Since moving from Melbourne to Japan with his wife earlier this year, Joshua Longmore’s days as a ceramics importer consist of sifting through flea markets, local galleries and family-run kilns in search of the next maker. “That’s the glamorous part of the job,” he jokes. “The rest I do in a pair of overalls.”
Close to 25 years ago, Longmore’s father bought a struggling business and set-up shop on Chapel Street in Melbourne. In the early days, the father-and-son team stocked a vast assortment of imported Japanese goods, from handmade paper and antique furniture to kitchenware, books and ceramics. After the store was flooded, they had a light-bulb moment, and reopened Made In Japan as a niche supplier of premium Japanese tableware.
If you’ve dined at IDES, Lûmé, Tokyo Tina, The Kettle Black, Vue de Monde, Minamishima, or Sydney's Broadsheet Restaurant, chances are you’ve already broken bread with the brand. When asked why a growing number of Australian chefs are plating up on dishes characterised by stony surfaces and bold glazes (a far cry from white glazed china and weighted silverware), Longmore draws a parallel between food and style. “I remember reading a fantastic quote by a famous ceramicist [Kitaoji] Ronsanjin that read something like ‘if clothes make the person, dishes make the food’. I think this sentiment stems from the Japanese idea that you do not differentiate between art and craft – that a plate can be as beautiful as a painting. I think chefs understand that; the importance of presentation as another aspect of the dish.”
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When ardent minds come together, they will inevitably form lasting relationships. Longmore recalls the first time he met one of his oldest clients, chef Ben Shewry, long before his restaurant Attica was considered among the world’s best. “When I lived in Melbourne I used to drop off his orders at the back of the restaurant and he’d always have the time to talk,” he says.
“Sometimes I’d wait and watch what was going on around me – everything moving perfectly with a sense of lightness and purpose. It’s really an incredible thing, to amplify your presence like that – he’s a very special guy.”
At the other end of the production line you’ll find the craftsmen who fashion plates, bowls and sake sets on spinning wheels with clay-stained hands. There are the big businesses with even bigger production lines; the small family kilns; the husband-and-wife run workshops and the artists producing from miniature studios. But according to Longmore, size doesn’t matter. “Even the largest company we deal with is family-run and has been passed down for generations.”
One producer stands out clearly in his mind. Having worked with his father two decades before, Longmore reconnected with the small kiln owner specialising in vibrant crackled glazes. Like an old family member, he was walked through each stage of production from molding to firing; and that for him was a kind of revelation. “It gave me a new appreciation for the final product – how it had got there and what had gone into it,” says Longmore. “I think that’s what people have to understand – that you’re not just buying a plate but everything that has gone into it.” And that’s the sentiment that sums it all up. No two pieces are the same. Each tells a story of time and place and family, and with that story comes a set of hands that shaped and glazed every bowl and cup to attain perfect imperfection.
When it comes to investing in a set from Made In Japan, Longmore maintains that there is no hard and fast rule. But he does have one piece of advice borrowed from his father: go with the one that speaks to you. “It could be rough, thick and textured, or minimalist pure white,” he says. “The important thing to remember is that, given the right care, these plates will last a lifetime; and if you use them everyday (as you should) then you will want to like them as much on the last day as you did on the first.”