The Beauty of Use

Secluded in the Japanese Alps, a Czech oven-maker and his Japanese artist wife find creativity in daily life as she weaves rugs from goat hair and he smiths minimalist woodstoves that are as much modern steel sculptures as they are functioning furnaces.

“In November, the mountain puts on her autumn kimono, and it is lovely around a burning stove...”

Photo by Jimmy Cohrssen

The first time I saw one of Jirka Wein’s stoves, I was visiting friends in Matsumoto, a city in the valley that stretches along the eastern flank of the Japan Alps a few hours west of Tokyo. It was March, and I had arrived from California braced for the icy floors and bone-chilling drafts typical of Japanese houses built in the traditional style, which is to say without insulation or central heating. Instead, I stepped into a deliciously warm and cozy enclave. There in the entryway sat a fat black stove unlike any I had seen before. Woodstoves are not unusual in heavily forested rural Japan—I had owned one myself when I lived there, as had a number of my more rustic friends—but this one was glossy and sleek, stripped of any frill that might obstruct its absolute simplicity. It looked as much like a sculpture as a functioning furnace. A lively fire flickered against the round glass door, and above that, behind a second door, a pan of pasta baked in a brick-lined oven.

"It looked as much like a sculpture as a functioning furnace."

My friends were quite taken with their stove. It was like a pet, they told me, or a fifth family member with a knack for bringing together visitors and residents alike in toasty communion. Its origin was equally interesting: It came from a remote valley in the mountains south of Matsumoto where Jirka Wein, a seventy-three-year-old Prague-born artist, shaped steel while his wife, Etsuko Seki, wove rugs from goat hair. My friends had driven out to pick up their new acquisition and ended up staying to talk about poetry and pottery and wine—all, of course, while gathered around the inviting flames of a woodstove.

Patterned in form on the asymmetries of the natural world, Jirka Wein's minimalist woodstoves beautifully suit the simplicity of Japanese interiors / Photo by Jimmy Cohrssen

Visiting the oven-maker

I was so intrigued by this story that on returning home I called Wein to ask if I could visit the next time I was in Japan. He agreed, and six months later I found myself sitting beside him as he drove east toward his house from the small train station where I’d arrived. By then it was early November. It had rained the previous night, and as we climbed into the hills, the damp tree trunks stood out like black fault lines against the brilliant foliage. Wein, a grandfatherly man in suspenders and a plaid shirt, seemed as overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape as I was. “We see the color descending from the top of the mountain, and one day it swallows the place where we are,” he said. His parents had been avid mountaineers, he told me, and the family spent summers in the mountains of Bohemia, instilling in him a lifelong love for alpine wilderness.

Photo by Jimmy Cohrssen

A life journey from Bohemia to the Japan Alps

His path from those mountains to these was far from direct. Wein grew up in the suburbs of Prague and studied stage design there before moving to southern France to pursue a master’s degree in art history and archaeology. By the time he graduated in 1973, the political situation in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia had made returning home impossible. He spent the subsequent decade as a wandering scholar, artist, and spiritual seeker. At a Gandhian ashram in India he learned to spin, and in Santa Cruz, California, he taught weaving. By the early 1980s, he was living at a commune in New Mexico. It was there that he met the itinerant poet and environmentalist Nanao Sakaki, who eventually led him to Japan.

“Nanao was living up in the mountains in an abandoned bear den, writing a play,” Wein recounted as he turned onto a narrower branch of the winding road. “He would come down to the commune to restock. We’d spend all night drinking and singing, and then he would go back up the mountain.” The two became friends and eventually traveled the western United States together, staying with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. When Sakaki returned to Japan, he wrote to Wein, inviting him to follow. “So I came. It was winter. Then spring came and the mountain was so beautiful I couldn’t believe it,” he said. Thirty years later, he hadn’t left.

At home with Seki

Wein rounded a final curve and pulled up in front of a large old-fashioned house hemmed in by wooded slopes. It was a perfect mild morning, the sky clear, the smell of smoke mixing with the sunlight. From somewhere far below, I could hear an invisible creek rushing past. Wein led me inside a cavernous entryway. The 140-year-old house had belonged to a powerful landowning family, he explained, but by the time he and Seki arrived with their daughter in the mid-1990s, it had been abandoned for decades. A flood had washed away all of the other homes in the hamlet, leaving only monkeys, deer, and wild boar for neighbors. Now, restored, the house was spare and majestic, composed of age-darkened wood and dusty plaster pierced by shafts of light. Gazing out at the wall of trees that pressed in from every window, I asked him if he ever tired of the mountain. “No, never,” he replied, deep smile lines radiating from the corners of his eyes. “I hope it doesn’t get tired of me.”

In the kitchen, Seki, a small, reserved woman in indigo farmer’s pantaloons and a blocky top, was arranging slices of cheese and tomato on top of pizza dough for our lunch. She nodded hello, then carried the pan over to the large stove in the center of the room, opened a side door, and slid it in. Wein donned a pair of black-rimmed glasses and joined her beside the stove.

