The joyful art of furoshiki
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
“We need a revolution, and I want to start it,” says the woman who is introducing me, via Zoom, to a collection of nature-inspired fabrics – and her plan for world domination. Tomoko Kakita, a Japanese interior architect, has been living in the UK for two decades, and now works as part of Harrods’ in-house team, which delivers high-octane design projects around the world. But lately, her thoughts have turned to embellishment of another kind: gift wrapping.
Why the activist approach? Because the seasonal merry-go-round has to stop, she says. We still create millions of tonnes of wrapping waste over the festive period. Only a fraction of foiled, coated, glittery or trimmed wrapping is recyclable – even with best intentions we’re doing what the American Forest & Paper Association calls “wishcycling”: throwing it in and hoping for the best – and it’s estimated that around half of what we use in the UK ends up in landfill. With a paper shortage on top, there really is no time like the present for change.
Kakita’s solution is an elegant one: the revival of an ancient Japanese art form where objects are cocooned in decorative, reusable cloths called furoshiki. Last year, she launched Ma Space Design, drawing on her heritage to create furoshiki designs. Now she’s written a book to inspire a new generation to embrace the old way.
“I began thinking about this a few years ago when I was going through a difficult period,” she says. “One day I was lying looking at the trees and missing my sister, who was a landscape designer, and thinking about how she would hate what we’re doing to nature. Mother Earth gives us so much but we just keep taking. I decided to do something in her honour to give back.”
Kakita’s brand “Ma” means “the space between things”. “As a spatial designer, my job is to help people fill their ‘ma’ with beauty that improves their environment and their life,” she says. “With furoshiki, we create ‘ma’ in a piece of cloth.”
Learn to create furoshiki…
This ancient Japanese art form is a chic, sustainable and mindful way to give presents. Here, Tomoko Kakita demonstrates how to gift-wrap a book using the “square knot” technique.
Courtesy of the author, taken from Furoshiki and the Japanese Art of Gift Wrapping by Tomoko Kakita (Laurence King Publishing), £12.99
As it’s rooted in a culture that devotes whole textbooks to the etiquette of gifting, the practice is imbued with thoughtfulness. In its earliest form, it was called tsutsumi, meaning “wrap”, a word whose ancient characters are shaped like a pregnant woman; wrapping became culturally bound to this metaphor of caring and compassion, Kakita explains. “It’s not just about handing something to someone: joyful anticipation of their receiving it is part of the experience.”
In the fold: three furoshiki
“People are looking to cultures that think beyond aesthetics, and their ways are becoming better understood,” says Kylie Clark, head of Japanese experiences at Pantechnicon, the Japanese-Nordic concept store that launched in Belgravia last year, where Kakita has tutored the team in furoshiki. “The Japanese don’t just appreciate nature but the true nature of things. So this mindful, tactile way of wrapping means pausing to absorb detail, shape and form. It makes it more meaningful.”
The practice originated in the Nara period (710-794), when linen protected treasures in temples. Later, special cloths were used to carry kimono, then to identify clothes in bathhouses (silk wrapping for nobles, paper for high-ranking samurai). In the most elevated tradition, embroidered silks – often from Kyoto, which developed special dyeing and weaving techniques – would be used, and the giver would unwrap the object, taking the silk away so as not to introduce dust into someone’s home.
In the modern era, they became part and parcel of everyday life. “As well as wrapping gifts, people used them for carrying belongings, from picnics in cherry blossom season to books,” says Kakita. “My grandmother used them for sorting drawers in the wardrobe, and when she prepared fruit, she would put aside the peel in a furoshiki, making the waste more beautiful.”
Since the 1970s, the practice has been swept aside by plastic and paper bags – but a revival is gathering pace. “It’s considered a very chic way to carry something,” says Clark. “Even taking a bottle to someone’s house, it’s a code: if it’s wrapped in a furoshiki it means more.”
If you buy a gift in Pantechnicon this Christmas – they have wonderful contemporary furoshiki designs from The Link Collective – the team will work their magic for you. But there’s still time to have a go.
“People think it must be difficult, but it’s a lot of fun just to play and see what happens,” says Kakita. Her book guides the reader through everything from basic knots and open-cradle shapes to the most sophisticated techniques, with handles, ornamental pleats, bows and flourishes – and offers access to video content where she demonstrates each wrap.
The cloth should be matched to the moment, with consideration given to how the surface design will appear both wrapped and unwrapped, and the symbolism in the colours. Yellow is considered prosperous; red conveys joy. There’s even a very specific red-orange, ouni, that represents the sunrise. One of Kakita’s designs, in navy or deep green, depicts the end of the day: “I loved the idea of giving someone the moon,” she says.
“When I give my non-Japanese friends something in furoshiki they always give something back wrapped the same way – even if it’s a tiny tin of sardines. It’s the gesture, the intention, that matters – and it has created a little network of appreciation. That’s what I want to make this about, in the modern context: a message of goodness that you pass on.”
Furoshiki and the Japanese Art of Gift Wrapping by Tomoko Kakita is published by Laurence King Publishing at £12.99