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Japanese Design Since 1945 – an exploration of people and objects over time

Naomi Pollock, author of Japanese Design Since 1945: «It’s not obvious when one sees a mass-produced tea kettle made out of metal to think about the idea of craft» 

Japanese product design

In 1999, Naomi Pollock was invited as a guest curator at The Art Institute of Chicago for an exhibition in public buildings and design for the Japanese public. As foremost an architect, this was the first time she was exposed to the depth of Japanese product design and as anything other than just a consumer. As the philosophies, architecture and product design began to merge, the idea of scale became the central construct which separated one from another in which she says «In going to architect’s offices, I would often see the chair they design, the tea set from Alessi and I’d be looking at this stuff thinking it’s kind of like architecture but in miniature». Pollock began to focus more on design, writing articles and concentrating on specific products and in 2012, she published a book: Made in Japan: 100 New Products. She explains that following this, she felt the need for a broader book in which then, Japanese Design since 1945 was born. 

Japanese Design since 1945 book

The book itself is split into sections which invites us to experience a vastness of Japan design and the ebbs and the flows in which design has grown from all areas of life. From the stool we sit on to the Sony Walkman we listened with, Pollock explores design not merely through the lens of products but instead through the individuals that crafted them, allowing us to feel not as a consumer, but as a reader to the story of the craftsmanship over time. «Every time I write an article, whether it’s about a fork or a building, I know I need to have more understanding than I know I am going to have words to say». She explains that in thinking of how to structure the book, acknowledging that she wanted it to be accessible to even those who know nothing of Japanese design, she decided to organize the chapters as if it were a design store. «I felt it was a key thing to get the reader involved with who these individuals are. By focusing on the people, I could then present a number of products. If you think of the book as almost like concentric circles where we have these different chapters and within each chapter there’s the designers and within each designer profile there’s a whole selection of products». In her criteria for writing the book, she made it an imperative to speak to one person who knew the designer, from curators, to journalists and employees she was able to transpire the worlds of many designers and what made them tick throughout their career. 

Lampoon talks to Naomi Pollock

Pollock assimilates and presents the context surrounding Japanese products throughout the entirety of the book, which give a backdrop to the works which have become familiar for many people in the West as the vitality of Japanese design has spread across the world. Pollock writes «Though once regarded as exotically oriental, the Japanese aesthetic, including design, had a universal appeal and relevance. This recognition fueled Japan’s confidence in various ways, including design». Throughout the book as the objects which make up Japanese design are presented, they are offered with their own truths about how they came to fruition and how their presence has offered a newer, functional yet consoling extension of daily life. «People often find Japanese products at the V&A museum shop or the MoMA shop and they know almost nothing about who created them or why. Even if many Japanese designers now work with foreign companies, the majority of what is created by the Japanese is for the Japanese consumer and understanding that context is crucial to understanding why the bowl is that size».

Monozukuri concept in Japan

Japan is not somewhere that lacks in its visionary nor cultural appeal. As a country which has undergone cultural, political and social changes, coupled with art movements throughout the decades, its path has been shaped by the underpinnings of long-standing traditions which are still an integral part of today’s society enduring the economic shifts to global capitalism. From the intricacies of chado tea ceremonies, kado flower arranging and the meticulous preparation of food within Japanese culture, Japan is somewhere that has learnt from the models of Westernization whilst still retaining their own framework for detail and authenticity. «Within the creative field, Japan is detail and craft orientated, whether the medium is food or chairs or wall tiles, there is a similar mindset to approaching the curation», Pollock says. The concept known in Japan as monozukuri, meaning ‘making things’ is at the heart of Japanese artistry when it comes to creating products. «It’s not obvious when one sees a mass-produced tea kettle made out of metal to think about the idea of craft». She explains that when she visited Tachikawa, a place that was once renowned for the production of swords, she went to a factory which constructs stainless-steel objects designed by the Japanese designer, Sori Yanagi. In visiting the factory, she was able to see the nuances in what we understand as mass production today and how even though the machinery is the driving force creating these new objects, amongst them she saw the artisans, as she rightfully calls them, working and operating in the factory. Pollock describes how she watched them looking carefully at each piece as it was pressed and welded. She says, «Even though the work is being done by a machine, from what I have seen where the design component is strong, the process is still being evaluated with the standards of a traditional crafts person». 

