Notes From Japan - Part One

Beautifully Designed and Crafted Cast Iron Manhole Cover in Kobe, Japan (LEO Design)

I arrived today in Kobe, Japan.  I am here to hear an opera, Don Giovanni, costumes and scenery designed by my husband, Bob Perdziola.  (Perhaps I should amend that statement: I am most interested in seeing the opera, since the scenery and costumes are my husband's work.  Though singing—and Mozart's music— promise to be wonderful, too.)  

After 28 hours of travel—door-to-door—I still had the presence of mind to appreciate some of the finer details of artful Japanese industrial design.

This manhole cover, which I found walking through the hilly, leafy neighborhood near our hotel, displays the wonderful confluence of handsome, artisanal design with modern, affordable, mass-production technology.

During the Nineteenth Century Industrial Revolution, when mass-production methods were invented and implemented, goods and objects could be made in large quantities, with less labor—a factor which made cost-of-production cheaper and items more affordable by all (especially the growing middle class).  Prior to this, all artisanal items were produced, one-by-one, by artists and craftsmen (which tended to be expensive).

As their production output revved-up, factory owners still had a taste for beauty and quality.  They would invest a little more  in designing a great original model—from which thousands (perhaps millions) of affordable units could be duplicated.  This "sweet spot era" in production history was when the new, mass-production methods overlapped with the existing legacy of beautiful design and craftsmanship.

I often lament the lack of interest—today—in producing good-looking "dumb-dumb" objects (like manhole covers).  For a thousand extra bucks, the factory could develop a beautiful model object whose cost would be amortized over thousands of units.  The same theory applies to sidewalk gratings, tree pit surrounds, lamp posts, stair rails and fencing.  Other examples include the Coca-Cola and Heinz ketchup bottles—whose initial set-up costs have been amortized (to death) for more than a century.

Similarly, there seems to be a modern lack of interest in paying more for something which will last a long, long time.  Take cast iron fencing—which would have surrounded a front yard or brownstone building.  In the late nineteenth century, these were commonly-needed construction items which were costly, though reasonably affordable (thanks to then-modern industrial mass-production).  Today, if you want to install (or replace) such a fence, you would have to call an artisanal metal crafter and the project would cost a fortune.  You couldn't buy these products off-the-shelf.  Why?  Because manufacturers are looking for the cheapest production option, even if their products will last very few years.  And customers have been trained to prioritize initial cost over long life.  In this case, the only quick and affordable option is cheap vinyl fencing, found at a big-box store.

So, when I encounter a beautifully-designed, mass-produced item (like the manhole cover, shown here), I am likely to stop, take a snap, and share it with you.

More from Japan tomorrow and in the days to come.


Though our Greenwich Village store is now permanently closed, LEO Design is still alive and well!  Please visit our on-line store where we continue to sell Handsome Gifts (

We also can be found in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania at The Antique Center of Strabane (

Or call to arrange to visit our Pittsburgh showroom (by private appointment only).  917-446-4248