On the ubiquity of great design

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

Originally made as a program broadcast on NHK’s education channel, “Design Ah!” — led by graphic designer Taku Satoh, Interactive designer and artist Yugo Nakamura, and musician Keigo Oyamada — has gone one step further to become an interactive exhibition. Taking the films and sounds of the television show as a source of inspiration, an array of artists have gone on to explore the theme of “design mind.” “Design Ah!” brings together designers and the public, realizing that theme and making sense of the world through playful observation.

The exhibition explores the eureka “Ah!” moment of inspiration that comes from realizing how things work through a series of alternative descriptions. It demystifies the role of the designer without any disregard, stating design as simply an extension of what we all do and have done from a very young age. Here, a group of 12 designers explore an array of eureka moments through practical, visual and audible realizations — and all with marvelous results.

The show also explores things vicariously, through the outdoor courtyard that slowly evolves and grows through the duration of the show and the workdesks at which everyone, children especially, are encouraged to draw their version of something “Ah (あ).”

The main space takes a more humorous approach, cataloging and displaying things such as food and books, which are simply arranged and described in terms of their parts but are shown from an askew perspective, revealing hidden ingenuity in even the simplest of utensils. For example, soy sauce pots are arranged mid-pour and cut in half showing their innards, while elsewhere spinning wires rotate to form the profile of carefully arranged plates and saucers.

Here, design education is paramount, but it is not exclusively tailored to children — there is something on hand for everyone. For “Ah! in motion,” a large projection work, the visitor is encouraged to participate in the process of creation. “Ah in motion” projects shapes onto a blank wall. They are brought to life through the mapping of your movements. You bend, it bends. You shift, it shifts. As your final pose is captured, the image is frozen and catalogued, rendered for all to see and emulate.

“Furoshiki,” a collaboration between atelier Kyoto Wabunka Kenkyujo Musubi and Taku Satoh Design Office, uses step-by-step video instructions to teach you how to fold traditional Japanese wrapping cloths around wooden objects. Similarly “Origami” by Origata Design Institute shows you how to craft your shapes in paper.

The five subthemes of “food,” “books,” “containers,” “money” and “school” are explored with simplicity and humor, giving rise to strange and curious interpretations of everyday subjects. Sushi, for example, is treated in different ways: encapsulated in resin; arranged by utensil, size and proportion; and made into building blocks that invite you to make your own highly-customized combination.

The catalog of ceramic patterns by artist duo Perfektron (Ryota Kuwakubo and Reico Yamaguchi), along with their bookshelf of color-coded books, describe often ignored or forgotten parts that make up everyday objects. If we attempted to put back together these pulled-apart items, the question is do we end up with the same thing or something unique? How we transform such ordinary things can change the way we see them. They become different and open to reinterpretation.

Other works simply request you participate by looking and observing to discover something hidden. Takram Design Engineering’s “sound monocles” — eyeglasses made from polarized filters — reveal moving images on flat-screen monitors, that to the naked eye are obscured by white light. It’s a tantalizing and sophisticated way of introducing technology through playful interaction.

Away from the main space, “A Room of Objects, Sounds and Movies” uses the film and music produced by Nakamura’s design studio, tha ltd., and musician Cornelius (Oyamada). The four walls are filled with projections of films that are visually related to a number of objects carefully arranged on a table at the room’s center.

All of these exhibits “involve” the visitor rarely leaving a feeling of being arbitrary. If any criticism is to be made, it would be that there was not enough to physically play with. Visual stimulus is one thing, but tactile representations make the connection between ideas and “making” more potent and tangible. The more interaction we have with things, the more immediacy they possess. Although at times the exhibition feels restrained, most of it encourages visitor participation. A show that focused only on the visual, like a display in a museum, would have made the exhibition a lot less powerful.

Exhibition directors Sato and Nakamura ask all generations to see our complicated world as more of an interesting mesh of ideas waiting to be uncovered, and less a confusing mess that only a designer can make sense of. We are reminded that to see and make observations is to design.

“Making is seeing,” Nakamura says.

As Oyamada stated in the press release, sensitivity and imagination are the real outcome of “Design Ah!,” leaving us with a greater awareness and respect for the ability to invent new connections where once there were none. This is perhaps the greatest design asset of them all, and one that everyone can surely relate to.

“Design Ah!” at 21_21 Design Sight runs till June 2, with events are scheduled throughout exhibition period; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. ¥1,000. www.2121designsight.jp/program/design_ah.