Feeling designs

From cell phones to storefronts, Tokujin Yoshioka finds new ways

by Edan Corkill

‘Design is not just about making something, it is about designing the feelings of the person who uses it,” says Tokujin Yoshioka, sitting in his Daikanyama studio among magazine-laden shelves and prototypes in various stages of development.

“Complete design,” as Tokujin — commonly referred to by his first name — describes his user-encompassing approach, has won him many fans. Aged just 40, his talents extend from interiors and furniture, to products such as lamps and cell phones, and he already has four pieces in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Next month he will be named Designer of the Year at Design Miami, an international fair, and in March he will unveil his new store design for the luxury brand Swarovski in Ginza, Tokyo — a template that will be copied in the Austrian crystal-maker’s 750 shops worldwide.

If you’ve ever sat on one of his famed Honey-Pop armchairs, you’ll remember what it is like to have your feelings “designed” by Tokujin. You probably thought something like, “I can’t believe I’m sitting on a chair made of paper!”

The design process for the Honey-Pop began with a look at the history of the genre. “Newness and surprise are important, so I thought, what could I make new in the design of a chair?”

The result, which consists of sheets of paper joined so that they form a seat-shaped honeycomb structure when opened, is new for two reasons. First, “its structure has been designed,” by which Tokujin means he has developed the chair’s weight-bearing structural element from scratch by creating the honeycomb. In other chairs, designers generally utilize existing parts such as metal poles or planks of wood. Second, Tokujin touts the chair’s dual personality — it is flat (when delivered compressed) and also three-dimensional (when pulled open). In the seven years since Honey-Pop was produced, it has been acquired by no less than nine museums worldwide, including MoMA (in 2002) and Paris’ Pompidou Center (in 2003).

Now Tokujin is applying his user-first philosophy to the overhaul of Swarovski’s stores. “In Japan people have tended to associate crystal with an image of sumptuousness. I want them to come in and be struck by the simple beauty of the store,” he explains.

The new look, which will be unveiled at the opening of their flagship store in Ginza next March, will feature a facade of reflective, icicle-like steel poles forming a curtain above the entrance. Robert Buchbauer, the great, great grandson of founder Daniel Swarovski and the Consumer Goods Business division’s head, says that the attraction of Tokujin’s design was that “it is about light, transparency, weightlessness” — a perfect match for crystal.

“We see a strong influence of the old, but also the new Japanese culture, in Europe and also America,” Buchbauer says about designers such as Tokujin who are exerting an important influence on the West. A regular at international design events such as Design Miami and Milano Salone, Tokujin is used to being complimented for his Japanese aesthetic, even though “at first I didn’t really know what they meant.”

Raising the example of Honey-Pop, he says, “overseas, everyone seized on the fact that it was made of paper. They said it was like origami, because it extends. Actually, it’s not that I wanted to make a seat in paper, it just ended up that way. I looked at plastic and aluminum too.”

Tokujin believes it’s more a lack of national identity, if anything, that characterizes his generation of designers.

“Information comes so quickly on the Internet that rather than being from this or that country,” he says, “it’s more like we’re all working in one big market.”

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Design takes over on the phone

Since about 2000, Japanese designers such as Tokujin Yoshioka have found themselves riding a wave of popularity — particularly at home, where lifestyle magazines like Pen and Brutus seem to devote every third or fourth issue to their work. But the most visible example of the current boom has been the cell-phone market.

“Now people in their 30s and 40s are really sensitive to design and have good taste,” says Tokujin. “We’ve got to the point where people can no longer imagine a life without design.”

The first cell-phone company to recruit well-known designers to make their phones was KDDI’s au, which in 2002 launched their “au design project.” Many saw this as a bold attempt on the part of au to differentiate themselves from their competitor NTT DoCoMo. In 2002, they released their first concept models and had their first phone on the market in 2003: the candy bar-inspired infobar by longtime Muji collaborator, product designer Naoto Fukasawa. After the success of infobar, au followed up by developing a range of designer-phones including, in 2005, the concept model for Tokujin’s Media Skin.

In 2006, DoCoMo got in on the game when they launched the FOMA N702iD, a square-cornered phone resembling a credit card that was created by advertising-world star, art director Kashiwa Sato. Meanwhile, in January of this year, Tokujin’s Media Skin, then still at the concept stage, was added to the MoMA collection (along with three other au phones, including Fukasawa’s infobar). It went on sale to the public in March this year.

Tokujin puts phone companies’ sudden interest in design down to a problem of precedents.

“Companies tend to repeat what has been successful in the past,” he says. For a long time this meant that when “bad-looking things sold well,” there was no incentive for them to spend money on design. Now, he says, there has been a palpable change in society: “The general public has a more developed sense of beauty.”

“These days,” he says, “we have examples where well-designed products have succeeded on the market, so the cycle will continue.”
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Honey-Pop is not the only one of Tokujin’s works to be collected overseas. His latest contribution to MoMA is a prototype of Media Skin, the award-winning cell phone he made for the Japanese carrier au this year. The phone resembles an iPod at first, with about half its flat, rectangular surface taken up by a screen. The other half flips open, revealing a keypad. The phone illustrates Tokujin’s famed attention to detail: One story has him refusing to allow even a small speaker hole to ruin the otherwise uniform rim around the sides and top of the screen. (The speaker was eventually added, almost invisibly, in the form of a black indent at the top of the black screen.)

Tokujin’s stickler image gels perfectly with his neat, short haircut, modish dress sense and sharp glasses. That is not to say he’s bookish. In fact, he is noticeably more comfortable discussing materials and techniques than abstract theories — perhaps a result of his moving, in 1986, directly from the Kuwasawa Design School into the workforce at the young age of 19.

His first job was with the legendary designer Shiro Kuramata — a dream start afforded by him winning prizes in professional design competitions as a student. In 1988, Kuramata suggested that he work for fashion designer Issey Miyake, who was looking for non-fashion talent to bolster his product line.

Miyake was the biggest influence on his career. He started on accessories, enjoying the challenge of seeking out “special materials that fashion designers wouldn’t normally think of.” For one celebrated collection he used silicon to make hats shaped like water drops.

“I really wanted to work with Miyake, and people of his generation like costume designer Eiko Ishioka,” says Tokujin, who opened his own office in 2000. “I felt that generation had the power to open up the future. It was like they were saying, ‘We don’t know what design is, but we’re going to do it anyway!’ They found value in the act of challenging existing things.”

Something that differentiates Tokujin’s generation from that of his mentors is their attitude toward the environment. “I think there is an important responsibility associated with making anything. There is always the choice not to make.” This way of thinking prompted Tokujin to produce only limited editions of pieces such as Honey-Pop, and it also relates back to his theory of complete design.

“If you look back in history, people originally made things only for themselves, or for their community — people whose feelings they could understand intimately. I think we’re heading back in that direction,” he said.