In the distant past, the ratio of manufactured goods to people was extremely low, so the tendency was for such products to be highly decorated and embellished. Since then the ratio has altered considerably in favor of the material objects. Now, most of us are inundated with a multitude of gadgets, gizmos, furnishings and fittings — all of which we have to cram into our crowded lives and limited living space.

Under these conditions, elaborate decoration has become increasingly obsolete. The changing goods-to-people ratio is ultimately what explains the trend toward a minimalist aesthetic in much of modern design — the need to maintain a feeling of simplicity in the face of an overwhelming proliferation of the material aspects of our lives.

The especially dense nature of life in Japan means that Japanese designers have made particular strides in this direction. These include Naoto Fukusawa, a multi-award-winning designer whose work forms the basis of the exhibition “The Outline: the Unseen Outline of Things” at 21_21 Design Site in Roppongi.

When you enter, what you actually see are chairs, light shades, bath fixtures, cell phones, toasters, etc. Indeed, an unkind critic might even liken it to a trip to IKEA. But Fukusawa’s designs are definitely a notch above the flatpack brigade, and this exhibition is custom designed to get us to take a real look at the beauty and aesthetic properties of everyday objects and accouterments that we perhaps take for granted.

The main trick used to achieve this is the involvement of the photographer Tamotsu Fujii, a well-known commercial photographer who has often worked with Fukusawa. Fujii’s photographs of products are displayed alongside the actual item, offering his interpretation while at the same time encouraging visitors to open their own minds to the objects and view them aesthetically.

The personal connection between designer and photographer, along with the fact that Fukusawa is one of the directors of 21_21 Design Site, sends out a vibe of design-world backslapping, something also apparent in the mutual eulogies in the exhibition catalog. But there is a clear affinity between the two men.

Although working in different mediums, their aesthetic sense runs in a similar direction. Fujii’s sparse, delicate, but often ambiguous photography serves to echo and amplify what Fukusawa does as a product designer. The photographs emphasize essentials and functionality at the expense of peripherals and clutter, a process that — playfully or unwittingly — occasionally adds an element of ambiguity in the deconstruction of the traditional identity of whichever item is on the drawing board.

A good example is Fukusawa’s desktop light “ITIS” for Artemide in which the iconic light globe of earlier designs has been flattened into a disk that perfectly corresponds to the disk forming the base. The base, however, is much heavier, something that both prevents the light tipping over and makes us think of “light” in its adjectival and weight-related sense. When viewing Japanese art and design, one often finds such hidden design puns.

Fukusawa also claims that deeper currents underpin his design approach. In language that struggles to sound profound, he writes in the catalog: “I believe that the aesthetics of Shinto have influenced me in no small measure. . . . The ethos of nature worship or of minimalism expounds the incongruity of the creation of artificial constructions that is out of keeping with natural providence; it invariably remonstrates about the conflict and contradictions inherent in engaging in the creation of things.”

In other words: Design can’t match nature — so the simpler the better. His well-known wall-mounted CD player for Mujirushi (known as Muji), which saved space by embedding the disc drive in the speaker, and his numberless watch for Issey Miyake, which used the dodecahedron shape of the watch face to demarcate the hours, show that Fukusawa obviously enjoys the simple act of stripping away features — especially ones that that were once considered essential. As long as function and usability are not impaired, the aesthetic dividend is a sense of freshness and simplicity that plays well in the cluttered cosmos of 21st-century Japan.

Fujii’s photos of these designs seem to perform exactly the same function, though photographic simplification and deconstruction of object identity doesn’t have the potentially negative drawbacks that product design can sometimes have. With photography, the stakes are lower but the artistic freedom all the greater. Fujii’s photographs are therefore able to further Fukusawa’s militant minimalist agenda.

His photograph of the Artemide “ITIS” desktop light perfectly expresses this, emphasizing the equivalence of the two disks and in the process creating an image that looks rather like a dumbbell, a punning symbol of heaviness to play against the idea of “light.”

“The Outline: The Unseen Outline of Things” at 21_21 Design Sight runs till Jan. 31; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (closed Tue.); admission ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.2121designsight.jp

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