At the moment I'm in the middle of my second semester of a master's program at a design school in Japan. It feels like I'm living the dream that drove me to decide to learn the excruciatingly difficult language that is Japanese, almost 10 years ago. The more time I spend studying design in Japan, the more I feel that I've found my "design tribe." I keep discovering more designers and more philosophies here that closely embody my own unspoken beliefs about design. My latest interests are in the concept of Super Normal design coined by Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison, as well as the humble everyday products created by Sori Yanagi, who seems to share a similar approach to design.
I had heard of Super Normal design several years ago in passing, but recently as I've been thinking more about what kind of work I want to do after graduation, I started thinking about it again. I made a trip to our marvelous design campus library, which has a surprising number of volumes in English, and picked up a stack of books that caught my interest. One of the them was a small, picture-heavy book (my favorite kind) written to accompany Fukasawa and Morrison's Super Normal Design exhibition (2006) entitled Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary. I read it cover-to-cover in a day, and found that I agreed completely with the designers' belief that objects need not be unnecessarily reinvented just to attract attention or in an attempt at self expression.
I was particularly struck by the simple beauty of Morrison's door handle, adapted from a classic coach door handle. It just goes to show that new is not always better, and sometimes all that is needed is a simple adjustment or an update of materials to make a classic design useful for today's lifestyle.
I've always had an admiration for simple, functional household items that other people often overlook. Living in Japan for the last two and a half years, I've discovered that Japanese people tend to appreciate this type of design more that Americans do. I've noticed that Japan's Good Design Award often goes to such quietly magnificent designs like Sori Yanagi's mini pan, which was designed in 2002 (when Yanagi was 87) and awarded the Long Life Design Award in 2013.
Which reminds me of something else I've been intrigued by recently - Long Life Design. There is a shop in Fukuoka called D&Department that features what they deem "long life designs." The concept of long life design is that products should ideally be designed in a way that rejects trends and focuses on simply designing a timeless, useful, and attractive object that can be used for a lifetime. I discovered this concept through a very interesting NHK Design Talk several years ago.
As a design student, I often feel the pressure to 'reinvent the wheel' or come up with ideas that are flamboyantly 'new,' and I will admit I have often been told my designs are too simple. I concede that I am far from where I want to be as a designer, and as a graduate student in the Design Strategy program here, I am trying to design products and solutions that are more well thought out and researched. I've been inspired by my Japanese classmates, who are very well-practiced in design research and are impressively skilled at expressing their design process. By the time graduation rolls around I hope to have some designs in my portfolio that are a deceptively simple solution to a complex problem or need.
Someday, I hope to contribute in some small way to making people's everyday lives just a little better. Sori Yanagi put it perfectly when he said, "I try to create things that we human beings feel are useful in our daily lives. During the process, beauty is born naturally."
The Japanese obsession with removing your shoes and its influence on the evolution of furniture design
You might know that in Japan people always remove their shoes before entering a home or certain other buildings (including primary and secondary schools). But did you know that this one cultural practice had a huge impact on the development (or lack thereof) of furniture design in traditional Japan?
To be honest, until very recently I didn't quite understand the obsessive need to remove your shoes every time you enter your house. Yes, in theory it makes sense to keep the house clean. But I think many foreigners in Japan can relate to the frustration of having to unlace and re-lace your shoes every time you forget one thing before heading out (I started using my sneakers as slip-ons...). I didn't really get what the big deal was - why can't you just clean the floor more often?
Through my research on Japanese furniture history, I found something surprising. That is, that Japan didn't even really HAVE much "furniture" for thousands of years until it was influenced by Mainland Asia! The Japanese word for furniture is a little more encompassing than we tend to think of it in Western cultures. In Japan, the furniture category can include things such as tatami flooring, shoji sliding doors, and trays, so in that sense furniture existed, but in a completely different way than we think of in the West.
