Text by Michelle Kuo
Translation by Liu I-Ying
Images courtesy of Kousan Craft
Many people's impressions of lacquerware may still be Japanese-style utensils with red and black colors. However, for the third-generation director of the Kousan Craft, Lai Hsin-You, the possibility of lacquerware is far more than this. His grandfather Lai Gao-Shan founded the Kousan Craft, which mass-produced household lacquerware. In the 1980s, the Kousan Craft fell victim to low-price competition from plastic commodities and closed down. His grandfather and father shifted to develop practice in lacquer art. As the third generation in a line of lacquer artists, Lai Hsin-You rehangs the signboard of the Kousan Craft, and further strikes a balance between the aesthetics and function of lacquer, in the hope of demonstrating different possibilities of lacquerware’s integration into life.
To tell the story of Lai resuming the family business, one has to start from his childhood. Lai recalled that when he was little, he often accompanied his grandfather at work and helped attach decorative shells and eggshells to lacquerware. "At that time, I would get 20 (NT) dollars as pocket money for helping out a day, so that I could go to the nearby grocery store to buy snacks," Lai said laughing. During the summer vacation of his second year in high school, Lai had nothing else to do, so he learned to make lacquerware in a systematic manner from his father, who taught the very technique at the Cultural Affairs Bureau.
After his honorary discharge from the army, Lai, who was skillful at making lacquerware, wanted to escape from the existing circle of his family business, so he started an adventure on his own. However, with little financial sense, he soon fell into the dilemma of insufficient orders and struggled to make ends meet. He therefore had to give up and make a career switch into marketing in the food industry. It was not until 2016 when his father fell sick and was hospitalized that the chance for him to return home arose. "If I hadn't come back to take over, the youth that my grandfather and father spent on the lacquer industry would have been forgotten by the world."
Returning home is the beginning of change. However, in the process of revitalizing his family business, Lai had also faced many challenges. One of the biggest challenges lies in the divergence of opinions between the two generations. Lai said that he and his father understood the lacquerware craftsmanship differently. Lai believes that lacquerware is a kind of craft; he thus pays attention to the aesthetics of daily use, and cares about product design and development; his father, on the other hand, believes that lacquerware is part of art, and loves to challenge the limits of materials and techniques, valuing artistry over practicality. "In terms of utensils, my father considers the craftsmanship embedded to be more important, while I care about how these objects can be used in life. Once, we had a big argument, and my father said angrily, “‘Forget it! Do whatever you want!’ Then I thought I’d just do what he said!” Lai laughed.
Since then, Lai has gradually established his new path of craftsmanship: through participating in market activities, and launching lacquer chopsticks, cups, plates, accessories and other products, he breaks people's imagination of lacquer as a material only used in making Japanese lunch boxes. Designer Justin Chou also invited him to design unique lacquer buttons for Taiwanese athletes to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; Lai also sensed the popularity of “Kintsugi, ”a repair technique that became trending first in France, then back in Asia. He launched “Kintsugi” DIY package for household usage and ran relevant courses during the pandemic, just so lacquer could go deep into people’s lives. “The craftsmanship has to keep pace with the times and create products and services that meet the needs of the times. From the experience of designing lacquer buttons for the Team of Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), I also found that interdisciplinary collaboration can open up many new possibilities.” From the recount of his father’s students, Lai learned that even though his father didn't say anything, he silently observed all this. "I think I didn’t let him down,” said Lai, the third generation of a lacquer artist family.