Undivided Attention

Add to
By Arlene Hirst
New York mainstay Miya Shoji continues to hone the art of Japanese screen-making.

Shojis, employed as room dividers, window coverings, and doors, have long been popular for the way they filter light while still providing privacy. Their use in Japan dates back to the 12th century, but they weren’t widely introduced in the Western world until the mid-1850s. The quintessential shoji—it means "screen" in Japanese—is made of translucent paper and a single wood frame, bonded together with a rice-based glue. 

Miya Shoji, a store located in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, started to produce handcrafted shojis in 1951, and today excels at making a contemporary double-sided version. When Hisao Hanafusa, the store’s current owner, arrived in America in 1963, it seemed to be his destiny to work there, since he had been taught woodworking in Kyoto. While he came to New York intending to pursue a career as an artist, he had no problem fusing craft and creativity. "You can have both," he explains. "My main work is painting. Miya Shoji is my hobby." 

He has had success in both. His paintings are in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, his business, which he bought in 1970, has steadily expanded. The workshop was originally located in the store, but in 1980, Hanafusa moved production to a former garage in Queens, where he now has five carpenters working with him and his son Zui, who went to school for graphic design. 

Hanafusa has a rather unorthodox standard for hiring workers, refusing to take on anyone who loves only woodworking; they must have another passion. "Otherwise they would put their personality into the piece," he explains. "I don’t want anyone’s personality, not mine either." 

To make a shoji, the first step is gathering the wood, ideally pieces taken from trees grown in the center of the forest. The Hanafusas explain that while the outside of the tree may be twisted by the wind, the inner core may be straight with no knots. When the screen is constructed, its top must always be made using the upper part of the tree. Another important rule: When cutting, one has to carve from the bottom to the top, never top to bottom: "You must go the way the tree grows," explains Hisao. "We go with nature." Workers are trained to read the direction of the grain. After the wood pieces have been measured, cut, and smoothed with a plane (shojis are never sanded), the supporting trellis is woven into place. It is then that the rice paper is inserted in the double frame. The men explain that the material isn’t actually made from rice, but rather washi or shoji gum, which can be made of different vegetable fibers, including mulberry and kozo. 

For Hisao, making shojis is about seeing, touching, and hearing. First you must look at the wood to understand it, then you must feel it while it’s in the shop, and finally you must hear it when it is sawed. "One way it sings; the other way it screams," he explains. For the Hanafusas, "When function serves a purpose, the beauty shows." 

Get a Daily Dose of Design

Sign up for the Dwell Daily Newsletter and never miss our new features, photos, home tours, stories, and more.