German lighting designer Ingo Maurer first spotted some uchiwa, traditional Japanese fans made of bamboo and lacquered rice paper, in a Paris shop in 1972. Famous for his no-nonsense, bare-bulb designs of the 1960s, by then, he told The New York Times in 1977, “I was looking for something—anything—that would [produce] a soft light.”
Uchiwa turned out to be the solution. So he headed to Japan and met Tatsuo Shigeki, a fisherman in Kagawa Prefecture and member of a family that had produced uchiwa for generations, some even for the local samurai. Most craftspeople had already jettisoned bamboo in favor of plastic, but Shigeki was a master of the old ways. Maurer shipped some samples to Munich, where he attached the beauties to wire frames, fashioning the fans into fixtures that glowed with “a warmer, more eye-pleasing light.” Bloomingdale’s began selling them in 1977—and hundreds of stores followed. Shigeki’s team could barely meet the demand.
In 1974, a massive oil spill polluted the Seto Inland Sea, including a section off Marugame, not far from Shigeki’s studio, and many people who had cultivated nori lost their jobs. Some offered to make uchiwa, so long as Maurer promised a year’s employment. With more uchiwa than he knew what to do with, the designer strung fans into increasingly elaborate fixtures, some of which incorporated as many as 70.
The uchiwa-light fad eventually faded, and Maurer ceased production in 1984. But thanks to the recent nostalgia for the ’70s, they’re back. Supersized Maurer sconces flank the fireplace at publisher Martina Mondadori’s London home. AD100 admirers range from Tom Scheerer, who works beneath uchiwa chandeliers in New York City (“The soft light they throw is incomparable”), to Will Cooper of Ash NYC, who hung pendants at The Siren Hotel in Detroit. “The fixtures emerge when we need comfort in our lives, like now,” says AD100 architect Rafael de Cárdenas, recalling the uchiwa light at his family beach house. Small wonder that Claude Maurer, managing director of her late father’s firm, is considering a reedition with, yes, Shigeki’s son. ingo-maurer.com