Innovation abounds at Tokyo Designers Week

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

If ever proof was needed of the efficacy of Tokyo Designers Week, the annual designers’ trade show currently under way at Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Gaien park, then it is apparent at booth D14, where designer Atsuhiro Hayashi is showing his wares.

In 2009, just months after establishing his own design office in Osaka, Hayashi came to that year’s edition of TDW, rented a booth and exhibited a prototype of a product he had designed: a mold that could make ice cubes resembling tiny glaciers with a polar bear standing on top. The ice cube would melt, the hapless bear would disappear, and the drinker would be reminded of the issue of climate change.

Hayashi’s objective in coming to TDW two years ago was to connect with a manufacturer who could produce the item, and he succeeded. Among the 60,000 visitors who filed through the event’s booth-filled tent that year were representatives of Tokyo-based company Monos, who decided “polar ice” was worth a try.

“It took a long time to find a factory that could produce soft enough silicon so that the mold could be removed without breaking the bear,” Hayashi tells The Japan Times. “But we found one, and just this year Monos started selling the product. I came to TDW this year to show everyone that the prototype I had here two years ago has actually been turned into a product.” Hayashi is a TDW success story.

The current edition of TDW, which is now in its 26th year, features the booths of some 200 designers and manufacturers, along with a large section for design students to show off their latest creations and various projects focusing on the Tohoku region and the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake. “Container exhibits” feature various projects by corporations, individual designers and students. And there is also an art fair and exhibition, and an event “dome” where concerts and forums are being held. TDW continues through Nov. 6.

Just as Hayashi was in search of a manufacturer two years ago, most of the exhibitors this year have clearly defined goals that they hope to achieve. And those desires seem to translate into a palpable buzz that fills the venue.

“We’re aiming to find retailers and also improve awareness of our lamps among the public,” explains Takeshi Yamamoto of Nissho Telecom Corporation, a Saitama Prefecture-based company that has only recently started designing its own products — as opposed to manufacturing others’.

He holds up an elegantly simple lamp, called the Tubelumi, the steel base of which seems to run seamlessly into a straight cold-cathode fluorescent tube; the arm can be twisted and turned at almost invisible pivots. He says his company, which was started by his father, is hoping to place the lamps in shops in Tokyo.

Another exhibitor looking to attract the attention of retailers is Shizuoka Prefecture-based Design Memorable, who has brought along toilet-paper rolls wrapped in printed paper to make them resemble tree trunks.

“The idea is obviously to remind people that toilet paper comes from trees,” Memorable’s Kiyomi Ogasawara explains, before adding that he is also interested in designing a process as opposed to just a product. The paper used in the actual toilet roll is all recycled and 5 percent of sales from the rolls is donated to More Trees, a project for reestablishing forests that was started by musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.

“If these are used in a restaurant or something then the customers will be made aware that the operator is supporting those efforts,” Ogasawara explains. He also mentions that for designers like himself, who are based “out in the countryside,” TDW offers an important opportunity to come and show their works in Tokyo. “Tokyo is the biggest market,” he adds.

Many designers travel from even further afield to test themselves and their products against the Tokyo crowd.

Lisa Pindel came all the way from Norway, where she works as a fashion and accessories designer. Having set up her own company last year, the German native specializes in “salmon leather” — purses and bags made from the skin of salmon.

“I have a lot of friends who are Japanese and I have been here before. They suggested that my designs might be well received over here,” she says.

“A lot of people are surprised that I am able to make bags from salmon leather. They assume it’s cowhide that has been printed to look like salmon,” she explains. But, she continues, when they realize their mistake, they become fascinated.

Chicago-based Jess Griffen and Jim TerMeer explain that they like bringing their more experimental products to Japan — because “the quality of the design audience is so high over here.”

This year, the pair have brought over a new series called “Sugar Frames,” which are made by placing plastic spectacle frames, cameras, watches or other objects into a sugar solution so that crystals form around them. “We wondered if we couldn’t ‘grow’ products,” explains Griffen.

The crystal-covered objects are eventually scanned and then printed in plastic using a 3-D printer.

“If you were to display something like this in New York, they’d be like, ‘Oh, sugar,’ and then they’d be off chasing the latest celebrity designer. Here, they ask questions about the details — the sizes of the crystals and so on,” TerMeer said.

The presence of foreign designers at this year’s TDW was an unexpected boon for Kenji Kawasaki, the chairman of the Design Association, which organizes the event. At a press conference earlier this year he explained that March 11 and the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant threatened to cause the cancellation of the entire event.

“We have always had a lot of exhibitors from overseas, and if we lose them then the event itself will cease to be feasible,” he said. Nevertheless, he decided that even without foreign participants, or with far fewer than normal, he should push ahead. “We decided that the simple act of continuing events like this is important.”

This year’s show designer, German-born, Tokyo-based architect Florian Busch, echoes that sentiment. “I remember saying to Kawasaki back in early April that we have to go ahead with the event,” he tells The Japan Times. “We have to be a part of the rebuilding.”

Busch has not only created a clever layout for the entire show — which allows for variously leveled booths to break up the large tent space and a pathway-cum-corridor-galleries around its perimeter to help with navigation — but he has also designed a special exhibit space for the Organization for Small and Medium Enterprises and Regional Innovation, Japan (SMRJ), an Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry-affiliated group.

Picking up on the idea of TDW being a showcase for rebuilding Tohoku, the SMRJ exhibit space, called “Tohoku to the Future,” showcases the works of small to medium-size enterprises operating in that region of northeastern Honshu. Lacquerware-makers, cotton-producers and makers of traditional washi paper are just some of the many enterprises whose products are dotted throughout a space that Busch has created to resemble a forest.

“A lot of Japanese people don’t even realize the variety of the products that are made in the Tohoku region, so with this exhibit the idea is that they are able to ‘discover’ those products in this forestlike display,” explains SMRJ representative Kyo Ikeda, who is manning the display during the event.

TDW organizer Kawasaki has approached this year’s event with the same vigor and willingness to experiment as with past TDWs. This year he has added various musical performances and has also further bolstered the show’s fine-art elements — with exhibits by galleries in the G-Tokyo group (which runs an art fair each spring). There is also a separate exhibit curated by Sueo Mitsuma of Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo.

“After doing this for over two decades I have come to the conclusion that design alone is not sufficient to capture the attention of the public,” Kawasaki said at the press conference earlier this year.

But, with the strength of the designs on display and also their immediate adaptability into everyday life — many items can be purchased then and there — it seems difficult to believe that that could really be the case.

Another exhibit that seemed to stem directly from the experience of March 11 was that of the students from Tokyo Metropolitan University’s Faculty of System Design. Like many design faculties from around the country, the TMU students created works especially for TDW, and they have their own booth to show them off.

The TMU students’ works are on the theme of “connections,” which seemed a clever riff on the idea of kizuna, or of the bonds between people, which has been a recurring theme in postquake recovery efforts. Koki Yoshida has made a series of chairs consisting of diagonal slats. When the chairs are placed next to each other the diagonal slats line up making the appear to join seamlessly ? it’s impossible to tell if you’re looking at two separate chairs or a long bench.

Tokyo Designers Week 2011 continues through Nov. 6 at Meiji Jingu Gaien in Tokyo. Admission is ¥2,500 for adults. For more information, visit www.tdwa.com.