If there’s anything that design has taught us in recent years, it’s that without it, the world around us would certainly be a much less interesting place.
The topic of design seems to be at the forefront of lifestyle-related coverage everywhere you look, and what used to be relegated to a fairly modest circle of enthusiasts has now entered the mainstream consciousness.
It’s not that anything has changed within the discipline itself, just that a recognition or realization of what design means to us, and how it can affect our daily lives, has never been more prevalent.
As part of this movement toward greater visibility of design and its effects, another welcome trend has been the growing influence of Japanese designers within the global design community.
High-profile projects from noted creators — as seen through architectural mega-projects such as Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2005 expansion and renovation of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Tadao Ando’s Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth — are setting the stage for a new creative identity that is not only attracting attention to those projects abroad, but also bringing the spotlight back to this country and the work that is shaping the Japanese design landscape.
Who exactly is contributing to this creative blossoming and bringing attention to the world of Japanese design? In an effort to answer this question, a roundup of 10 luminaries in the design field seems appropriate.
Defining the fields of design that should be covered was a challenge, and it was decided to omit architecture and fashion — categories that have already had their fair share of coverage — to focus on products and interiors, as well as graphics and art direction (with some of the included creators being no strangers to multidisciplinary projects).
Here then is a subjective list — this writer takes full responsibility for the omission of any favorites (rounding the list down to 10 was a task in itself) — of the top 10 designers (or units) whose strong impact on the current design landscape is impossible to ignore.
It would be hard to live in Japan and not be aware, even unconsciously, of the work of Kenya Hara. Spearheading annual ad campaigns for Muji — he’s also an adviser for the brand — his understated yet striking art direction is a staple of everything he has had a hand in creating. Throughout his branding work — as in the renewal project of the Matsuya department store in Ginza from a few years ago, or the visual identity for the Mori Building Company — a signature style shines through: White plays a major role, with every other graphic element forming a vivid contrast, creating a body of work that is immediately memorable.
Hara Design Institute Nippon Design Center; www.ndc.co.jp/hara/
Over the past few years, Naoto Fukasawa has become the giant in the room who you just can’t ignore. Winner of countless design awards (over 50, at last count), his is probably the name most likely to be mentioned when bringing up the topic of Japanese product design. Despite all this fame, his firm is relatively young (formed in 2003, after working eight years in the U.S. for design consultants IDEO, and then setting up a Tokyo office for them). From his hit creations for Au’s Design Project line of mobile phones (Infobar, NEON) to the now iconic wall-mounted CD player for Muji, and then as chief designer for the Plusminuszero brand of stylish electronics and accessories, Fukasawa is a force to reckon with, and his influence is not likely to fade anytime soon.
When it comes to pop graphics, Groovisions has certainly proved it knows how to deliver. Founded in 1993 by Hiroshi Ito, not only has the company produced an impressive collection of works in the commercial realm — their current work covers mostly CD packaging, promotional videos, fashion (they create regular T-shirt collections available for sale through their online 1788 store), and graphic-art direction — but they have also forged ahead with their own original designs, headed by the androgynous and constantly adaptable Chappie character, a fictional pop idol that has become the Groovisions figurehead. Star of not only merchandise and art exhibitions, Chappie has helped propel their graphic style to new heights of recognizability. They also recently collaborated with interior specialists Matt to renew trendy cafe Sign Gaienmae, covering the walls and ceiling with a playful landscape that overwhelms the senses.
Shuwa Tei (Intentionallies)
In the area of home appliances, one of the most celebrated brands in recent years has been the Amadana line of electronics and accessories. With such a successful collection behind him, it’s a wonder that Shuwa Tei, director of design studio Intentionallies, as well as one of the founders of REALFLEET, hasn’t had as much mainstream coverage as some of the other high-profile creators found in this list. With the Atehaca line for Toshiba, his first stab at product design, he was responsible for a fantastic collection of kitchen appliances that would only be topped by what he later created under the Amadana umbrella. With brilliant interiors Elike the Claska, Tokyo’s first true boutique hotel Eand a continued effort to push the boundaries of stylish design Eas seen with REALFLEET’s new Barouche line of hotel-only appliances ETei’s and Intentionallies’ continued impact are assured.
