Tokyo’s rising tide of design

The time is ripe for creativity, says Masaki Yokokawa, a founding director of DesignTide

by Danielle Demetriou

Giant chairs, floating clouds and abstract boxes: forget anything as commercial as wanting to sell a product.

Hordes of creatives from all four corners of the globe are this week descending on Tokyo for the city’s annual Designers Week.

And firmly rooted at the more conceptual end of the spectrum is DesignTide Tokyo, whose presentation consists of an exhibition and market in Tokyo Midtown as well as “extension” events around the city.

More than 75,000 people visited DesignTide last year, which is continuing to carve a niche as a creative counterpart to the more commercially orientated 100% Design event.

As the fifth annual event opens this week, one of DesignTide’s founding directors, Masaki Yokokawa — also behind concept design store Cibone, a string of restaurants and Dean & Deluca in Japan — describes what makes the event tick, why burst bubbles trigger creativity and the identity of Japanese design.

What is DesignTide?

We are trying to build a new platform for the design industry focusing on independent and talented designers to connect them with manufacturers and retailers. The design movement in Japan has grown a lot in the past 10 years and we set up DesignTide because we felt the need to edit the market — and find the future of the design industry in the process.

What are the criteria for appearing in DesignTide?

Around 250 to 300 designers applied and we choose only 50 to feature in the exhibition. It’s a very difficult process choosing them. The directors — there are 11 of us — go through every single entry and we ask two questions. First, is this a new concept that has not been copied from anyone else? And then, is this a product that has not been sold or presented anywhere before?

What is the difference between DesignTide and the other main Designers Week event, 100% Design?

100% Design is a design product show. Design Tide is a design concept show. We are trying to exhibit the concept itself. The starting point should not be to build a profit. We select only independent designers so we do not usually allow companies to exhibit. It’s more purely focused on what design needs to be and what design can do.

How important is the setting and space of the exhibition?

The exhibition space itself is a very important platform to show what design should be moving toward. Exhibition halls are normally made like a little apartment with small rooms, each with the same space, and it’s very limited. This year, we are using a sort of rough cotton as designed by architect Makoto Tanijiri. There is no wall, no ceiling, no floor — but you can see the space, like a cloud. Structural engineer Hirofumi Ohno has also created a new monument at the entrance — a large chair showing the bare bones of design, something we usually don’t see.

Some standout examples in this year’s exhibition?

Sosuke Nakabo is a Japanese designer working in London with Jasper Morrison who has created minimalist conceptual stationery products. Jin Kuramoto, who used to work in mobile phones, has used industrial high-tech techniques to create a low-tech natural product: a glass vase.

How is the design scene different in Tokyo compared to other places?

The European market has a longer design history. Craft became design in Europe around the 1900s but it remained craft in Japan for much longer. Japan is at the beginning of its design history — but is now ready to move onto the second stage.

How would you define Japanese design aesthetics?

It’s difficult to describe wabi sabi in English. In Europe, something new means a new line or a new product. But for the Japanese, it usually means taking something off and finding a new shape from the reduced leftover. They take away something, and from that find a new style or concept. That’s what we’re learning from our food culture, kimono textiles or kanji writing. For the last 50 years, we have eaten steaks and listened to Western music and worn Western clothes and have been very empty and thirsty for something different. Now people are looking back to what we originally had — and creating a modern modification of what was here 50 years earlier.

How economically challenging is the current environment for designers?

I think it is a very hard time — which means that there is more time to focus on the more important work. I personally believe that this economic situation is better than a wealthy bubble economy because people are quieter and things go more slowly. You can focus on the more important things. In the creative world, you should only create what you have to create. During wealthy times, people create a lot of things that we do not need. Now, times are tight; we create things we only really need. That’s exactly the way design should be.

DesignTide Tokyo opens today (Oct. 30) until Nov. 3. For more information visit www.designtide.jp