The chair was brought over from China in the Tang dynasty/Japanese Heian period (around 1100 CE), but didn't even achieve widespread use until after World War II! The same thing applies to the concept of stationary beds, which existed for the imperial family and nobility in the Heian era but didn't come into common use until recent decades (and even now many people still use futons). Slightly less dramatic, but still interesting, is the fact that the tansu or chest of drawers didn't become popular until the mid-Edo period (in the 1700's). So how on Earth did people get on for so long without beds, chairs, and furniture for storage?
"What does all this have to do with taking off your shoes??" you may ask. Don't worry, I'm getting to that.
It all comes down to a concept known as shitsurai. Shitsurai is basically the concept of rearranging a room for different uses. In Japan, individual rooms are thought of as more multi-purpose spaces, whereas in the Western world we tend to have a separate room for each activity. This is partly because the population density in Japan is so high that people don't have a lot of space. You need to be able to use a small space for many different purposes. Therefore, furniture in Japan is more mobile and versatile. For example, using a futon is a good way to economize on space. It is a thin mattress than can be neatly folded away and even put in a closet to make more room when you aren't sleeping. Many people living in tiny studio apartments today still use futon instead of beds. Another example of shitsurai is the use of folding screens and sliding doors in traditional spaces to compartmentalize rooms and even whole houses to fit a variety of different situations. Fast forward to my modern-day Japanese dorm room, and you have yet another ingenious space-saving example of shitsurai:
Furniture takes up a lot of space, so for centuries Japanese commoners made due mostly without it. In ancient Japan common people even ate on the tatami floor (that's right, no dining tables). Is it starting to make sense why they were (and still are) so scrupulous about removing their shoes indoors? Sitting on the floor, sleeping on the floor, eating on the floor. I bet you would take off your shoes too.
If ancient Japan hadn't had this custom of taking off your shoes at the door, they would have a completely different furniture design history. It's still a mystery why Japan is so different to other countries in this respect. How come most other cultures solved the problem of hygiene with elevated furniture while Japan did it with the simple act of removing one's shoes? We'll never know, but that's part of what is so fascinating about cultural differences.
For the past few weeks I was home for the holidays and had a lot of time to think about what I want to accomplish in 2016. Before I went back home, I had spent the last couple of months diligently preparing for the graduate school entrance exam for the Design Strategy department at Kyushu University (the same uni where I'm a research student now). Just as a bit of background information, the exam is 100% in Japanese and involves writing essays on design, memorizing quite a lot of design terminology I'd never heard of, and a presentation and interview with some of the faculty. As you can guess, I was more than a little nervous about passing. However, I somehow must have convinced them, because just in time before I headed home for the holidays, I found out that I passed!
So that means I'll be an official master's student starting in April! Yay! Not only will I have an actual schedule with classes, I will be working towards a degree in the Design Business program. I can't say exactly what my career will look like in 5 years, but I have always daydreamed about the possibility of having my own design shop or other business someday. Whether I end up working at a design firm, an in-house design department, or working for myself, I feel like design business is one of the big knowledge gaps that has kept me from having as much confidence as I'd like to. Some of the classes I'm looking forward to are: Project Management, Intellectual Property Theory, and Design Ventures.
Preparing for the entrance exam got me thinking a lot about design as a general practice again. It made me remember the things that I feel are important - the ways that I could make the world a better place as a designer. Among other things, like universal design and human factors, the thing that has always interested me the most is sustainability in design.
As I put together a poster and presentation about my research proposal, I realized that I had almost lost track of my initial motivation for choosing this topic. The whole point of my project is to propose a sustainable furniture design inspired by traditional Japanese woodworking. Sometimes I feel like I get caught up in minute details and the idea of "making progress" and lose sight of the big picture. But once I remembered the reason I came to Fukuoka in the first place, it got me motivated to revitalize my interest in sustainability.
