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.

Aerial view of an emblematic achievement of Kunio Maekawa: the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall (Tokyo Bunka Kaikan), designed in 1957 and opened in 1961. The building was the first concert hall in Japan. The heavy cornice and superstructure of the roof recall the work of Le Corbusier, for whom Maekawa had already worked.
Another view of the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. A reinforced concrete structure typical of the “Le Corbusier” style of the time. By the way, right next to the hall stands the National Museum of Western Art, designed by Le Corbusier himself.
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Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, architect: Kunio Maekawa, 1957. View of the interior of the building, with raw concrete everywhere.
© archeyes

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.

Ombra Tokyo chair, design: Charlotte Perriand, 1954. A light and stackable piece directly inspired by the traditional arts of Japan, and in particular the art of folding (Origami), a very pure design.
526 Nuage storage bookcase, design: Charlotte Perriand. In Japan, home furnishings come from semi-fabricated elements that are recovered: tatami mats, doors, partitions, etc. This piece evokes the traditional sliding doors known as “shôji” in Japan and the art of optimising interior space.

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.

White Bottle” (vase) in stoneware (glaze technique) by Shōji Hamada (1894-1978), 1965, one of the most famous Japanese ceramists of the Mingei movement. Purity and elegance…
Stoneware plate by Shōji Hamada (1894-1978). In Japan, ceramics is a major art. Shōji Hamada was awarded the title of Living National Treasure of Japan in 1955.
“Fishing boats”, 1958. Kimono, stencil-dyed silk gauze, artist: Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984). The latter was a fabric painter and textile designer. In 1956, he was named a Living National Treasure of Japan for his katazome method of stencil dyeing. He was part of the Mingei movement.

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.

Butterfly” stool, design by Sōri Yanagi, 1954, published by Vitra. The stool is made of maple or rosewood and evokes the wings of a butterfly. The Butterfly combines the essence of Japanese design: purity and the search for the “organic” gesture, combined with the bending technique used by Charles and Ray Eames.
Armchair by Sōri Yanagi. A beautiful and simple, yet practical chair made by Hida Sangyo, a highly respected furniture maker in Takayama, Japan. Hida continues to merge Western aesthetics with traditional Japanese craft techniques and local materials.
Range of table lamps by designer Isamu Noguchi, published by Vitra. Isamu Noguchi began designing his “akari” lamps in 1951, a term that means clarity or light. These lamps revisit the traditional Japanese art of origami (the art of paper folding).
A craftsman handcrafting an Akari lamp. Bamboo stalks form the framework, washi paper, which comes from the bark of the mulberry tree, is cut into strips, which are then glued to the bamboo structure.

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.

Pair of cedar armchairs “Kashiwado”, design Isamu Kenmochi for Tendo Mokko, 1960s.
Pair of rattan armchairs, “Rattan Furnitures” series, design by Isamu Kenmochi, 1958.
Murai” wooden stool, design by Reiko Tanabe (1934) for Tendo Mokko, model created in 1960 and produced from 1966.

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.

Kyoto” pedestal table, design Shiro Kuramata for Memphis Milano, 1983
Galerie Wauthier

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.

Miss Blanche” armchair, design: Shiro Kuramata, 1988. An iconic piece of late 20th century design. Incredible poetry for this seat made essentially of transparent plastic including rose petals…
Another iconic piece by Kuramata, in search of a certain immateriality: the “How High The Moon” armchair (1986). Made of metal latticework, the piece creates a play of transparencies, shadows and light
Galerie Wauthier

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, …

“Ginza Robot cabinet”, design: Masanori Umeda for Memphis Milano, 1982. Laminate on pressed cardboard, chrome: a mixture of materials typical of the Memphis style.
Wink 111″ lounge chair for Cassina, design: Toshiyuki Kita, 1980. A great look for this seat with adjustable position. The frame is made of steel, the upholstery of CFC-free expanded polyurethane foam and polyester wadding.
Marylin chair, design: Arata IsoZaki, 1972. A magnificent chair made of wood and polyurethane, curved, a tribute to the sexy curves of Marylin Monroe…
Suzanne” sofa system by Kazuhide Takahama for Knoll, 1968.

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.

Lem” bar stool by LaPalma, design: Shin Azumi & Tomoko Azumi, 2000.
Blossom” vase, design by Tokujin Yoshioka for Louis Vuitton.
2 officials unveil the pink-gold Olympic flame of the Tokyo Games designed by Tokujin Yoshioka.
A Manga Chair by Nendo, the studio of Japanese designer Oki Sato.
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“Manga Chair #47”, design: Oki Sato for Nendo, 2015. Oki Sato is the leader of the new generation of Japanese design.

François Boutard