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Whiskey & Wabi-Sabi
by Chris Arning| London, UK
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
tags: art & design, asia, clients & brands, consumer culture, europe, global vectors, semiotics
One of the by-products of the so called 'wa boom' in Japan is a climate that is amenable to a Nipponification of products that would previously have been considered prototypically Western. Even coffee, once ham-fistedly advertised by Arnold Schwarzenegger — is being given a Japanese twist. Coffee drinking has been considered a Western affectation since the 1920s Taisho era in Japan when it was the preserve of flapper girls sipping from Art Deco crockery. A more subtle Japanese appreciation is taking over from the tired European epicurean codes and bringing coffee closer to tea in tonality.
Now whisky is the beverage to undergo a ‘wa’ makeover. An FT article last month on Japanese whiskies trumpeted the recent triumph of Japanese brands in global tasting competitions. What most piqued my interest as a semiotician — beyond perfunctory references to the Bill Murray scene in Lost in Translation — is the bottle design of Japanese whiskies. Whiskey in Japan is shedding its regalia and going native. I was most taken by the Suntory Hibiki bottle (the name means resonance which is quite clever for a whiskey as it references not only the echoing through the distillation process, the empathy of conversations during the consumption moment, but also the many flavours that resonate like notes on the palate). The semiotics of the label on pack are masterfully simple and seem more at home on a sake bottle than on whiskey.
The centerpiece of the bottle is a worn patch of Japanese parchment typically used for calligraphy or that you might find hanging up in the tokonoma alcove of a Japanese home. Even though flecked with gold leaf (typically used in decorative poetic letters or on lacquerware boxes) the patch is humble — apparently roughly excised from a roll with the fluff and miniscule filaments of the paper visible on the border.
The deeply weathered and threadbare-looking ochre hue of the paper give an impression of craft but also of muted temperance to the packaging. The effect of the parchment and of slightly scratchy calligraphy (done in informal sosho or ‘grass’ script which is also making a comeback in Japan) communicates a meekness that countervails the elegant squatness of the beveled decanter.
The patch on the bottle could be said to tap into codes of wabi-sabi. The book Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren (Imperfect Publishing, 2008) sets out the principles of this design style as including the following: soft vague edges, ostensible crudity, a tolerance of ambiguity, and acceptance of the inevitable. Hibiki may be just a little too immaculate for this. Nevertheless, it seems fitting that in a Japan where the so-called Golden Recession has engendered a real crisis in masculinity and where geopolitical power shifts have triggered a period of introspection, Japanese whiskey should reflect this change with Suntory, one of the most design-literate companies (along with Shiseido, an FMCG company all graphic designers in Japan want to work for), at the vanguard.