In my undergrad degree, I took a lot of Materials + Processes and Sustainability classes to learn how to choose appropriate, cost-effective, and environmentally responsible materials and manufacturing processes. One of the things that stuck in my mind was watching the documentary Waste = Food. It's all about how the concept of waste doesn't exist in nature, because "waste" just transforms into "food" for new growth (e.g. cherry blossoms that don't yield fruit just turn into nutrition for the soil). The documentary talks about how we can work within nature's cycles instead of using brute force to try and (unsuccessfully) overrule them. If we worked with nature instead of against it, problems like toxicity, landfills, and global warming would be non-existent. Some of the ways the makers of the documentary propose working "eco-effectively" are designing for dis-assembly, separating "biological" (biodegradable) and "technical" materials (metals, plastics) so that they can be effectively recycled, and phasing out toxic materials.
Watching this documentary had a big impact on me at the time. Let's face it - as someone studying to be a product designer, I was initially depressed by the realization that everything I design will eventually end up clogging landfills all over the planet. I also became more aware of the negative consequences of perpetually creating waste and went on a "shopping fast" where I carried around only $5 in cash and no debit card for a couple of months in an effort to resist impulse buys (the only exception being bringing $50 on a grocery run once a week). Shortly thereafter I experimented with a minimalist lifestyle while studying abroad in Madrid, bringing only one suitcase of belongings to get me through my nine-month-long study abroad. Frankly, I ended up being a little disappointed at how big of an impact material things had on my happiness, after reading wonderful things about how freeing and enlightening minimalism was supposed to be.
Wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to feel guilty about consuming so much? Wouldn't it be great if you could buy a new pair of shoes without worrying about the toxic plastics and adhesives used in its manufacture, the sweat shop where someone earned next to nothing to make it, the fact that it will eventually wear out and you'll have no option but to throw it "away" to some landfill? The makers of Waste = Food argue that these kinds of undesirable side-effects of industry are all avoidable. It sure would be nice to see them stop being the norm in this lifetime.
The documentary Waste = Food is based on the book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough (architect) & Michael Braungart (chemist). This winter break I decided it was high time I read the book. Reading it got me thinking about how I could make a difference right now. To be honest, the book proposes such an ideal end goal that it's hard to know where to even start, but at least now I know that sustainable design is something I want to contribute to.
Hi everyone! Long time no see!
As I near the end of the “Traditional Japanese Woodworking” phase of my research project, I thought I would summarize my findings so far in case anyone is interested! This first post will be centered on where exactly the Japanese design mindset came from, while future posts will go on to talk about outside influences on Japanese design and characteristics of Japanese furniture design today.
Origins of Japanese Style
Shinto: Japan’s native religion
Japan’s native religion, Shinto, has had a tremendous influence on the country’s design style. Shinto is a polytheistic religion in which people revere and worship nature and all things that proceed from nature. In Shinto, it is said that there exist eight million gods. This number is less literal and more conceptual; basically, there are so many gods that a god must exist in every person, place, or thing. In contrast to other world religions, however, Shinto’s “gods” are not actually thought of as sentient beings. Instead, they are more like shapeless forces or energies that exist in all things, even people.
With the religion of Shinto comes a profound focus on the divinity of nature. As a result, the Japanese people have always had an extraordinary respect for natural materials and, by extension, material things. In Shinto, trees are considered especially sacred, and Shinto shrine sites are almost always chosen for their proximity to a very old and large tree.
Since trees are considered sacred, it is only natural that Japanese craftsmen would take particular care when fashioning objects out of wood, a material that is invariably acquired from trees many centuries old. In Japan, a particular focus is placed on preserving the natural beauty of wood in any wooden product.
Mottainai: the shame of wastefulness
Partly tied to Shinto comes the pervasive Japanese concept of mottainai. Its closest English translations would be “what a waste” or “waste not, want not.” To a country with such a deep reverence for natural materials, the thought of wasting anything seems unthinkable. Although strong influences from the Western world (particularly the United States during its occupation of Japan after the Second World War) have rendered modern-day Japan less-than-ideal in terms of reducing material waste, this is a relatively recent change. Historically, wastefulness was seen as shameful and even as grounds for ostracism. Even now people say that each grain of rice contains seven gods, and as such one should never waste even a single grain of rice.
