In the nostalgic Sellwood neighborhood of Portland, OR, known for its antique scenes and rehabilitated historic districts, a simple black box-like building stands modestly. It is a store and studio filled with the creative explorations of Sarah Van Raden of "Notary Ceramics + Home," who has clients all over the world. We at Tsuchiya have always resonated with her artisanal approach to craftsmanship, which remains unaffected by passing trends. Finally, we had the opportunity to have her unique career path and craft discussion with her as she tried out Randoseru for the first time, the very origin of Tsuchiya's creation.
A gift leads to a major career shift as a ceramist
In contrast to the sharp black walls of the exterior, once we step inside, the off-white space is filled with your neutral-toned ceramics and home objects selected from around the world! Accents of plants are everywhere, and we can see that you create not only your own ceramics but also a whole way of living, like “home.”
Sarah: Initially, it was a studio dedicated to creating artwork, but gradually, more people expressed interest in visiting and purchasing. Over time, I began to display my pieces little by little. My creations expanded from kitchenware and tableware to vases and lighting, reflecting a broadening scope. I also started selling lifestyle tools and books that I would want to use. Fundamentally, I have a preference for durable and functional items. Japanese products embody these qualities while maintaining a humble and beautiful essence. They harmonize seamlessly with my ceramics, creating a sense of coherence and fitting in alongside them.
Tsuchiya: While achieving success as a ceramic artist and excelling as a shop owner involved in product selection, how did you initially enter the ceramics industry?
Sarah: I never once thought of pursuing ceramics as a career. I was originally a stylist for a decade. After the birth of our two children, I was reevaluating my passions and career. During that time period, my husband surprised me with a gift of an evening pottery class. In a single night, I fell in love with ceramics! Creating, failing, experimenting, and creating again and again. Every moment of those processes brought me simple joy. It was as if I rediscovered a forgotten creativity and became engrossed in working with clay.
Sarah: I opened this space as a studio in 2017. My husband and I designed most of it and carried out a self-renovation from scratch. In the few years before, the small basement, where I only had a pottery wheel, was my makeshift "studio." Since my children were still small, I would find spare moments between house chores and parenting, sneaking down to the basement to immerse myself in ceramics – that's how it all began.
Tsuchiya: Our founder and chairman, Kunio Tsuchiya, just like your beginnings, had very small start with tiny corner of his home turned into a workshop. With the support of his family, a few craftsmen were making his first and only bag “Randoseru" at the time since 1965, so it has been almost 60 years!
Sarah: That's truly impressive! The tradition in Japan's craft industry of artisans passing down skills and culture through generations is still deeply rooted, and it's both remarkable and admirable.
Tsuchiya: Over the years, we have relocated and expanded several times, and now have about 200 craftspeople in two ateliers. As represented by our signature backpack ”Randoseru”, 150 processes and 300 parts are involved in the bag, which has many intricate processes down to the single thread. The bag is completed when each part is finished by hand, with craftspeople of diverse generations working together, each specializing in different tasks.
Sarah: It is truly valuable that you have maintained such high quality while doing everything by hand, even with such a large organization. No matter how big the order is, I would also like to continue to actually touch the clay with my own hands, and I believe that is the best way to keep learning and growing. At the same time, I have a sense of letting go of my intentions and allowing the clay to dictate the form and my hands to follow.
Sarah’s first impression of Randoseru
Tsuchiya: Did you know about Randoseru?
Sarah: This is my first time! What history and features does this bag have?
Tsuchiya: Randoseru was originally designed with the goal of being used by Japanese students every day for six years straight. As a result, its versatility, durability, and functionality are highly acknowledged. The timeless, one-of-a-kind design has remained unchanged for decades while lightweight, waterproof, and other features have been achieved. Today, it has become everyone's favorite backpack for everyday use.
Sarah: Most Backpacks tend to have pockets, zippers, and logo on their surface, but the clean look of this single piece of leather on the cover flap is so fresh and sophisticated. As far as I know as a mother, most school items for children are bought new almost every year, and there is little culture of wearing the same item for years to nurture it, which makes me respect the values surrounding Japanese craft even more.
Tsuchiya: What occasions would you like to use it for?
Sarah: Given its sturdiness and waterproof qualities, it seems like it could be an excellent cycling bag. With ample cushioning on the back, it's incredibly comfortable to wear. I even thought about attaching it to the side of a bicycle rack and using it like a pannier. Due to the nature of my work, I often opt for casual and comfortable attire like a cotton T-shirt and men's jogger pants, especially on days like today. However, I like to add a touch of elegance by combining leather items for bags and shoes.
Tsuchiya: Randoseru is used for everyday purposes, of course, but some people also pair it with a cocktail attire, while others use it for outdoor activities. Using it as a Pannier, bicycle bag is a creative idea unique to Portland known for a bike city. In Japan, there are even examples of parents taking over Randoseru from their children after years of use and repurposing it for such as a motorcycle bag . We embrace that works that can be cherished while changing its purpose over time. The essence of our craft lies in its timelessness, lasting for years without losing appeal, rather their charm only grows.
Sarah: Totally agree. Creating items that feel unique yet timeless, and will never go out of style.That is our core of art as Notary Ceramics.