A&E Pick of the Week

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Walking through Seattle Art Museum’s “Folding Into Shape” exhibition on Japanese crafts and design on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I thought about road trips I took as a teenager in Oregon, usually to go skiing or hiking in the Cascades.

My mom, who’s Japanese, always packed miso soup in a thermos and several onigiri (rice balls), and she’d wrap it all in a beautiful cotton cloth. The rice balls themselves were also wrapped — in a plastic film. Another film was folded around a piece of nori (seaweed) to keep the nori from getting soggy. To unwrap the onigiri, all you had to do was peel off a thread of plastic in the center and pull on either side of the triangular rice ball. The design was genius. 

As I looked at the folded, layered and woven objects on display at the exhibition, I realized how my mom used these techniques to make my life easier as a kid. But the exhibition also taught me how these techniques shape the aesthetics of Japanese art, crafts and design and the crucial role they play in Japanese culture.

On display are various kimonos — which, before they are folded, are a simple T shape made of three rectangles: one for the torso and one for each sleeve. When hung on a wall, they look geometrically uninteresting. It’s the folding of the kimono to fit a body, and the way it’s wrapped with an obi (a broad, decorative sash), that makes them so beautiful.

Featured, too, are some pieces by Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake that use folded fabric, showing how kimono’s influence persists in Japanese fashion. For example, there’s a dress that’s made from a single piece of fabric, folded into a flat geometric shape. 


There’s also a variety of intricately woven bamboo baskets and recent sculptures by modernist Japanese artists playing on the themes of folding and layering. One of the clay sculptures, called “Bundle,” by artist Tanaka Yu, is part of a series of sculptures made in the shape of furoshiki (Japanese knotted wrapping cloth, similar to what my mom wrapped my lunches in). It’s a yellow, well, bundle that leaves you guessing what’s inside. Its knot and folds look convincingly like fabric, wrapped tightly to protect what could be a container for food, alcohol or even an urn.

The mystery bundle left me wanting to know more. After getting home from the exhibition, I called my mother to learn more about the place of folding, layering, weaving and wrapping in Japan. (Wrapping, though not explicitly mentioned in the exhibition, is also important to Japanese culture.)

I learned that when my brother and I were born in Kanagawa, Japan, family members brought my mom and dad money folded in a red-and-white envelope called shūgi-bukuro (both auspicious colors in Japan) wrapped in a cloth called fukusa. A month later, my brother and I were wrapped in kimono for a Shinto ceremony. People brought more shūgi-bukuro to my parents’ wedding. And when my grandmother died several years ago, mourners brought money in black-and-white bushūgi-bukuro, the funereal version of shūgi-bukuro (colors of mourning), wrapped in dark-colored fukusa. 

Folding, wrapping, layering and weaving are part of some of life’s most important events in Japan: birth, marriage and death. 

At such significant times in one’s life, the care taken to fold, wrap and layer shows respect and consideration. This carefulness, and astounding craftsmanship, is on full display at the exhibition.

“Folding Into Shape: Japanese Design and Crafts”

Through Sept. 25; Seattle Art Museum; 1300 First Ave., Seattle; $12.99-$22.99 for teens and adults, free for children 14 and under; seattleartmuseum.org