I’m a beginning Tai Chi Chuan student and last December I was finally approaching the point where I could stumble my way through the entire Yang style long form from memory. The long form is, well, long, and it takes some effort to learn it, but as Christmas was approaching it became apparent that I would probably manage it just before the holiday. They say that learning the form is just the start, and the real practice is learning to work with Chi within the form, and that this is a lifetime pursuit. No doubt, but when you don’t know the full form, committing it to memory is a big step forward. I was excited and a little nervous, and my teacher was thrilled, so I wanted to find something to commemorate the achievement; something I would use regularly, and would make me think of Tai Chi and help renew my commitment to Tai Chi Chuan. The Wednesday before Christmas I finally managed it, and the next day I decided on this kettle to mark the event, and purchased it from Halycon. As it happened, the kettle’s designer, Sori Yanagi, died that same week, on Christmas day, so for me, it commemorates him as well.
At first the kettle appears rather commonplace; this is not a case of a designer showing off design skills for their own sake, but this kettle is an uncommon joy to use. Pick it up and it nestles easily into your hand, balancing perfectly whether empty or full. The handle has a curved bottom that makes the pot an extension of the hand. Although the spout is wide, it pours with great precision. It came with a small instruction sheet in Japanese, (I had to laugh, I love things that come with instructions for the obvious, like shampoo or toothpaste) but there were two diagrams on this sheet that were worth studying; one showing the first and little fingers curling around the hollows in the handle, and the other showing the index finger straightened out along the top of the handle, so that it points to the place you are pouring. Both hand positions work beautifully. I have no trouble pouring into tiny cups without spilling a drop — and it does this effortlessly. I found that when pouring out the last few drops the lid sometimes falls forward. You can hold it back with your other hand, of course, but I then discovered a trick of my own; all I had to do was straighten my pot hand ring finger, and it would touch the lid’s handle top and keep it in place. So simple.
Although I began saying the look is commonplace, as you live with it and look at it more you come to realize there is nothing commonplace about it. It seems to have been inspired by commonplace designs, but it has subtly stunning proportions, a powerful elegance and beauty of line that I appreciate more and more with use and time; it is in a class of its own. Notice how the front of the handle is slightly higher than the rear. This give the pot a visual energy that is forward moving and alive, but it is functional as well because when you lift it your first finger is naturally higher than your little finger. The angle of the hand is matched by the angle of the handle, and that means that it hangs level from your hand. Also the handle folds down to make it easier to fill the kettle, but it only folds down to one side. Lift the handle and it comes to vertical and is stopped from folding over on the other side. This prevents the kettle from swinging from the handle when you lift it, which could spill hot water if it was topped off. So much quiet care and consideration.
With initial use my only concern was that the kettle developed three of four small rust spots, like smudges, on the inside right after first using it. I think these are a reflection of flawed production methods, not design. They don’t seem to have grown, and they don’t affect the taste of the water, so I regard them as the unintended, but inevitable wabi sabi touch that makes this otherwise nearly flawless object more touching and human. I was not aware of Sori Yanagi before finding this, but I feel that he touches me with his wisdom, his skill, and his heart every time I use the kettle; it tells me that he both loved everyday objects, and finding extraordinary beauty in them through their use. The words Tai Chi translate as Supreme Ultimate. A fitting association for this kettle, indeed.
I give thanks to Yanagi-san, and to my Tai Chi Sifu.
“I try to create things that we human beings feel are useful in our daily lives. During the process, beauty is born naturally.”
Throughout his life, Sori Yanagi was inspired by what he called “anonymous design” — he cited the Jeep and a baseball glove as two examples — and he in turn inspired younger designers, like Naoto Fukasawa, Tom Dixon and Jasper Morrison. Many of Yanagi’s designs are in production today (including his 1954 Elephant Stool, which, like the Butterfly Stool, is now made by Vitra), and over half a million of his 1994 stainless steel teakettles are sold in Japan every year, making it one of the country’s all-time best-selling designs.
- From the NY TImes