Too Pretty To Throw Away

Japanese Packaging Exhibition in Leiden

Written by Maarten van Disseldorp
Creative at VBAT

Too pretty to throw away are all of the beautiful packaging design pieces on display at Japan Museum Sieboldhuis in Leiden. Images: Maarten van Disseldorp.

As a self proclaimed “Japan addict”, Japan Museum Sieboldhuis in the city of Leiden is a must visit. Even more so now, as over the summer there’s an exhibition of Japanese packaging.

Too Pretty To Throw Away has an interesting premise: The show questions the general assumption that modern day Japanese packaging is rooted in pre-modern Japanese artistic traditions. The body of work confirms it more than it proves otherwise and that’s actually just fine. In a nutshell:

“The Japanese packaging industry cleverly taps into the artistic traditions of the past and creatively merges them with the diversity of the present. This is achieved through retro designs, which add an exclusive and nostalgic appeal to the products they embellish”

Japan is a country of inspiring opposites: old traditions versus high tech modern culture, pure minimalism versus intricate decorative styles, all can be found at Too Pretty To Throw Away. The show is divided into three parts: the first revolves around the older artistic traditions, the second part is called The Alchemy of Everyday, and the last one explains how to interpret the layers of embellishment.

In The Olden Days
When you enter the exhibition on the top floor, the dimly lit room welcomes you with an eclectic mix of 19th Century pieces on loan from Museum Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden). There are lots of sake bottles, some ceramics, stationery sets, woodblock prints and even a portable picnic set. My favourites in this section are the Jubako, a laquer stacked food container decorated with phoenixes and a Paulownia tree, and a black “No” mask box covered with golden pine tree illustrations which has a beautiful silk cord. These objects belonging to the collections of Franz von Siebold and Jan Cock Blomhoff sparked off (the revival of) Japonism in Western Europe, a term coined by French art historian Louis Gonse in 1888.

Every Day Objects
The second part shows the influence of foreign technology. Reusable items such as ceramics are replaced by disposable glass and plastics. For example the Ozeki One Cup sake is a modern design classic to can be found in vending machines and “konbini” (convenient stores) around the country. Its introduction in 1964 changed the way people consumed rice wine, as it was now available in 180ml opposed to the standard 1.8l bottle, making it more convenient for parties, picnics or on trains.

Ozeki One Cup Sake. Image: Maarten van Disseldorp

The selection The Alchemy of Everyday carries an abundance of award winning packaging design courtesy of JPDA (Japan Package Design Association), including beautiful Onigiri (rice ball) packs for Lawson, well considered shampoo bottle designs for Shiseido and very Japanese, minimalistic Warew cosmetics range by Nosigner. All design share a certain kind of tactile quality, that truly make you eager to buy these items. As a nice contrast to this urge of consumption, artist Yoshinori Niwa’s Purchasing My Own Belongings Once Again in the Downtown is shown on screens in the same area. Also eye catching is a Yamaha Kirari fresh fish roe gift set.

The Alchemy of Everyday by JPDA. Image: Maarten van Disseldorp
Lawson rice ball packs. Image: Maarten van Disseldorp
Sweets. Image: Maarten van Disseldorp
Awardwinning packaging design by Warew. Image: Maarten van Disseldorp
Yoshinori Niwa’s ‘Purchasing My Own Belongings Once Again in the Downtown’ on Video Screens. Image: Maarten van Disseldorp
Fresh fish roe gift set by Yamaha Kirari. Image: Maarten van Disseldorp

Added Embellishment
The final space is reserved for the craft and consideration that goes into giving presents. It’s usual for Japanese friends to exchange a small gift like chocolate or a Daruma doll, when meeting each other. Stores cater to this tradition, which makes up a fair share of the nations economy. Presentation is key when it comes to gifts. When you buy a gift in shop in Japan they wrap it in such a beautiful way and at least double-bag it. This section of the exhibition is sponsored by Mitsukoshi, a well known department store in Japan. It was established in 1673! It’s so old, it’s even featured on a woodblock print by Hiroshige. An instruction video for Mitsukoshi employees shows the attention to detail and speed for gift wrapping. All these layers of paper, ribbons, cords, even the paper bag make it become quite ceremonial. The added embellishments emphasize the intention of the gift giver towards its receiver.

All about gift wrapping and more by Mitsukoshi. Images: Maarten van Disseldorp
Woodblock print by Hiroshige.

It was quite remarkable to see that Mitsukoshi’s wrapping paper looks brand new, but turns out to be from 1950! The same thing can be said about the magazine cover illustrations by Hisui Sugiura from 1913–1914, that wouldn’t look out of place today. Hisui Sugiura, seen as the pioneer of modern Japanese graphic design, was responsible for the Mitsukoshi identity between 1910 and 1934.

Make sure you catch this exhibition if you like packaging design, Japan or both. It runs until Sunday the 28 August.

It’s a nice touch that the museum organises gift wrapping workshops during some of the weekends.

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written by Maarten van Disseldorp
Creative at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme