Ah, tsuyu, rainy season, is upon us. Our flimsy umbrella succumbed to the rain this morning, a reminder of how much better it feels to face this weather with a sturdy one! Especially in Japan with a huge umbrella culture! Naturally, umbrellas are all about portable shelter. However, Parashell umbrellas and parasols by Canadia-born, Tokyo-based John Di Cesare of Di Cesare Designs Inc. have the shapes and forms of sea shells — or garden vegetables! It all began when he moved to Japan and taught himself how to make a proper umbrella out of abandoned ones — and came up with further nature-inspired shapes. What a beautiful way to keep the Japanese umbrella-making tradition going! PingMag wanted to find out more about the bio-mimicry of an umbrella and went to John’s office in Saitama for a chat.
Written by Andres Zuleta-David
First, was the idea for your Parashell brand an epiphany?
Back in Canada, it started with a little fanciful sketch based on what I thought would be a good umbrella. I was playing with some seashells on the beach, and brought them home in the hope of using them in a sculpture. I was thinking about how shells are used as shelter for lots of animals… but it never developed. I kept the shells in my studio, so sometimes when I was working on other things I would rest my eyes on them.
The Primavera parasol, here with a romantic flower pattern. © Parashell
The delicate Primavera in white. © Parashell
What happened to the sketch?
Nothing came of it for a long time. I tried to make prototypes but none were successful until I came to Japan. Part of it was maybe the lack of an umbrella culture in Canada. People don’t use umbrellas so much,* we just drive everywhere*. Or you put a newspaper over your head or wear a raincoat. Anyway, I came to Japan still with the umbrella idea in my head. I thought I’d be here for short time, but I kept on drawing, and I made a couple of breakthroughs that brought me closer.
What sort of breakthroughs?
Before, I was looking at umbrellas and parasols without thinking of the technical requirements. The turning point was when it ceased being just a sketch and became a technical drawing.
However, the biggest thing that happened was meeting this 73-year-old umbrella maker in Ome, near Tokyo. I called him up and was like, Can I visit you? He was surprised, since nobody cares about umbrellas and he was on verge of retirement, but he said sure. Seeing his studio, these handmade hinges of bamboo… it was incredible! I realised I didn’t need an outside prototyping company. He did everything by hand with these really rudimentary tools, but he could use them with the utmost precision. At that point I’d never made a production model.
[Have a look also at our umbrella special over at MAKE.]
Sounds amazing! How did you teach yourself to build them?
I used to live at a train station that was at the end of the line. And some of these end-of-the-line stations have boxes of forgotten umbrellas. Most JR stations, for example, have a lost and found. But my station just had this box. So I’d grab weird umbrellas, broken ones, and take them home. I’d strip the parts, recycle parts… and this went on for several months. I had every size, all kinds of shafts. And I got some pliers from the ¥100 shop, and every night after work I’d come home and work on them. I used fishing wire and spandex to reassemble them. From recycling old and broken umbrellas I knew which parts I needed.
That’s totally DIY, we’d love to see those! How did you get from there to a production model?
One of the keys was meeting my partner, John Davis, who’s a lawyer and handles a lot of the important business. And then, of course, initiating contact with the company I now work with, who connected us with the Kyoto craftsmen who make our products. I realised when I went to buy an umbrella one day, that all the names and numbers of the umbrella makers were on the tags, so I started recognising who the best makers were.
We never notice.
After a little market research, I finally made contact with a company I liked. Nowadays, around ninety percent of the umbrellas in Japan are made in China, but a few — especially high-end ones — are still made by craftspeople in Japan.
Sad to hear that. However, here you are trying to revive this tradition. So, what did these traditional craftsmen think when they first saw your Parashell prototypes?
In Japan, everybody and his uncle has an idea for a weird-shaped umbrella. Seriously, if you go to the patent office you see. So I think for them, they were just like, “Here we go, another guy with a weird umbrella idea.”
Ha ha! We guess few people are aware of that cliché.
It’s true. But besides that, I think nobody anticipated this one selling. Actually, nobody thought it could be made — up until I met the umbrella maker. The first thing he said was, “Did you make this?” And I said yeah, and he kind of bowed. He told me, “For this to become an item is really difficult.” A regular umbrella is easier since it’s symmetrical. But with this everything is shifted and warped, skewed. Things become shorter and longer, things become fixed at different places. At the start it was all just trial and error: make it, take it apart, start over.
Sounds like a long process. But it finally worked out with them!
Yes, I work with mainly two, and one who is the handle specialist. They’re hard to make, and I was definitely lucky to develop a good relationship with these guys. At first, we passed like ten to twelve prototypes and production models back and forth, adjusting measurements. A one-millimetre difference on a rib meant the whole didn’t work. But they loved it! They’ve taken on the challenge and once you decide what the specifications are it’s not so bad. Still, I don’t want to stress them too much. You can make ten regular umbrellas in the time you make one Parashell.
Elegant sanctuary from the sun needed? Parashell Frill, here we come!© Parashell
Since it’s quite a special shape. Do most of your ideas for these come from nature?
You just end up realizing that if you stay within an order of major shapes, or even try to look for certain patterns, that you kind of head towards a certain natural form, or a simple form, or a form that hits people on a very primal sort of level.
That’s why Parashell succeeded where so many other zany umbrella ideas have failed?
Maybe because it’s a shell; it’s not just a shift in shape or a smaller item. It kind of takes people’s imagination. When you open one up in front of someone there’s usually laughter, a bit of wide-eyed amazement. Some don’t like it though.
Maybe because people enjoy being under a shell…
That’s what I think, it’s natural. One day we’ll make a beach parasol model. For now, we’re working on something special for next spring; kind of a Japanese spring-themed parasol for hanami season.
We so want a pink parasol! Thank you, John, for your lovely Parashell umbrellas! Now, ladies, get your own little ruffled parasol, also available over at Cibone, at the National Art Centre Tokyo and some other places.