Six generations of design perfection sustain Kaikado’s Chazutsu Tea Caddies

Steeped in History

By Scott Indrisek

Many companies speak of tradition in terms of decades, but few have roots as deep as Kyoto-based Kaikado. Since 1875, its craftsmen have produced a range of handmade tea caddies—first in tin, later copper and brass—that are coveted both as functional housewares and as impeccable examples of Japanese design. Called chazutsu, the caddies are made today to the same precise technical standards as at the time of the company’s founding—although various advancements and new products have been added.

I met with 39-year old Takahiro Yagi, a sixth-generation Kaikado craftsman, at Ippodo Tea Shop in New York. While each Kaikado craftsman can perform any part of the 130-step production process, Yagi’s forte is in bending the exterior metal into the correct diameter—holding it in place using a metal cinch, and then placing the metal on a tool known as torikuchi (roughly “bird’s beak”), where it is hammered and adjusted into the proper shape.

Yagi never had a definitive plan to follow in his family’s footsteps, but he’s now one of eight craftsmen at Kaikado, each of whom produce about 60 tea caddies a week. It requires tenure of at least ten years before an individual attains the status of a full craftsman at the company. Yagi works with a hammer passed down from his grandfather and is clearly proud to be a new link in the ongoing chain of tradition.

“My father always told me he had never seen more functional, beautiful caddies before,” he says of Kaikado’s signature product. As for what sets them apart, he explains, “I believe there are three points: airtightness; a simple, but beautiful, design; and the fact that you can use it for 100 years.” (Yagi notes that owners can also bring their caddies to Kaikado for repairs, if the item is dropped or damaged in some way.)

The 140-year-old Chazutsu tea caddy is Kaikado's signature product and is highly appreciated for its splendid style and functional, airtight design. Kaikado’s reputation has spread well beyond Japanese borders. He recalls with a mix of pride and amusement the time that musician John Mayer purchased one of the larger Kaikado containers, intended for storing spaghetti; or the time that Janet Jackson came to Kyoto to learn more about the brand after seeing Yagi on a BBC special about his craft. And now, there’s increasing institutional recognition: the Asian Department of the esteemed Victoria & Albert Museum in London recently acquired four of the company’s tea caddies for its permanent collection.

Asahiyaki production process © Asahiyaki / Atelier Courbet
Kaikado products are available in hot-dipped tin, copper, or brass, each of which achieves its own patina over time. The tin, originally silver in complexion, ages into a complex, almost graphite-tinged hue after a few decades; the brass arrives at a solemn, weighty brown tone. All three types, stamped with the Kaikado seal on the base, are available from Atelier Courbet in New York, in a range of widths and heights. “Our patrons acquiring Kaikado pieces are an international demographic of tea or coffee enthusiasts who truly appreciate the functionality of the caddies, the elegance of their design, their cultural heritage, and the exceptional fabrication of the objects,” explains owner Melanie Courbet.

Kaikado also produces stackable versions of its caddies, as well as a line of other products made in collaboration with Danish design firm Studio OeO. These include a dainty milk jug; a range of storage boxes that pair copper or brass with simple wood; and a lightheartedly chic teapot whose gleaming copper exterior contrasts with a poetically spare wooden handle. OeO—which was instrumental in initiating the “brand collaborative” known as Japan Handmade—has allied with other age-old Kyoto companies, such as the ceramics manufacturer Asahiyaki. The fruits of that partnership are also available at Atelier Courbet—a number of exquisite, two- or three-tone vases—as well as an elegant stool produced by OeO in conjunction with Kyoto woodworking brand Nakagawa Mokkougei. Speaking about the number of Kyoto-based brands that her store carries, Courbet stressed “their legacy and a constant quest for perfection in terms of fabrication or material.”

What exactly makes Danish and Japanese design aesthetics such a likely pairing? “I think the interconnection is a shared appreciation for details, refinement, natural materials, functionality, and simplicity—no matter if it is architecture, design, or food,” ventures OeO creative director Thomas Lykke. “It should not shout too loud, but be subtle, honest, and beautiful; blending in to its surroundings,” he goes on. “When we designed the objects our aim was never to make it look like Danish design made in Japan—we actually strove to take an honest approach and natural evolution of the company’s design legacy. For each company, we look into their DNA and try to imagine being them. It would be so wrong to make a new, blobby shape for Kaikado, as they have been only making cylinders for over 130 years. What we did was create a universe and family of pieces that all builds on the heritage of the brand. It’s a perfect fusion of Japanese and Danish, entirely new: not revolution, but evolution.”

Still, it's hard to resist the allure of Kaikado's flagship product: the blissfully simple tea caddies that made their name. Despite their rich history—and the fact that the basic design has remained unchanged since the late 19th century—Melanie Courbet says that customers most often respond to the inherent “timelessness” of Kaikado’s caddies. Some things never change; nor should they.

  • Text by

    • Scott Indrisek

      Scott Indrisek

      Scott is the executive editor of Modern Painters and the founder of Brant Watch. He lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with two erudite cats.