House Industries’ Take on Japanese KOKESHI Dolls

Text: Periscope

Kokeshi are handmade wooden dolls made by artisans in the northern regions of Japan.  There are conflicting accounts about where kokeshi originated and how it got its name.  Japan has seen occasional resurgences of interest in kokeshi over the years, but with the number of artisans decreasing, there are less and less kokeshi out there, and kokeshi still remain largely unknown outside of Japan. But now we hear that House Industries, a Delaware based design company mostly known for its screaming fonts, is adding kokeshi blocks to its block collection. We asked Andy Cruz, a partner in the firm and a frequent traveler to Japan, "Why?"

How did you discover kokeshi?
My wife, Steph picked up a kokeshi for our 4 year old daughter, Ava, at a local tag sale. Collecting creative and traditional kokeshi of all shapes and sizes quickly became my daughter's hobby. As the dolls filled the shelves above Ava's bed, we said she could store the overflow of her traditional versions in the living room. Soon after, Steph and I started collecting them for ourselves.
What did you know about kokeshi?
Beyond the mythology, folklore, localization of kokeshi designs and styles in Japan, what really appealed to me was the simple wooden silhouette and the hand painted forms. Knowing that each kokeshi was slightly different from the next was very refreshing.
What made you want to do your own version of kokeshi?
Our Japanese ambassador, Yayoi Cannon, had arranged for us to design a "real" kokeshi (hand painted / turned wood) in Sendai, but after a lot of chin-stroking, I didn't think we could bring anything new to improve on the traditional form(s) I loved. Gaijin (foreigner) guilt maybe…? We put the idea of an original aside for the time being and decided to do a stacking puzzle. Working with our partners at Uncle Goose, we decided to pay homage to the authentic kokeshi in a different wooden format rather than try to make something that wasn't the real deal.
Tell me about your version of kokeshi. What's different from Japanese kokeshi?
I prefer the traditional styles so we referenced several of the iconic designs in a  wood block puzzle format. I'm hoping they will not only end up in kids' rooms but help turn people onto the authentic kokeshi by the Japanese craftsman who inspired the project.
What was the process like?
Once Chris (Gardner) and I got our heads around the four styles and finally figured out how to ink the chrysanthemum, we tried our best to make it translate to a flat surface. Wanting to keep costs down, we worked with only two colors and just four blocks. One thing we could not decide on was what girl to put on the front of the package…so we didn't decide. We made four different boxes featuring each kokeshi design. Let the customer pick their favorite and drive the retailer crazy.
Are there things that were different in making them from the other things you do?
No difference…like most House Industries projects, we probably spent way too much time and money bringing it to market.  With block projects, the real payoff isn't when an adult appreciates it as a design object (though that is always welcome). It's when a child picks them up…not knowing the historical context, or who the hell House Industries is, but responds to the pure forms and colors then begins stacking, spinning and aligning.


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