Photo by Jimmy Cohrssen

“You see these two holes on the top?” he asked, pointing to pipes embedded on either side of the chimney. “These suck in warm air from above so that it creates turbulence.” He struck a wooden match and held it above one of the holes; the flame was instantly pulled straight down by the draft. He walked around to the front and told me to look in through the glass window. Behind the crackling flames, I could just glimpse rows of yellow firebricks similar to those used in ceramic kilns. “Wood flames at 600 degrees Celsius. Firebricks accumulate heat, and after they reach 600 it’s hard for things not to burn,” Wein explained. Together with the air system, the brick lining ensures that his striking stoves burn well, which is why they are as popular with his elderly neighbors as they are with design-conscious urban architects.

Photo by Jimmy Cohrssen

Wein has been refining this design nearly as long as he has been in Japan. Not long after he accepted Sakaki’s invitation to cross the Pacific, he met Seki, who at the time was weaving rugs in Tokyo (she has exhibited them nationwide). The pair soon moved to a small village not far from their current home. They grew most of their own food and made what they could by hand, learning from their self-sufficient neighbors. “We wove rugs and grew wheat and rye, and when we wanted to make bread, I thought about making a stove,” Wein said.

“We wove rugs and grew wheat and rye, and when we wanted to make bread, I thought about making a stove.”

He found himself fascinated by both the engineering challenges and the aesthetic ones. Older stoves were made of cast-iron parts assembled with screws. Newer ones had heat-resistant sealing materials between the parts and other additions such as catalytic converters that needed periodic maintenance. Wein imagined something completely different. “I wanted to make one without many technical tricks, that was simple, efficient—and for me this is very important—it had to be beautiful and fit well with the simplicity of Japanese interiors,” he said.

“It had to be beautiful and fit well with the simplicity of Japanese interiors.”

His solution was to weld rolled steel into simple forms assembled with the absolute minimum of fixtures (rolled-steel stoves are now available from many companies in Europe and the United States). The steel sheets are made by compressing hot metal between rollers and cooling it in an oil bath, which produces a rust-resistant surface that does not require paint. Since there are no small passages to become blocked by soot, his stoves can burn soft woods such as cedar that are plentiful in Japan. They are also durable and easy to maintain. He patterns their forms on the asymmetries of the natural world, because “if they were perfect circles or rectangles, you would get tired of them.” Each model is named after a plant or animal: peach, wolf, acorn, Japanese plum.

Photo by Jimmy Cohrssen

At first Wein did nearly all of the manufacturing himself while continuing to weave alongside Seki. By the early 2000s, however, he was making stoves full time in order to meet demand. Today he splits production between his home and several small family-owned factories in the prefecture: One laser-cuts the steel based on his designs, another rolls it, and a third handles the welding, with his help. The wooden handles come from a craftsman in the Tohoku region of northern Honshu. Wein cuts the firebricks and finishes the stoves himself, at the rate of about one per week, in an open workspace tucked against a lush hillside behind his house. He told me he likes this division of labor.

“When I’m here, I’m like a wild monkey. When I go there [to the welding factory], a bell rings at 10:00 and it’s teatime,” he said, settling into a bench beside the large slab of wood that serves as a kitchen table. Seki opened the door on the side of the stove and pulled out the pizza, releasing a gust of garlic and seared dough into the warm kitchen. She set the pan on the table next to a large bowl of salad greens and sat down across from Wein. As we ate, she talked about her work as a weaver, and I realized that although she is the quieter of the two, her clarity and strength of vision easily match his.

“We make functional things. When people use them, they create the beauty. In Japanese we say yo-no-bi,” she told me. Wein nodded: The expression, which literally means “the beauty of use,” is essential to him as well. It describes the tracks of rust that bloom from scratches on his stoves, the resonance of her earth-toned rugs against the wooden floors, the way their handmade dishes come to life when piled with food.

“We make functional things. When people use them, they create the beauty.”

Seki finds creativity in daily life as she weaves rugs from goat hair / Photo by Jimmy Cohrssen

“Daily life is quite a creative thing,” Seki continued. “Beauty is very important for our heart and spirit, so how we live is important. When I was thirty-nine, I came to live in the mountains. At first I was so shocked. It was too different, and Jirka was quite strict.” He interrupted: “In the beginning I didn’t want to have a fridge, because when you have one you don’t eat fresh things.” Seki continued. “Those ten years made me very strong, and they changed me. After ten years, nature became very close. Lately, Jirka goes to sleep early, and I’m up late. I hear deer crying, and I feel like we belong to the same community of living things in nature. I feel deep joy.”

Left: Jirka Wein and Etsuko Seki: She is the quieter of the two, but the Japanese artist's clarity and strength of vision easily match that of her Czech-born husband / Photo by Jimmy Cohrssen

Lunch had ended, and our conversation was winding down. “Jirka, should we make coffee?” Seki asked. “I’ll grind some,” he replied. They moved together to the kitchen counter, where Wein pulled out a hand grinder. Seki filled a pot with water and placed it on top of the woodstove. Imperceptibly, the beauty of use settled another layer onto its smooth black surface. △

Photo by Jimmy Cohrssen