Naoto Fukasawa: Between craft and design

by

Special To The Japan Times

Naoto Fukasawa is probably best known internationally for his designs for Muji, in particular for the wall-mounted CD player he created in 1999, which was featured in Gary Hustwit’s popular 2009 documentary “Objectified.” Now he remains a creative adviser for Muji, while still designing interiors, lighting and electrical objects for various international clients, including Artemide and Herman Miller / Geiger.

Though his philosophy — which focuses on observing the unconscious behavior of people and an appreciation of the “super normal” — has produced modern minimalist works that have won places in major museum collections (his Muji CD Player, Plus Minus Zero humidifier, and au/KDDI Infobar and Neon mobile phones, can be found in the New York Museum of Modern Art), it is basic human needs and traditional crafts that inspire the product designer. The experience of building his own weekend cabin from scratch in the forested mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture, he says, gave him a new perspective of design.

In 2012, Fukasawa was appointed as director of the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, which made him even more of an ideal choice for Yuji Akimoto, the director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, to invite him to plan the current “The Boundary Between Kogei and Design” exhibition. The show, which explores the relationship between contemporary design and kogei (crafts), aims to encourage visitors to appreciate how ambiguous the line between the two fields really is.

In a recent Skype interview, Fukasawa talked about his involvement in the displays.

Would you say you can define kogei as handmade, and design refers to mass-produced industrial goods? No, it’s not that simple. We have to think about other points. For kogei, the craftsperson is the person who makes it. (Though) sometimes the production is divided among more than one person.

In the case of design, the designer and the person who actually makes (the product) are different. On quite a few occasions, a machine, not a human, will make it. Such things are called industrial products. We also have to consider other elements, such as process, material, form, and sabi (changes over the years).

I drew a line in the middle of the museum’s exhibition room and decided that the left side of the line was the domain for kogei and the right for design.

In the first exhibition room, you place a copper tea caddy, a kitchen knife, a soy sauce pot, an iron kettle and a broom precisely on that dividing line. What is it that you want to show here? Such iconic everyday objects are usually handmade with the utmost care and passion of craftspeople. They are also so well designed that they are used and loved over long periods of time. I put these on the line because they are superb examples of both kogei and design.

Look at the Kaikado copper tea caddy. When you slide the lid over its opening, it moves down incredibly smoothly and slowly. One of the objectives of craft-making is to execute exquisitely meticulous work. This work of human hands comes very close to mechanical precision, but it still maintains warmth. Copper also changes in hue, deepening to dark brown over time because of its patina and tarnishing. These are characteristics of and part of the charm of kogei.

I heard some visitors arguing whether certain items were kogei or design. They didn’t seem to agree wholly with the location of some of the pieces. The exhibition’s aim is to have visitors ask questions without uncovering a clear answer. That may sound contradictory, but to me, as a designer who engages in monozukuri (the craftsmanship of making of things), there is actually no boundary between kogei and design. Both share the same spirit of creation and the only thing that matters to both is to make good things.

In actual life and society, however, people tend to classify things into art, craft and design, etc. They want to rank them according to category.

I drew a line between kogei and design to question it. As a style of presentation, the exhibition takes a confrontational craft versus design approach, and though this exhibition sets out to show a boundary, it’s (deliberately) vague and subjective. The aim is to shake up viewers’ perceptions by presenting such ambiguity.

That boundary seems to depend on the personal value of items. If such an intrinsic value is so significant, what do you think is the most important aspect of designing an item? To find an appropriate solution. Design consists in finding the right outline of the object in relation to its surrounding space. I think I design the ambience of a thing rather than an object.

An outline can be determined by various factors that make up the environment. This includes space, light, time, human emotion, behavior and lifestyle, as well as client requirements and brand philosophy.

My job is to contribute to and enhance the quality of daily life for the end-users by providing good things that are not only functional, but also match their life environments. All I want to do is to draw that appropriate outline, which I call the embodiment of the unseen.

By watching people and how they handled a wet umbrella, you came up with an umbrella stand that was actually just a groove in the floor of entrance halls. Is this an example of your concept of “Without thought”? The human body instinctively knows what is efficient and comfortable, what fits in its environment. I would like to reflect those unconscious solutions in my design.

“The Boundary between Kogei and Design” at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, runs until March 20. Entry is ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.kanazawa21.jp.