Japanese design has been characterized throughout history by minimalist aesthetics, with a predilection for simplicity, elegance, lightness and empty spaces. The use of organic elements, materials and forms has also been favored in order to emphasize a spiritual connection with nature. With the advent of technology, Japan has been at the forefront of many innovative designs; The Culture Trip profiles 10 of the most interesting product designers working today.
Young designer Daisuke Kitagawa graduated from the Design Department of Kanazawa College of Art in 2005, where he now lectures. After working for an appliance manufacturer, he founded his own company, Daisuke Kitagawa Design, in 2011. Kitagawa’s designs are simple, minimal, and functional products, often having more than one purpose, and can be playful when used in combination with other home appliances. In 2012, he created a collection of objects called rename, which were first presented at DESIGNTIDE Tokyo. The series uses common everyday objects or vessels and alters the wares with pieces of wood that transform their function. The wooden components fit onto objects that have standard sizes, such as cups, glasses, vases and pots; a cup becomes a pencil sharpener, a glass turns into a vase, and a container into a plant pot. rename explores the meaning of objects through new functions and different applications that draw upon old forms. Their renewed function and appearance also gives them a new value in the eye of the user.
Hiromichi Konno studied Product Design at the Chiba Institute of Technology and at the Umeå University in Sweden, where he met Ross Lovegrove and went on to work with his design studio in London. Konno founded his own independent studio in 2002 in London and opened his Tokyo studio in 2008. Konno received the Young Japanese Design Talent 2009 from ELLE DECO Japan, and has worked on a variety of projects for international design brands, such as Georg Jensen, Stelton, Lexon and Fritz Hansen, as well as Japan’s Kanaya. His designs are sleek and minimalist, displaying a unique energy. His first collaboration with Fritz Hansen is RIN™, an elegant and futuristic chair that harmoniously merges Japanese and Danish design traditions. Konno says about his creation: “I wanted to make a beautiful chair that can stimulate and awaken emotions in people. It must be able to appeal visually but also make us feel a form of elegance when we sit in it. Therefore, I have established something poetical, simple, strong, relaxed and innovative all at the same time. The goal from the beginning was to create the perfect chair.”
SOMA Design was founded in 2006 as a collaboration between Tamae Hirokawa and Takeshi Fukui, comprising various visual direction and design activities, including fashion, graphics, sound, products, packaging and video. Their product designs are available through Kanaya, and include the playful and versatile Tray series which is composed of a metal tray with legs, interchangeable acrylic plates of different colors, and a Japanese flower motif. The legs of the tray thus become the stems of the flower. Hirokawa also launched her own fashion brand, SOMARTA, which participated in 2007 s/s Tokyo Collection, and has become one of a new breed of Japanese fashion designers to grab the attention of the international press. Her fashion design makes use of advanced Japanese textile technology and is based on a strong conceptual approach, like SOMA Design. Since SOMARTA’s launch in 2006, SOMA DESIGN has also been taking care of show production and art direction for the fashion brand.
Noritaka Tatehana studied Fine Arts and Sculpture at the Tokyo National University of the Arts, later majoring in dyeing and weaving. He did a research on Oiran, the courtesans of high rank in Edo period (1600-mid 1800) and he created kimonos and getas (Japanese clogs) using Yuzen, the traditional Japanese dyeing method. He established his own maison, Noritaka Tatehana, in 2010. Tatehana is best known for his famously unique and artsy shoes, which have come to international attention on stage with Lady Gaga and Daphne Guinness. Tatehana handcrafts each step of the manufacturing process of his shoes, which are collection pieces admired by both the fashion industry and the art world. His futuristic shoes, which re-think the very notion of ‘high heels’, are unique in both decoration and style, influenced by his artistic vision and practice: heel-less high-heel platform shoes, they are made in a wide variety of colors and patterns, from patent black to shiny silver, and fiery red and gold flowers. His 2014 ‘Junk Silver’ collection is inspired by the ready-made works based on experimental attempts of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, “as a device that questions viewers on the consistency of true value.”
Young Japanese-Canadian architect Oki Sato holds an MA in Architecture from Waseda University, Tokyo and upon graduation in 2002, established his own company, nendo, in Tokyo. In 2005 he opened his Milan branch and in 2012 his Singapore office. Nendo’s concept relies on the desire to give people moments of surprise and delight: Giving people a small ‘!’ moment.
There are so many small ‘!’ moments hidden in our everyday.’ Such moments, according to Sato, are what make our daily lives rich and interesting, and that is why nendo “reconstitutes the everyday by collecting and reshaping them into something that’s easy to understand.” In 2012, nendo created an installation based on the concept of ‘chair’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), which reflects the designer’s adaptable and minimalist ideas. Titled ‘mimicry chairs’, the installation consisted of several pieces in different areas of the museum, including the main entrance and 10 other locations, such as galleries, staircases and corridors. The chairs, made of pressed punched metal to create a transparent chair with a seemingly soft back rest, were arranged differently in each location, to mimic the particular space and objects with which it was placed, and adapt to its environment. By sitting on the chairs, visitors could experience the museum and its displays with a fresh outlook.
