Prof. Judith Alkema
The Japanese ‘santoku’ chef’s knife is an object which represents the best of the shibumi design aesthetic for me. Defined as ‘elegant simplicity’ and ‘beautiful imperfection’, shibumi represents both meticulous craftsmanship and a philosophy of accepting the natural cycles of change, aging, and wear which natural and designed objects alike must undergo.
Beginning with the clean lines of the santoku, we see a design decision to use a simple cylinder for the handle, in opposition to the Western ‘ergonomic’ or shaped handles formed to support the fingers of the cook. The back of the blade runs smoothly into the tang with no curvature, continuing the line. On the underside, a straight angle makes a sharp contrast as it rises to meet the tang, again without curves. The overall effect is strong, clean, simple.
The santoku uses natural materials: wood and metal alone. Its colours come from those two choices, but also from the way in which the natural materials will age and acquire patina as the blade is used in cooking. The handle will become more polished and darkened from constant contact with the chef’s skin, while the blade will discolor and even change shape as it is used, cleaned, and sharpened over the years.
The two materials marry warmth and precision, comfort and strength, natural and artificial. They work together to provide ease of use in the hand yet durability for the task, in a way that an all-metal or all-wood knife could not do, and they are variably beautiful in a way that plastic, with its unchanging slick surface, can never be.
As a woman who has cooked all her life and is seeing the effect of work and age on her own body, the way in which this knife ages gracefully is appealing and poignant to me. I too, want the warmth of wood and the strength of steel in my character. I want the spiritual refreshment of nature melded with the comfort and convenience of technology in my life. I crave the simplicity and reduced stress that comes with stripping away all but the most integral decoration, ornament, and features, to settle for the purer authenticity.
I would love to own one of these knives. For many years I have chosen wood and bamboo utensils for my kitchen, disliking the look and the feel of plastic in my hand, but I have never yet purchased quality blades. Perhaps it’s time to give myself the pleasure of working with this piece of traditional craftsmanship; a functional tool that is also a beautifully-designed object.