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In a warehouse-turned-gallery along Tokyo Bay, not far from where cargo ships regularly unload giant paper rolls, a 115-year-old Japanese paper purveyor is staging an exhibition to remind people that the material is about more than newspapers, notebooks and napkins. Digital media is forcing publishers and paper mills to find ways to survive – and that makes the Takeo Paper Show, organised by Tokyo-based family-run firm Takeo, seem all the more an act of defiance.

To plan the event the company hired one of Japan’s most respected designers, Kenya Hara, founder of Hara Design Institute. Hara recruited 15 designers, architects and artists to create a body of work based on the theme “Subtle”. Hara’s team picked through Takeo’s vast catalogue of 300 kinds of paper in thousands of colours and experimented with state-of-the-art technologies to drive home a point: “There’s a lot more to paper than just being a print medium,” says Hara.

Hara’s contribution is at the back of the warehouse. It stops many of the 12,000 visitors in their tracks. Using computer-guided laser cutters and standard tracing paper, Hara has made seven miniature sculptures that are small enough to fit on a fingertip and so delicate that they might be mistaken for soap suds. (Hara says they remind him of plankton.)

“I didn’t realise that you could make something so detailed from paper,” says visitor Yuki Anezaki. Takeo promotes many uses for high-end paper such as lithographs, customised packaging and art books. The company plays an unusual role in Japan’s niche speciality-paper market. It was founded as a paper importer but after the Second World War it shifted to doing business mainly with domestic paper mills. Having no factories of its own, the company is primarily a distributor but also works with producers on research and development. Small-lot, high-quality paper accounts for roughly two thirds of Takeo’s estimated ¥26bn (€190m) in annual revenues.

“It’s about planting the seed of an idea,” says Hara, who has been involved in nine of Takeo’s shows. “Maybe the students who come for the exhibit will be inspired to work with Takeo in 10 or 20 years from now. I remember encountering Takeo when I was at university. I’d be happy if others were to have a life-changing experience as I did.”

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