Japanese design in the 20th century: from tradition to modernism
When we think of Japanese design, we think of certain emblematic objects such as the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle (Kenji Ekuan), the Sony Walkman, which in the late 1970s revolutionised the way people listened to music and invaded the American and European markets, or even high-tech products. However, Japanese design is far from being limited to material and functional aspects. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was rooted in the country’s deeply rooted craft tradition, before gradually assimilating Western techniques and finally combining heritage and modernity, before becoming avant-garde itself.
The first modern Japanese architects and designers had one thing in common: they came to Europe to learn from the great Western masters. With the Bauhaus in particular, Europe was bubbling with new ideas. Towards the end of the 1920s, two great Japanese figures considered among the pioneers of modern architecture and urbanism in Japan, Junzō Sakakura (1901-1969) and Kunio Maekawa (1905-1986), worked in Le Corbusier’s studio. Under the uncompromising eye of the great Swiss master, they learned the techniques of the time, before returning to their country.
It was Junzō Sakakura who suggested to Charlotte Perriand that she become an advisor to the Japanese Ministry of Commerce on decorative arts. Adventurous, Perriand did not hesitate and went to Japan in 1940. From her Japanese adventure, Perriand drew inspiration from the Japanese DNA of design to design pieces of furniture that have become cult on her return to France.
So what is the DNA of Japanese design? It is largely contained in the Mingei movement (literally the folk art movement) launched in 1925 and theorised by the Japanese writer, thinker and collector, Sōetsu Yanagi (1889-1961). Inspired by the English Arts & Crafts movement , Mingei calls for the revival of traditions and the beauty of everyday objects made of ceramics, wood, lacquer, ironwork, basketry and textiles.
It excludes all decorative and luxurious artifice in favour of “natural, sincere and safe” objects. Japanese design therefore combines traditional craftsmanship (bamboo, wood, lacquer) with the expression of clear, pure and simple beauty. In this sense, Japanese design resembles the Scandinavian approach to design of the time, but without the cosiness and warmth.
2 other prominent figures in Japanese design would gradually succeed in marrying ancient Japanese craft techniques with new innovative processes developed in the West. They are Sōri Yanagi (1915-2011), the son of Sōetsu Yanagi, whose famous Butterfly and Elephant stools toured the world, and Isamu Noguchi (American-Japanese, 1904-1988), internationally known for his Akari lamps, real light sculptures, and his Coffee Table.
In the second half of the 20th century, Japanese designers began to emancipate themselves from the Japanese craft tradition and were inspired by Western modernism. The organic Scandinavian style is still a source of inspiration, as is the more radical and colourful Italian design of the 1960s. As in the West, priority was given to the development of an industry capable of mass-producing furniture. Associated with the Tendo Mokko company, the designer Isamu Kenmochi (1912-1971) embodied the creation and definition of Japanese industrial design.
A new generation of designers broke with the traditional codes of Japanese design; the most creative and daring was undoubtedly Shiro Kuramata (1934-1981) who made an international career designing furniture and outdoor architecture. A close friend of Ettore Sottsass, Kuramata did not hesitate to join the Memphis Group in 1981.
The Kuramata style? A design imbued with poetry and lightness, a desire to capture the “immaterial”, which leads him to create singular works, seemingly far removed from those of his predecessors, but which refer to certain major principles of traditional Japanese culture: sensitivity, elegance, and sensoriality. Most of Kuramata’s pieces are limited or rare series.
From Kuramata’s generation, others dared to create original and daring furniture: Masanori Umeda (1941), who was also part of the Memphis adventure, Toshiyuki Kita (1942), whose creative influence spread to become international, Arata Isozaki (1931), and Kazuhide Takahama, who produced for the greatest publishers: Knoll, Gavina, B&B Italia, …
On closer inspection, contemporary Japanese design remains very much alive and creative. Born after 1950, Tomoyuki Sogiyama (1954), Shin Azumi (1965), Tokujin Yoshioka (1967) and the younger Oki Sato (1977) embody the new Japanese generation at the turn of the 21st century. This is hardly surprising for a country whose markets seem condemned to permanent innovation.