Award-winning artist and designer Tokujin Yoshioka worked with Shiro Kuramata and Issey Miyake before going independent in 1992. He has produced store, boutique and space design concepts for Swarovski, Issey Miyake, Hermès, Toyota, BMW and others, and has collaborated with various Italian furniture manufacturers, including Cassina, Driade, Kartell and Moroso. His works are in museum permanent collections worldwide. At the core of his practice is the metamorphosis of materials. In 2010, Yoshioka created a collection of transparent furniture, ‘The Invisibles’, for Kartell, made in poly-carbonate, which he reworked into a lighter acrylic version in 2012, as a continuation of the designer’s exploration of the ethereal. “In recent years, I have proposed designs, which include natural phenomena and invisible elements such as sense, wind and light. ‘The invisibles’ […] leaves one with the sense of sitting in the air. The presence of the object is eradicated and creates a scene where the sitter appears to be floating. It is as if the physical presence of the object has been uprooted and gives life to a ‘floating scenario’.” Yoshioka has also created art installations, such as Tokujin Yoshioka x Lexus L-finesse (2006), expressing the concept of ‘fiberoptic sensation’, and Snow, a 15-metre wide installation mimicking snow at the Mori Art Museum’s Sensing Nature (2010).
Award-winning industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa established his own design studio in 2003, after working as the Head of IDEO in Tokyo. Integrating behavior into the way we use things to make interactions our ‘second nature’, his aesthetics of minimalism and elegance has gained him a place among Bloomberg’s Most Influential Designers. In recent years, he has collaborated with Italian companies B&B Italia, Driade, Magis, Artemide, Danese and Boffi. Since the beginning of his career, Fukasawa has designed technological products, from the wrist TVs and micro-tech mini printers for Seiko Epson in the 1980s, to his representative work, the wall-mounted MUJI CD player (1999), now in the permanent collection of MoMA, New York. In 2003 he founded the ±0 brand of household electrical appliances and sundries, with the concept of ‘creating things that dissolve into people’s behavior and their environments by adding a little of happiness to their their lifestyle.’ One of his studio’s first products was the INFOBAR mobile phone, which has been re-developed over the years to include new technology: the 2013 KDDI INFOBAR a02, in collaboration with HTC, has an intuitive Android operating system, with a fully re-imagined user-interface by interactive designer Yugo Nakamura. In 2010, in collaboration with Panasonic, he developed a new line of fully automatic self-cleaning toilets made of organic glass, which incorporates innovative heat recycling with technologies for water and energy saving.
Eisuke Tachikawa (b. 1981) founded his award-winning interdisciplinary design agency NOSIGNER while at graduate school at Keio University in 2006. The studio aims at ‘social design innovation,’ specializing in a multi-disciplinary approach that traverses two-dimensional, three-dimensional, and spatial design. Tachikawa’s activities extend beyond the commercial to encompass science and technology, education, local industries, and support for developing nations. Tachikawa founded the OLIVE PROJECT in 2011, only 40 hours after the Great East Japan Earthquake, providing meaningful design during times of disaster, through a crowd-sourcing database that gathers and shares DIY tips and tutorials from all over the planet to aid the disaster’s survivors. NOSIGNER believes in promoting a deeper understanding of the user, thus creating relevant connections with the circumstances and therefore, the design: “Applying the analogy of states of matter, the objective is to have a profound effect on the gas (research), thereby enabling the liquid (concept) to dictate the solid (design).” The simple designs are the result of strong concepts taking into account such connections. In 2011, Tachikawa designed The Moon, inspired by the Supermoon on 19 March 2011, in which the moon appeared 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than usual. Occurring only over a week after the earthquake, the moon inspired Japanese people to believe, and have hope for rebuilding what they had lost. The Moon is a LED light based on accurate topographical data retrieved from the Japanese lunar orbiter spacecraft Kaguya.
Taku Omura founded his design studio oodesign in 2009, and his minimal, understated designs have won him several awards in subsequent years. Behind his design concepts, is the idea of creating something that makes one ‘stop time’ and appreciate the moment, the surroundings, the environment. This is evident in his 2013 creation, the Ripple Vase, a poly-carbonate ripple-shaped dish that can hold a single flower and can be floated in any dish with water. Its poetic design completely challenges the static notion of traditional flower arrangement, giving motion to the display. In 2010, Omura won the grand prix at the Kawasaki Industrial Design Competition for Light Roof, inspired by the portable balloon lighting used at construction sites, it turns into a bright roof by spreading it wide to the sides, encouraging people to get together under it. Omura received the same prize in 2011 for his String Strainer, made of the eco-friendly resin ‘UNI-PELE’, which allows the strings of the strainer to be bent and adjusted, for easier cleaning and flexibility. A series of light bulbs he designed do not require lampshades, as they come in different shapes and change the atmosphere of a room. Among his projects, Omura has also developed landscape designs, such as a structure in Kyushu overlooking the coast of Beppu Bay, in which long plates of benches pile on top of one another without blocking the view of the sea and can be used as tables or eaves according to their height.
Mikiya Kobayashi established his office in 2006 and his company in Tokyo in 2012. In 2010 he was received the German iF Gold Award and the red dot design award, and in 2013 he was the winner of Elle Décor Young Japanese Design Talent. Kobayashi’s projects embrace furniture, product design and interiors for Japanese corporations as well as foreign companies. In 2012, he conceived lacus, a furniture piece that combines clean lines and geometrical contours with unprocessed natural materials. The wooden elements feature natural veins and the unrefined handles provide an organic detail to the mirrored surface of the drawers. Cinderella is a series of bold eyewear created in collaboration with art director Ryota Sakae and produced by Magic Touch Japan. The vibrantly colored, one-piece seamless glasses use graphics and geometry to merge the worlds of art and fashion. Kobayashi’s products display a unique relationship with nature, bringing in organic elements such as wooden components to minimal designs, like his 2010 clock made of wood chips, or his elegant wooden candleholders. His love of wood is also expressed through his line of products for Dreamy Person, entitled kime, the Japanese word for ‘texture’ or ‘wood grain’. The products are entirely made with the greatest care by craftsmen from Asahikawa in Hokkaido.
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