Designing Japanese home products with a difference

By Kaori Shoji
Monday, April 16, 2007
International Herald Tribune

TOKYO: The designer and architect Shuwa Tei says that the very first home product he bought was a hot dog maker, when he was 6. Young as he was, Tei had a hankering to “eat a good-looking hot dog” and decided that for this end, he must first get the right appliance.

Having glimpsed one in a local church bazaar, he immediately pitched a presentation to his parents, who like truly good clients, recognized artistic appeal when they saw it. Tei got his hot dog maker but then was at a loss: the only sausages at home were small, rinky Japanese ones, not the fat juicy frankfurters that went into “good-looking” hot dogs. Tei had his first lesson in home product design: “Having the right equipment isn’t enough. One must think of the project in its totality. The home, the décor, what was in the fridge – all these things had to form a harmonious whole,” he said.
Tei still thinks in those terms. For him, interior design, exterior architecture and product design occupy the same space, instead of being compartmentalized into separate disciplines. “When you’re designing a kitchen product, you have to think of what the kitchen looks like, how it functions, how the product fits into the scheme,” he said. “This is difficult because in Japan, kitchens are often afterthoughts of architects who have little idea of how kitchens should be.”
Tei, who said he would have been a chef had he not become a designer, compares his product designs to Japanese course meals called kaiseki. “There should be different flavors and textures, varying notes on the palate. And in the end, all these elements will gather to form one overall impression. But like kaiseki meals, I want my designs to be light, easy on the eye but not always easy to fathom. Satiation is one of the things I try to avoid,” he said.
Tei directs the home product brand Amadana (the name is taken from a Tokyo lacquer-artisan district of 300 years ago) in addition to working on various architectural and interior design projects, like the much-acclaimed Hotel Claska, United Cinemas Toyosu Theater and the Burberry Blue Label shop (all in Tokyo) with his company Intentionallies. Amadana products are unlike anything the Japanese consumer has seen before – subtly blending wood, leather, metals and acrylic glass to achieve an effect that is neither nostalagic nor futuristic.
“I hope they’ll become classics of the future,” said Tei. “Something that will remain, not for its durability but for the way the designs grow on you over time, in a way that’s subtly but perceptively pleasing.” Indeed, Amadana products are light to the touch and pleasant to behold (and importantly, they’re also reasonably priced) – distinctive but never in-your-face. “I don’t think everyone will get it, but then I’m not aiming for mass appeal. I just want to keep things loosely defined, and hope that those who do get it will get the ambiguity and find it attractive.”
In a sense, Tei’s stance is quintessentially Japanese. Historically, the radicals of the Japanese art world had always avoided the obviously progressive or revolutionary, preferring to make their statements through the seemingly mundane or with shades of nuance.
Often compared to Tei is another maverick in home product design: Naoto Fukasawa, who has collaborated with Muji, an appliance, home products and clothing company.
Muji (whose original corporate slogan was “all value, no frills”) and Fukasawa have popularized the importance of the ordinary; not exactly a less is more aesthetic, but discerning what is necessary and leaving it at that. Fukasawa’s hit product is the wall-hanging CD player. It is about the size of a piece of toast and fits into any niche; it is operated by tugging a cord and has just one tiny dial (for volume). Fukasawa has repeatedly said that ordinariness, or normality, is a state in which the Japanese (designers and users alike) excel, but one that’s in danger of being elbowed out by excessive/obsessive design.
The consumer analyst Midori Itoh said: “It’s true, there’s a consumer awareness that hasn’t been there before. People are starting to care what a home appliance looks like and, in many cases, willing to pay the extra cash for good designs.” They’re also picking up design magazines like “d,” run by the designer-cum-shop owner Kenmei Nagaoka, who assembles tight, readable articles on all things design, from architecture and suitcases to the package on a chocolate bar. Tokyo’s eclectic boutiques, called “select shops,” display designer kettles next to summer dresses and DVD players.

Itoh added that this trend is natural: “Design is the next big industry. It’s not about making things that work anymore. It’s about making things that look better than the competitor, and presenting them to customers inside a chic, attractive space.”
Tei takes that a step further. “Certainly it’s important for a product to look good but what constitutes good?” he asked. “I prefer looser, vague terms like ‘sort of good.’ And when I do the designs, I ultimately aim to please just one person, myself. I have no obsessions, and my standards of good and bad are always undefined. So, that simplifies the process. If I try to satisfy everyone, the whole thing becomes a lot more complicated.”

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