The world of fashion is generally groomed with three basic elements: the dress, the shoes, and the bag, followed perhaps, by secondary features, such as the hat and jewelry accessories. Few people pay attention to the humble role of the umbrella as an integrated part of the fashion ensemble, which is rather peculiar, considering that the umbrella was said to have existed since 1200 B.C. in Egypt, and around the 11th century in ancient China as a functional tool for protection against the sun. Thereafter, it became a noticeable fashion accessory around the 16th century when it was prestigiously used by queens who enjoyed the luxurious trimmings of satins and tassels.
Thanks to designers like John DiCesare, the umbrella and parasol find their way on the fashion ramp alongside novelty and functional products that dress up the everyday consumer. John, a promising umbrella designer, was born in Toronto, Canada, and grew up on a subsistence farm in Ontario. Raised by Italian parents from the Abruzzo region, he graduated from York University in Toronto, specializing in Sculpture, and worked in arts administration at an art gallery while pursuing his profession as a sculptor. He then, became a Foundry Technician for an extended period of time at a Bronze Art Studio while handling a wide variety of sculptural projects. Almost twenty years ago, he conceived a series of fantastical umbrella and parasol designs. He came to Japan in 2000, and began researching on umbrella and parasol design extensively, which paved the path of his success in prototyping and fabricating his own creations.
Currently, John’s umbrellas are enjoying remarkable sales at major department stores and retail shops around Japan, under the DiCesare Designs brand. You can catch John every rainy season at some of these upscale stores when he promotes his products to enthusiastic customers. These uniquely shaped and creatively designed umbrellas and parasols, beaming with exciting colors, speak of John’s endless attempt to transform the “shade on a stick” into poetic sculptural forms that are inspired from elements of nature, such as shells, pumpkins, and cherry blossom flowers; and spiral shapes.
There has been a relatively active flux of foreign entrepreneurs who come to Japan to explore business opportunities, despite the widely known conception of the Japanese business market as an intricately difficult industry to penetrate. However, with enough stamina and patience, John has come a long way in surpassing those bumpy roads, and now finds himself in this overwhelming realm of creativity and opportunity.
“When I first came to Japan over ten years ago as an artist, I had a strong interest in both contemporary and traditional Japanese visual arts. Being a sculptor, I came to Japan to live and work in the hope of seeing the various forms of Japanese art, particularly bronze Buddhist statues,” John relates. He has always been fascinated by umbrellas and parasols since he was a child. “I see them as personal forms of architecture. Over fifteen years ago as a sculptor in Canada, I came up with an idea for a Seashell-shaped parasol called the Parashell. The idea was that a human being could use a shell as a form of protection, much like a crab or a snail.” This design concept became the foundation for John’s ‘nature series’ of parasols and umbrellas inspired by natural forms. The series uses biomimicry to produce imaginative and never-before-seen designs. “The creative process of coming up with a new umbrella design is not dissimilar to the bronze sculpture-making method. The satisfaction one feels when a new design is created is identical. I try to bring the same passion I have for making sculptures to the umbrella industry,” John says.
Coming to Japan to explore the roots of the umbrella tradition was a challenging personal experience for John. He soon learned about the history of the Japanese umbrella tradition. While the early silk umbrellas from China largely influenced Japanese umbrella forms, the use of paper peaked during the Meiji and Taisho periods. John explains, “I came to Japan to experience the culture, and with the continuing desire to make my Parashell design become a reality. Japan has a rich umbrella tradition, and is one of the largest umbrella markets in the world. After coming to Japan and meeting a variety of Japanese umbrella craftsmen, I began to work with them on prototypes and production models. Through the dedication and passion of these craftsmen, and the techniques they possess, my Parashell idea became a reality, and the first of the ‘nature series’ of items".
John’s main series of items is made in Kyoto, where the roots of traditional crafts and particularly, umbrellas are most prominent. He also works with other partners internationally to explore other materials, equipment and forms of production. “Working with traditional Japanese craftsmen has its challenges. Many craftsmen don’t warm easily to customers whom they’ve never worked with before,” John describes his work experience with Japanese craftsmen.
Part of designing a product is also envisioning its future market, and how people may or may not change drastically in the way they invariably utilize such a product. While Japan is one of the top countries that uses the umbrella predominantly during summer, rainy season and winter, some cultures opt for the conveniently plain raincoats with hoods or windbreakers. As John explains, “Umbrellas are constantly making inroads in these cultures as well, though with people nowadays choosing an umbrella as well as a raincoat. Parasols are beginning to see good sales in places where people wouldn’t regularly buy them.”
Walking in the streets with one of John’s “fantastical” umbrellas is not merely a casual routine of being protected by the sun or rain. One also acquires an unusual sensation of carrying a well-conceived fashionable item that needs worthy attention. “By applying art and engineering, one can create a new series of designs, which are fanciful and innovative. Although the shapes are very distinctive, the items are functionally identical to any other standard umbrella. The series is strongly inspired by forms found in nature, and it is through this inspiration that innovative ideas are born. These items are perfect for those seeking a quality product that is elegant, unique, and boldly eccentric,” John tells how his designs reflect his unique artistic vision.
How do we see, then, the future trend of umbrella design? Not many people may think that a standard, dome-shaped piece of cloth or material supported by a stick, can be remodeled into other forms or shapes. As John explains, “Umbrella design, like any other form of design is constantly being influenced by the use of new materials and techniques. By implementing these innovations, the possibilities for creating fantastical and unique designs are continuously expanding. It is up to the designer to bring his or her passion and creativity into these new materials and techniques. Without this interaction, there is no substance to the use of these cutting edge advancements in how things are made in the 21st century.”
In line with John’s desire to share with others his passion for umbrellas and parasols, he plans to produce an original book on umbrellas and umbrella design. Hopefully, this book, one of its kind, can serve as a concise, informative, and artistic encyclopedia-like guide for those who are curious about the subject. John describes, “I want people to know the history of the umbrella, how its societal and cultural influences have changed its structure and design, and the umbrella in art and media. I hope this will be the definitive umbrella book.” The book will also, of course, include a gallery of John’s design creations. Apart from this, John is also working on a series of accessories and other designs outside of the umbrella industry.
Furthermore, John has also conducted lectures on his experiences as an umbrella designer to industry audiences and to university students as well. He enjoys sharing his insights and knowledge to those who are curious about the world of umbrellas.
Settled in his cozy apartment studio in northwest of Tokyo, John DiCesare sees a promising career ahead, and there certainly will be no stop to his continuous splurge of ideas for further accelerating his passion in design and creativity. Due to the popularity of this umbrella series, DiCesare Designs is expanding its distribution globally as well. John concludes, “The joy of my work is when a new design is conceived. These moments bring a profound excitement and happiness to me. This special feeling happens when an idea comes into a reality of its own. As an artist and designer, I can only hope for many more of these sensations.“
For more information www.ddi-parashell.com