Designs on love, dreams and fun

by C.B. Liddell

The 20th century, with its emphasis on war and mass industrialization, favored the functionalism of modernism in architecture, design, and other areas. This saw such elements as decoration, embellishment, playfulness and humor pushed to the sidelines in design. The rise of a more consumerist economic system later in the century, however, created the chance for these elements to make a comeback.

One of the important movements that responded to this aesthetic challenge was the Memphis Group, a collection of like-minded designers, whose only connection to Memphis was that Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” provided the background music to the group’s first meeting.

The latest exhibition at the 21—21 Design Sight museum in Roppongi takes a look at this important Postmodernist movement through the relationship between two of the group’s key members, the Austrian-born Italian designer, Ettore Sottsass, and the Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata.

“The message of the exhibition is that functionality is not the only purpose for design,” explains the museum’s PR manager, Miryon Ko. “You need love and dreams for design as well.”

Humor is also important, as many of the items, which include furniture, utensils, packaging, and objet d’art, reveal both designers’ keen wit and playful approach to design.

For example, greeting visitors at the museum’s entrance is “Carlton (Memphis)” (1981), one of the first pieces Sottsass created for the group. This is a large, colorful, wooden piece of furniture with an anthropomorphic and almost childlike design, whose function is not immediately obvious. After a few seconds, it hits you that it’s basically a bookshelf, with the gap between perception and understanding working rather like comic timing.

This is one of the few contemporary Sottsass pieces in the exhibition, although, as a tribute to the designer, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 90, the show also features a stunning array of glass objects made posthumously from his final designs.

These are the designer’s re-imagining of kachinas, animist spirit beings in the culture of Pueblo Indians of the South Western United States. Often represented by small wooden or clay statues, they can represent either ancestors or aspects of the natural world. Reflecting this ambiguity, kachinas can be human-shaped or more abstract, something that can also be seen in Sottsass’ designs.

“When he stayed in the U.S., he went to [the modernist designer] George Nelson’s house and he found some Kachinas by native Americans,” explains Ko. “He did the drawings for these in a small sketchbook three years before he died, and he started to work with his colleagues on the prototypes. But the 20 pieces here have been realized for this exhibition. They are really new, and we can say that they are some of the last works by Sottsass.”

Created long after the Memphis Group disbanded in 1988, the kachinas nevertheless express Sottsass’ design ethos and point to its success. Although nonfunctional objects, the size, compactness and sleek surfaces of the objects almost convince the viewer that they have some hidden functionality — perhaps the final joke of a master designer!

How Memphis impacted design can be better seen in the rest of the exhibition, which focuses on Kuramata’s designs through the 1980s to his death in 1991. Rather than a complete rejection of modernism, the group’s aesthetic tried to re-interpret and develop modernism’s conventional design, allowing materials to express themselves more decoratively and unleashing some of the hidden absurdities of geometry.

Kuramata’s steel pipe and fabric “Sofa with Arms” (1982) is still very much in the realm of the stylish and functional, but his “Three-legged Chair A” from the same year and “Umbrella Stand” (1985) show elements of Postmodernist humor — deadpan in the first case, surreal in the second.

Kuramata’s attitude to modernism is perhaps best demonstrated by his “Homage to Josef Hoffman, Begin the Beguine” (1985). For this work he started with a wooden chair by the modernist furniture designer Josef Hoffman, had it wrapped in thin steel rods and then burned, leaving a mind-boggling, chrome-plated ghost image of the original chair in steel — an item that manages to both respect and mock modernism at the same time.

Of particular interest is Kuramata’s constant experimentation with materials. Examples of this include shattered glass sandwiched between sheets of intact glass used to create tables; metal sheets pierced and stretched to create a strong, weblike material shaped into table legs, chairs, and shop surfaces; and “Star Piece,” a smooth, safe material made from a mixture of broken glass and cement with plenty of visual texture.

Including elements of destruction within their essential design, these materials not only poke gentle fun at the implicit perfection of modernism, but will no doubt resonate strongly with an audience slowly recovering from the Great Tohoku Earthquake.

“Kuramata Shiro, Ettore Sottsass” at 21_21 Design Sight runs till May 8; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. (these limited opening hours are temporary, please check website for updates), closed Tue. For more information, visit