Masamichi Katayama (Wonderwall)
It would be very reasonable to state that no one has contributed more to Tokyo’s stylish retail reputation than Wonderwall’s Masamichi Katayama. Responsible for some of the most photographed retail spaces in the city, it would be next to impossible to put together a book covering innovative retail design without including any (if not all) of the stores he has designed for such brands as Hysteric Glamour or A Bathing Ape (BAPE) — he has even created the interiors for BAPE stores outside of Japan, including the Hong Kong and New York branches. There’s no mistaking interiors designed by Katayama Estructured and functional without sacrificing the stylish excesses that give his creations such a distinct flavor.
Chiaki Murata (METAPHYS)
For some, the fact that METAPHYS’ founder and chief designer Chiaki Murata has an engineering background will come as no surprise. The young company, founded by the Osaka-based Murata in 2005 (he is also the founder of the Hers Experimental Design Laboratory), is already gaining attention in select shops throughout the country with a growing collection of products that bring a sense of fun and innovation to their respective categories — from the Factory frames that provide a touch of indoor gardening, to the Hono Light, which lights up at the approach of a trigger “match.” Murata was also one of the designers behind Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox 360 console, and it’s this sort of mix between large clients and his own independent company that reveal an intriguing and engaging creator.
If you’ve spent any amount of time in Tokyo, chances are you’ve seen examples of Kashiwa Sato’s work. Campaigns for uberpop idol group SMAP, cans of Kirin beer, university rebranding (Meiji Gakuin University), and more recently the ID branding, including the logo, for UNIQLO’s upcoming American flagship store in New York, Sato is one of the most successful art directors working today, and even prompted design/culture magazine PEN to devote an entire issue to the man and his work, something usually reserved for creators of a more advanced age. Having started his career working in advertising, he continues to expand his body of work through the creative studio Samurai, which he founded in 2000.
Oki Sato (Nendo)
Based in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, not an area of the city usually associated with any sort of design scene, Nendo’s offices act as ground zero for its founder and director, Oki Sato, to bring forth his creative — and extensive — attack on the design landscape. If eclecticism, especially in the creative fields, can be seen as a negative, it’s hard to find fault in any of Sato’s wide range of works, be it in home furnishings (as in the lovely and playful Hanabi lamp), interiors for retail spaces (the Idea Frames select shop in Omotesando Hills being one of his latest), or through innovative architectural design (the Drawer House — coming to life one drawn-out component at a time — being a case in point). Sato builds on his wide range of inspirational verve by coming up with things that we suddenly feel we can’t do without.
Another name to reckon with, Taku Satoh could quite possibly be the poster boy for the Japanese design scene. A constant at design-related exhibitions and events, his package designs for such recognizable items at Xylitol gum and the omnipresent Meiji Oishii milk carton are already considered modern classics — in fact, any trip to your local convenience store will reveal a plethora of Satoh-designed staples. But even more exciting is the interest he has shown in developing his craft through various other endeavors, such as in his ground-breaking — and award-winning — work as director of NHK children’s television show “Nihongo de Asobu,” which features a really imaginative series of animated hiragana characters that help teach children how to read and pronounce words.
Studying under Shiro Kuramata and Issey Miyake is sure to have a lasting impact on any designer, and it certainly has in the case of Tokujin Yoshioka. Having established his own design office in 2000 after years of freelance work, he has continued his relationship with Miyake, and others, through the production of various exhibitions — his latest one was presented at the Milano Salone in the form of the “Tokujin Yoshioka x Lexus L-finesse” — and continues to wow us with innovative retail and space designs. He has also left his mark on the world of product design, as seen with his Honey Pop chair — now a permanent part of various design museum collections, and which led to the Tokyo Pop chair from Driade — and his TO watch for the Issey Miyake watch collection.