Japanese crystal: designs in `endless space'

One of Japan's best-kept secrets is out. Suddenly, the name of Hoya, Japan's premi`ere maker of pure, brilliant crystal, is being granted the respect long given to established names like Baccarat, Waterford, Orrefors, and Steuben, say enthusiastic collectors both here and abroad.

Originally developed right after World War II, this Japanese crystal was introduced to the United States market just a year ago, with the opening of the Hoya Crystal Gallery at 450 Park Avenue in Manhattan.

When New York collectors Joseph and Gussie Justman walked into the gallery on opening day, recalls Mr. Justman, they felt ``overwhelmed by the fresh, innovative approach of the Japanese to glassmaking. The quality of the crystal was flawless and the designs were exquisite in their simplicity.''

The Hoya pieces that so immediately impress gallery-goers like the Justmans include those that represent soaring modern architecture, dynamic geometrics, the forms of nature with all their subtleties, and even such homey, everyday objects as books and pencils.

It was in the late 1940s that a young man named Fumio Sasa, trained as an architect at the Institute of Industrial Art and Technics in Tokyo, became design director of the Hoya Corporation, now the world's largest manufacturer of fine crystal. The company was a major producer of optical glass for lenses and filters. The glass (with a lead content of 28 to 30 percent) was well known for its purity, clarity, and brilliance.

Mr. Sasa suggested that the company extend its line in a new artistic direction that would include the Hoya Crystal Art and Design Collection of decorative pieces, as well as functional stemware, vases, bowls, and giftware. Over the years since, he has assembled a staff of 15 designers, each of whom is internationally known and represented in the museums and exhibitions of other countries.

These designers are required to have a thorough knowledge of glassmaking and they work in a studio placed next to the site of glass production. Designers and glass technicians work together, with designers confirming their ideas in the actual molten medium itself.

Sasa explained in New York earlier this year that a single work of art glass may cross centuries of design and technique. Hoya, he said, combines the ancient mouth-blown and hand-formed glassmaking methods with uniquely designed technical innovations for glass forming and finishing. Its manner of polishing individual pieces preserves their crisp lines and mirror finish. The pieces might be engraved by diamond-wheel, sandblasted, or hand cut.

Sasa encourages his artists to study different artistic disciplines in order to enhance their creativity.

Kyoichiro Kawakami, for example, is a master of the Sogetsu Flower Arrangement School. Toshio Sugasawa plays the piano and is interested in designing musical instruments. He also studies traditional Japanese wooden works and lacquerware to see what influence they might have on crystal works.

And Akira Shirahata finds inspiration in the beauty of the Japanese tea house, the form, harmony and serenity of the tea ceremony itself, and in the unbalanced beauty found in the arrangement of stones in a Japanese garden. Some of his designs are also derived from the centuries-old Japanese Jomon period pottery which he has also researched.

Others of the designers have concerned themselves with Japanese arts and crafts, woodblock prints, or the traditional Japanese Noh theater. Some are intrigued with sleek architectural forms. Sasa, for instance, has utilized his training in architecture to design his own home. He tends to think of crystal in terms of ``endless space.''

Most of his designers, he says, try to detach their egos from their work, and to let the crystal itself speak to and through them. The resulting forms do reflect, with great simplicity, the cultural heritage of Japan.

Alice Chappell launched Hoya in New York and is president of Hoya Crystal, USA. For many years, she says, Hoya offered its art glass only to Japanese collectors, not sure that the rest of the world was ready to appreciate the restrained subtleties of its product. But its reception in Europe and the US has proved that the world is indeed ready. In the crosscurrent of cultures today, the Japanese are making their mark.

Prices in New York range from $15 for a goblet to $30,000 for an intricate art piece. Most pieces are in the $200 to $1000 range, with many selling for $300 to $500. About half the customers in the New York gallery are men, who say that they are attracted by the lean, clean lines of many of the pieces.

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