One can easily imagine the effect of the mottainai attitude on sustainability practices in product design. Although Japanese craftsmen might be stumped if you asked them how they practice sustainability, a short tour around their factory or showroom quickly reveals the remarkable extent of their eco-conscious mindset. From using leftover wood from furniture manufacturing to make smaller products, to using sawdust to make all-natural multicolored air-dry clay, the sustainable innovations in today’s Japanese furniture manufacturers is manifold.
Nagamochi: durability and longevity
Many cultures value longevity in products, and Japan is no exception. As with many other concepts that have influenced Japanese design and particularly woodworking, the Japanese concept of nagamochi (literally “keeping for a long time”) is clearly tied to the country’s spiritual roots in Shintoism. It makes sense that if throwing things away is considered mottainai, or a waste, one would want to make one’s possessions last as long as possible through careful maintenance.
Although influence from the Western world and the impact of industrialization has reduced the prevalence of this attitude of nagamochi in modern Japan, the recent focus on sustainability worldwide can also be observed in Japanese product design today. Japan-made products are praised for their outstanding quality, and with quality usually comes durability. When visiting local furniture manufacturers in Japan, the desire to create long-lasting products is a common concern. From the standpoint of an artisan who sees the entire process of furniture creation, from tree to table, so to speak, using centuries-old trees to make something that will last only a few years is close to sacrilege. Japanese craftsmen take their responsibility in dealing with wood seriously, and their hope is that consumers too will recognize the value of their long-lasting products.
Japan: island country
A quick survey of Japanese history will reveal that Japan’s “island country” status has had a considerable effect on its development over time. Not only has the country’s relative isolation from the outside world until recent centuries led to a unique and singular culture; the scarcity of natural resources on this island has led to unusual innovations and a remarkable resourcefulness and emphasis on efficiency. This is evident both in Japanese craftsmen’s attitude towards sustainability in manufacturing and in their tendency to design highly versatile, multi-function, and compact furniture.
I hope you enjoyed this very brief introduction to the origins of Japanese attitudes towards design and sustainability. There is much more to come! Look forward to future posts about outside influences on Japanese design, Japanese design's influence on the Western world (Japonisme), and the typical characteristics of Japanese furniture design.
Well, it's official! I'll soon be moving to Fukuoka, Japan. After a couple of years of working towards this goal, I was finally successful and had the amazing fortune to receive a research scholarship from the Japanese government. When people ask me why I became interested in Japan and learning the language, my answer is always, "Japanese design." It's kind of a fun story actually...
Anyway, the point of the story is, even though in truth I'm not quite sure what first prompted my conscious interest in Japan, it's certain that my biggest motivation for sticking to learning the language and finding opportunities to travel there was my desire to understand and be close to the beauty of Japanese design. Although I might not have known how exactly how I would eventually immerse myself in the design culture of Japan, the prospect of finding my "tribe" kept me determined to keep learning the language.
And now it's happening!
I can't believe it, but in one month I'll be in Fukuoka, ready to dive into the amazing art of Japanese woodworking. After some time learning from professional artisans, I'll continue researching this country's contemporary design and start to make connections between the two to find the common thread of Japanese design culture and aesthetics. And then, most exciting of all, I'll create an original furniture design proposal inspired by the genius of Japanese woodworking.
Last September I made a visit to an amazing woodworking tools museum in Kobe. It was wonderful! They had just recently redesigned the whole museum, perfect timing. Despite being mostly in Japanese (with some English translations), the exhibits were exceptionally easy to understand, not to mention beautiful. They even had a workshop where you could make your own chopsticks out of cypress wood! What a great introduction to Japanese woodworking techniques.
As you can see in the picture on the right, I visited Nagoya Castle last fall as well. The Honmaru Palace portion of the castle was rebuilt just last year according to the original plans. I'll bet you have a hard time believing that this building (a minimalist architect's dream house) was designed in the 1600's. Sorry all you minimalist architects out there, I already claimed the place if they ever decide to rent it out.
