Old ways to break the mold of mass production

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

The simplicity of form and color on display at “Product Design Today: Creating ‘Made in Japan’ ” is undeniable. The ceramics are predominantly white, wooden items reveal natural grains, cast iron is kept jet black, contours are uncomplicated and there is not one single ostentatious embellishment.

For some, this is the quintessence of the Japanese aesthetic — clean, pure and natural. But globally, that’s not always how Japanese design has been viewed.

Modern industrial design first flourished in Japan during the 1980s, as the nation became synonymous with high-quality, high-tech products. The Sony Walkman and other electronics were coveted in America and Europe, Japanese cars held more than a third of the U.S. market, and at home, consumerism fed a manufacturing industry that successfully competed with Western counterparts.

The economy boomed, living standards rose and Japanese goods were everywhere.

But, as often happens with such sudden good fortune, it came at a cost. The demand for cheap, mass-produced items left traditional craftspeople, with their time-consuming and labor-intensive methods, in neglect. By the recession of the 1990s, local industries such as textiles, lacquerware, carpentry, ceramics and metalwork were all in rapid decline. Even now, as Japan becomes more socially and environmentally aware, handicrafts continue to struggle to compete with cheaper mass-produced alternatives.

In addressing the difficulties that traditional crafts face, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, has curated an exhibition that on the surface may appear unremarkable in its choice of everyday objects and utensils. But everything on display has been selected for a reason. These items were born from unusually close collaborations between well-known commercially successful designers and local manufacturers — and their mutual desire to revive traditional craftsmanship rather than simply utilize it.

Makoto Koizumi’s “Arita Houen” series of dishes, for example, is produced in Arita, Saga Prefecture, an area that takes pride in creating high-grade ceramics. To draw attention to the quality of the material, Koizumi purposely used minimalist forms that lack any embellishment. Similarly, his “Ishicoro-bon, corocoro-bon” trays, which take on unusual shapes based on the scraps of wood they are carved from, emphasize not only the natural beauty of the material, but also the ability of handcrafting to create true uniqueness.

On a more functional level, Kosei Shirotani focuses on design as a “social movement.” His “Coccio Quartetto” dishes are split into segments to encourage diners to share food with others, an idea inspired by research on redefining eating habits conducted by Kyushu University. Masanori Oji, too, sees design as an opportunity to “act as a medium through which people can become friends.” Not surprisingly, the tactile nature of his products is strongly informed by his close working relationships with craftspeople.

Perhaps the most visibly transforming use of traditional crafts, however, is that of textile designer Reiko Suda, who combines time-honored techniques with advanced technology to create entirely new kinds of fabric. These are often so unexpected and unusual that their structures dictate how they can be used. Her “Tanabata,” for example, a polyester organza, is pleated like origami before being heat-set and laser cut by hand to create a contemporary version of lace. For her “Washi-gaki,” she overlays velvet and washi paper from Fukui Prefecture with printing techniques from Shiga Prefecture as part of an innovative craft process to create a unique paper-cotton blend.

Mass production is here to stay, and if traditional crafts are to survive this seems best the way to do it — to create a new, specific demand for artisanal craftsmanship. By taking their cues from the craftspeople and letting age-old Japanese techniques guide contemporary design, these are products that are also “made in Japan” in every sense of the word.

“Product Design Today: Creating ‘Made in Japan’ ” is the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo’s special exhibition, which can be viewed for free with entry to the “Josef Koudelka Retrospective.” To view it alone, entry is ¥450. See the above review for museum details. www.momat.go.jp