Slow design: Everyday objects that make us rethink our lifestyle

by Alice Gordenker

Special To The Japan Times

If you’ve never been to the 21_21 Design Sight exhibition space in the Tokyo Midtown complex, and have even a passing interest in craftsmanship, now is the time to pay a visit. Just touring the building, which was designed by famed architect Tadao Ando and lies largely underground, would be well worth the admission price. But through Aug. 26, you can also enjoy a film presentation and exhibition that show — beautifully — the care that can go into making “everyday” objects.

Titled “Tema Hima: the Art of Living in Tohoku,” the exhibition is a collaboration led by two of Japan’s top designers. Graphic designer Taku Satoh and product designer Naoto Fukasawa traveled for three months in northern Japan, with a photographer, a journalist, two film artists and an expert in food branding. Their goal was to find inspiration for the future of design by examining the tema (effort) and hima (time) traditionally devoted in Tohoku to making things.

Although many of the objects selected for the exhibition are beautiful, for the most part they were not made by famous artists and artisans. Most of the exhibits are anonymous products created by regular people for everyday use. Many, for example, are foods. By encouraging the viewer to slow down long enough to really look at the objects, and consider the effort that went into creating them, the exhibition reveals their hidden beauty. It also challenges the modern notion that quick and convenient is better.

“The time has come to reconsider the pursuit of ease and convenience,” Fukasawa says in a statement in the exhibition materials. By expending the time and effort to make things slowly, he says, people can get “back into harmony” with themselves and their environment.

Be sure to allow yourself a good half hour to watch the film presentation, which is placed at the entrance to the exhibit, because it does a very good job of setting the tone for the rest of the show. It’s a continuous screening of seven film shorts, each three to five minutes long, so you don’t have to time your arrival to a specific starting time. You can sit down and start watching whenever you arrive.

Each of the shorts focuses on one product, ranging from Aizu Momen, a traditional cotton textile made in Aizu Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture, to hand-forged pruning shears hammered out individually by a craftsman in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture. Even apple crates and deep-fried wheat gluten get celebrity treatment in these hauntingly beautiful and often deeply moving pieces by Tom Vincent and Yu Yamanaka, all shot in the harsh northern winter.

The exhibition itself has been strikingly designed by Fukasawa with graphics by Satoh and photographs throughout by Yusuke Nishibe.

“Tema Hima: the Art of Living in Tohoku” at 21_21 Design Sight runs till Aug. 26. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Tuesdays.