive posts and beams, wide wooden floors, and split-bamboo ceilings take me back 273 years to the tiny hamlet of rice farmers in the mountains where it was born, 350 miles from Kamakura.
The event on that distant day was a jubilant one because it was built for the village chief, Tsunetoshi Nomura, who doubled as its nature-worshipping Shinto priest. The place: Ise, in Fukui prefecture, 400 miles west of Tokyo. Its scattering of farmers all lived in such big farmhouses, called minkas, now a sadly disappearing type of building more than 2,000 years old.
I became the owner of this venerable pile forty-two years ago thanks to my surrogate Japanese family, the Takishitas (a name meaning “under the waterfall”) of Gifu prefecture. They took me, an American journalist and recent wartime enemy, under their wing in 1963, five years after I arrived in Tokyo to join the Associated Press staff there.
Actually, the minka was a gift from its owner, Tsunemori Nomura, the affable descedant of that long-ago ancestor for whom it was built. Parting with it was, for him, an almost unbearable sorrow. His ancestors, officers of a brave but doomed military clan called the Heike, had hidden, lived, ministered, and died in Ise since they had found refuge there following their twelfth-century defeat by Yorimoto, the first of Japan’s long line of military rulers, called shogun.
What followed was a labour of love. The Takishitas, joined by friends and family, dismantled, moved, and rebuilt the immense old house in Kamakura, where I lived. After defeating the Heike, Yorimoto made Kamakura—his military headquarters—the capital of a united Japan. The ghosts of the Ise Nomuras must have laughed bitterly to see their old home come to life again in the seat of their ancient enemy. Yoshihiro, the youngest Takishita son, a recent university graduate, supervised the entire project. It took forty days.
In my forty years as a foreign correspondent, I covered the Chinese civil war, the strife surrounding the creation Israel, and the French and American failures in Vietnam.
I spent seven months with the Chinese communist leader, Mao Tse-tung, in his 1940s cave capital of Yanan. And over the next thirty years, I chronicled the slow and sinister change in his personality from one of compassion for his fellow Chinese to blind hatred toward anyone blocking his dreams of personal power and conquest.
Turning from agrarian idealist to dictatorial tyrant, he publicly proclaimed that love was a bourgeois weakness, hate man’s most powerful emotion. Yet I cannot believe him; I am still convinced that in the end the meek will inherit the earth.
Searching for an example of the power of love, I have drawn on my own experience, the Takishita family’s gift of love and friendship whose living symbol is the old minka in which I still live.
It is a small example but it is significant because it happened in Japan, an implacable enemy that I—and so many Americans—once hated, intensely, blindly, and totally.
Often, in the eloquent silence of my high-ceilinged living room, I think I hear the voices of the Nomuras and their neighbors, chattering about the weather, the harvest, fishing, the hunt, the phases of the moon, and the religious mysteries of the deep forests.
It is then that the lovely old minka speaks to me of a time when nature and the rural sense of community sharing informed everyday life. Forty years after the Takishitas presented it to me, it is my private shelter from the global storms that rage all around us.
It represents, to me, the triumph of love over hate.
It is, at last, a house of my own.”
Jasper Morrison on the topic of luxury
“I’m not at all interested in the idea of luxury. The idea of enjoying something that excludes others is terrible, isn’t it?”
– Jasper Morrison, Whitewall Magazine February 2010.
Inspired by Clarisse Demory
Jigsaw pieces in my head clicked into place when I learned that Clarisse Demory was behind a few of the brands I admire so much, such as Lemaire, Maryam Zadeh Nassir, Polder, and Sophie Buhai. She has an acute ability to pull together a composition that is full of depth and uniqueness, but made from seemingly ordinary objects. In an interview, she wrote this about a simple plastic bag, which I think sums up the heart of her design approach:
“I love not having a hierarchy between materials. For example, I find plastic bags so precious somehow because, I mean, it’s so useful. We don’t realize the value of a plastic bag because it’s cheap, but just think about the process behind it: the technology, the people making it, it’s so light, and can look quite beautiful.”
It's a frame of mind I strive to work on—that is to not automatically dismiss something because I’ve been taught that it’s not beautiful so I can see the beauty and potential in it anew.
More of her work here.