As preparation for my "real" research to start, I've been collecting some imagery on Pinterest. Feel free to check it out if you're interested!
Wish me luck and stay updated with my blog as I continue on this journey of discovery!
Well, it's been a while since my last update. I finally finished my thesis project on kitchen knife safety and graduated college! (That being said, you'll have to forgive my lackluster vocabulary in this blog post. Living in a foreign country has taken its toll on my writing skills).
I've since had quite a change of situation. Two months after graduation, I embarked on my second adventure in Japan! (Curious about my first adventure?) Shortly before graduating, I found an internship opportunity in a small tea farming town in Kyoto Prefecture where I would get to do some real design work at a Japanese company.
In the last five months I've been doing a mix of a lot of different things with my time. The internship is largely self-managed, which means I get to basically do whatever work interests me. That includes everything from graphic design, to Japanese-English translation, to photography and beyond.
This has been a great opportunity to improve my practical Japanese conversational and business language skills, and it's also been amazing to get to see my designs actually get printed and be put to use. Last but not least, the internship is at a green tea company, which means I've gotten an inside view on an immensely important component of Japanese culture - tea. After an average of five cups of green tea a day, I don't know how I'll ever go back!
It's fascinating to start to see all the different aspects of Japanese culture come together. What started as little tidbits of knowledge here and there about language, everyday culture, and design aesthetics are beginning to fit together in the infinite puzzle that is Japan.
I hope to continue my journey of discovery here in the foreseeable future.
This year I will be focusing on one industrial design project - my graduation thesis project.
At the beginning of the semester I started thinking of possibilities for a thesis focus and ended up with two possible ideas:
1. Piano keyboard portability and learning process
2. Kitchen safety - cuts and burns
After some initial research and consideration of both topics, I decided to go forward with the kitchen safety idea. The next step was to attempt to find an area with a lot of opportunities for improving the safety of food preparation. I focused on cuts and burns as common injuries in the kitchen, and after doing a lot of research through product safety reports and studies as well as conducting my own survey, I decided to narrow down to kitchen knives as my focus.
My research and surveys showed that cuts from kitchen knives were an ongoing problem that hadn't really been tackled in the current product market. Existing solutions were somewhat limited, including Kevlar cut resistant gloves and some radical "ergonomic" solutions.
After researching kitchen knife safety tips, I decided to target the three largest common causes of accidental cuts:
One of the biggest causes of accidental cuts is a dull blade, because it can slip off of the food instead of cutting it:
Here are some of my first ideas for tackling the problem of inadequate sharpening and honing:
I decided that a knife sheath the both protected and automatically honed the blade between uses would help solve the problem of dull blades.
Another of the most cited tips for avoiding knife injuries was using the correct grip. Most users intuitively hold a knife in either "handlebar grip" or a modified version with the thumb or index finger on top for more power:
However, most professional chefs use and recommend a grip called "pinch grip," which gives you more control and therefore less chances of slipping and accidentally cutting yourself.
I used air dry clay to take impressions of people's hands using pinch grip to hold a wooden kitchen knife mock-up. By making a composite image of the various handle shapes, I can start to see what recesses and core shape they all have in common. This will serve as a starting point for prototyping an ergonomic handle that encourages or even induces pinch grip for better control, and therefore less accidental cuts in the kitchen.
I used this image as the basis for my own intial design. I created a simple foam model, which I then tested with potential users to get their feedback on the design.
Below, you can see the evolution of the knife form as I kept testing and getting feedback on each prototype.
Here is the final form "white model," which I made by hand out of high density modeling foam using the bandsaw, spindle sander, and sandpaper.
Here are some Photoshop renderings showing the intended materials for the final product.
Anyone who has known me since my middle school days can tell you that I get an inordinate amount of joy out of arranging food artfully before serving it.
This pastime may very well have its origins in the little Leslie that spent more time peeling and arranging peas than eating them.