Japanese Design Titans

Mass production has not tainted the conception of craftsmanship in Japan, nor has it hindered the translation of their history in remodeling products. Throughout the book, it is demonstrated the way in which designers are refining the use of raw materials such as paper, straw and bamboo to create handcrafted goods. Pollock writes in  The Design Titans section of the Japanese designer, Toshiyuki Kita who inhabiting both differing worlds of Osaka and Milan, recognizes the importance of coalescing a modern vision with an awareness of maintaining the long-standing Japanese methods of craft. One example of the continuation of longstanding craft methods in Japan is exemplified through a paper processing plant which has existed since just after World War II. Located in Tachikawa just on the outskirts of Tokyo, the company produces items using only paper such as boxes, name cards and candy wrappers. «they have all these old machines from the Forties and Fifties and yet they’re all pristine and beautifully maintained, but if any piece of that machine breaks, the company would probably no longer exist». 

Canon poster by Kenji Itoh, 1956, photo by Itoh Kenji Design Studio

Paper design in Tachikawa

The commitments to continue the craft legacy are encouraged through government initiatives which have positioned the training of people in design and architecture at the forefront of building and rebuilding the economy. Pollock explains that at that same paper plant in Tachikawa, an initiative was introduced about fifteen years ago with the ambition to revitalize their ethos of manufacturing in this way. Ten designers are invited to the factory every year and are tasked with designing something completely new. Pollock says «Each year they get a whole new collection of products from this initiative using their technique with paper. It allows this type of design to be revitalized in a new way». Dotted between the profiles of designers and the ‘everyday Icons’, in the book there are short essays which invite the reader to appreciate the social, political and cultural underpinnings of Japanese design. Throughout the twentieth century, the Japanese took influences from the US and European nations which allowed them to develop their own products to sell at low prices to a global market. The Japanese government impelled their enhancements in design through the advent of design schools, public exhibitions, nationalizing research centers and the introduction of trainee schemes which sent talented designers overseas. Amongst these initiatives remains a commitment of the Japanese to preserve the contemporariness of their design, using products to provide solutions to the issues in the modern world. Pollock says that «Japan has rotated through different design cultures but one thing that it is to understand about Japan as a whole is that there is a tendency to take ideas from overseas and then to Japanese them. This constant process of adjusting is very much emblematic of how Japanese culture has evolved». 

Muji and contemporary design in Japan

Through the book, the parallels between the industries of design and food and drink are connected through the way in which they both represent an opportunity to create. Japanese food culture does not shy away from the opportunity to produce artifacts which enhance eating and drinking experiences, integrating into the simplicity yet elegance of the design culture which exists there. «people will say that Japanese cuisine is designed. It’s about using the best quality raw materials you can find and do as little as possible to them, and in many ways that is the way objects are made and thought of. There is a continuum». She adds that partly, by doing as little as possible that does not mean do nothing. «It is about creating something that is visually beautiful. That attention to the small scale is something that doesn’t just describe food, but describes the way that food is presented». Through drawing analogies between the two, designers throughout the book make reference to food in design processes as if the Japanese palate acts as a muse for their creations. In the Warp & Weft section, the Japanese designer, Osamu Mita compares wool «as thick as an udon noodle» and the designer, Akira Minagawa used his career working as a tuna slicer to learn the skills of how to inhabit the space of design with an aptitude of respect and care. Pollock notes that the way food is eaten and culture surrounding it, has an immediate effect on the design that is needed to accommodate that same culinary experience. This is synonymous with the way we appreciate designed models which allow us to take respite through our schedules of work and everyday life when we sit, lay and rest. In the Tables & Chairs section, Pollock searches for the oversighted aspects of design, the items which are so integral to our daily life we barely even notice their existence. Following the Meiji period in Japan during 1868-1912, Japan began to adopt and adapt a blueprint of modernized Western living, which included moving away from floor-based seating for example. The no-name brand, MUJI epitomizes the age of minimalism from their pencil cases to alarm clocks they maintain themselves as a trademark for neutrality. Pollock writes «An antithesis to the luxury brand mania that hit Japan hard as its economy soared, MUJI’s quiet expression reawakened an appreciation of Japan’s own sense of functional beauty». Japanese design since 1945 is explored by Pollock with a fervor that allows us to acknowledge design as not just briefs, solutions and products but as an act of storytelling. Japan’s history lives on through its products and the artisans who pioneer the methods which have given us the elements of design as we know them today. «there is a willingness to experiment in Japan and we see that in architecture as well as in design. The majority of the rules that might govern what’s an acceptable product or what’s a logical building, either they don’t exist, or they are just shoved to the side». 

Naomi Pollock

American architect who writes about Japanese design and architecture. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Dwell, Kinfolk, Wallpaper* and Architectural Record, for whom she is the Special International Correspondent. In addition, she is the author of several books, including Made in Japan: 100 New Products and Jutaku: Japanese Houses. In 2018, she was appointed to the College of Fellows of The American Institute of Architects. 

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
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Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us

check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]

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