Friday, January 8, 2010

"Snow, Wave, Pine" Book Review: A Thing of Beauty

Bamboo leaves, piled high with snow, drifting across a green silk kimono. A sword guard made to look like a ring of delicate, open fans.

If you're looking for interesting, unique art or just artistic inspiration, Motoji Niwa and Sadao Hibi's Snow, Wave, Pine: Traditional Patterns in Japanese Design, a 196-page book published in 2001, is full of these sorts of luscious examples of Japanese design, with everything from wave-patterned geta (sandal) straps to a snowflake-adorned box for smokers.

The book walks the reader through 75 of the most common motifs, from peonies to lobsters, giving a page or two-page spread to each one. A paragraph of text gives a basic description, with the majority of the page devoted to several clear, vivid examples for each motif taken from a range of design: kimono, hair combs, musical instruments, dishes, fans, sword guards and more.

This book's blessing and curse comes from its minimal text and explanations. If you're a casual reader or someone who doesn't know much about Japan, you'll appreciate its very brief copy and lack of many Japanese-only words.

If you have more than a passing interest in the topics, however, it can prove annoying at times. For example, the back half of the book shows over 1,000 family crests (家紋 kamon), but in most cases only gives the English name of the pattern used, like "encircled intersecting arrows", not the family it usually belonged to or even what the pattern itself would be called in Japanese. (Finding out the kimono you own has a "paper dolls and paulownia" crest doesn't do much for learning more about it.)

That said, the book is, overall, a gorgeous introduction into the world of Japanese design. I'd recommend it for anyone with an interest in Japan, artists or designers looking for inspiration outside of the West, or just about anyone who enjoys beautiful things.

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