To me, design is not something that confines itself to the page, the blueprint, the prototype. Although my formal education has been in industrial design, rather than saying I get joy out of designing solely products, it would be more accurate to state that I get pleasure out of designing the things that make life enjoyable.
Even something as simple as decorating a cake can bring joy to both the decorator and the lucky people who get to eat it...
Just a judicious use of color has long been considered a sign of a healthy and good tasting meal. I always thought it was interesting that to say a meal looks good in Spanish, you say, "tiene buena pinta (lit. 'it has a good appearance')." The word "pinta" is closely related to "pintura," meaning paint, and it always made sense in my mind that you would compare the palette of colors employed in a meal to a painter's palette.
It is amazing to me how a eye for design can transform a mediocre meal into a feast for the eyes and the tongue. As the Japanese say, "you eat with your eyes." I was lucky enough to go to a workshop when I was in Kyoto taught by a professional Japanese chef. He taught us how to make things like carrot flowers to add visual appeal and character to a dish.
If you want an example of good food design, just look up "traditional Japanese bento box" on any image search. I won't lie, the elaborate elegance of these kinds of things are what I aspire to create someday...
This school year I have been working part time at an awesome fabric shop in Lawrence called Sarah's Fabrics. I love working there because not only are my coworkers and our clients wonderful and friendly; I also get to cut and organize a huge array of lovely fabrics. I always get excited when a favorite designer comes out with a new collection, and being around so many pretty pieces always makes me want to do some sewing.
So, I've decided to share with you some of my recent sewing projects!
First, I made these cute little rice and lavender hand warmers with a piece from Kaffe Fassett's stripe collection. They're great for the 10 degree days we've been having here in Kansas. All you have to do is pop them in the microwave for a few seconds :)
I also made a checkbook cover with a piece from Carolyn Friedlander's new Botanics line and used an Asian-inspired fabric for the binding and lining.
My latest project was a fast and easy sleeping mask. I finally found a great use for a beautiful satin brocade fabric that I got at a great fabric store in Japan. I got some stunning turquoise dupioni silk to make the back and the binding of the mask. I love the texture of dupioni silk - it has a definite organic quality to it, which is a refreshing and elegant change when a lot of fabrics today are made with synthetic fibers.
Finish it off with some satin ribbon, and you've got a lovely sleeping mask to block out all those street lights!
My latest project is to design a jewelry collection fabricated with the lost wax casting technique. My partner and I decided that we wanted to design a unisex collection influenced by the minimalist movement for young people like ourselves.
Our concept involves two parts:
1. The arrow, which symbolizes the one-way direction and constant forward flow of life and time.
2. Yin and yang, which will be embodied in our final collection because all of the pieces come in pairs (one silver and one black) that are stackable. The silver pieces are yang - energetic and vibrant because of their polished silver finish. The black pieces are yin - more subtle and withdrawn with a satin finish.
Above, the rings from my partner's and my Doble V (Double V) jewelry collection are shown directly after casting in silver and brass, along with the original copper rings that we sculpted by hand and used to make the mold for the others. All of the pieces will be polished and the brass ones given a black patina.
Here are some sketches of how our idea evolved on paper before we ever touched a piece of metal or jewelry modeling wax.
Once we committed to a final design, we started working on fabrication. The original for the pendant was made directly in jewelry sculpting wax.:
For the rings, we cut the shape out of a sheet of copper, then filed and sanded it to perfection...
Then we curved it into a ring shape and soldered the joint:
After we had the original, we took it to a professional jewelry casting workshop, where they created a vulcanized rubber mold of the rings so they could make copies in silver and brass, shown below with the copper original:
The process of making the bracelet was similar to the ring, only there was no soldering involved. Before curving the bracelet original, made in aluminum:
Once we had all of the pieces cast in silver and brass, we used files and sandpaper to give them an even surface, used a soldering torch to fill in air bubbles with silver solder, polished them, and gave the brass ones a black patina by using a chemical oxidizing solution.
The finished collection:
For more pictures click here!