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“In Japan, craft is not limited to, or exclusively, handmade. It is as much a mindset as a physical act,” says American architect and writer Naomi Pollock in the introduction to “Japanese Design Since 1945,” a comprehensive overview of postwar Japanese designers and products.

Japanese Design Since 1945, by Naomi Pollock
Translated by Rei Kitakawa
448 pages
KAWADE SHOBO SHINSHA

Today, aspects of Japanese design — from the clean lines and muted palettes of products from “no name” brand Muji to the Sony Walkman and sharp folds in any Pleats Please Issey Miyake garment — are recognizable to even a layman, and so it comes as a surprise to learn that, while dedication to craft and monozukuri (“making things”) have always been part of the artisan’s mindset, the concept of contemporary design (as perceived in the West, at any rate) itself was virtually unknown in the country before World War II.

Around the 1920s, the Japanese government began to actively research what products might do well for export, hosting notable designers from abroad such as French architect Charlotte Perriand. However, the need to divert materials and manpower to the military’s war effort stymied further development until 1945, when the American Occupation presented Japan with the trimmings of a new lifestyle. Department stores acted as tastemakers to an avid public, while young Japanese designers headed overseas to learn from experts in Europe and the United States, returning with bold ideas that combined aspects from the East and West. The bubble economy of the 1980s and subsequent crash provided new challenges — and opportunities — for Japanese design to come into its own.

Scene-stealer: The Miss Blanche chair, inspired by the character Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams' play 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' was designed by Shiro Kuramata in 1988. |
Scene-stealer: The Miss Blanche chair, inspired by the character Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’ play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ was designed by Shiro Kuramata in 1988.

Though this historical context provides a broad framework, Pollock — who was inspired, in part, by Japan’s lack of public design museums or archives — takes a consciously designer-forward approach to her compendium, electing to focus on the people behind the products and illuminating the “forces at play in their creative process.”

“It’s always a challenge when you’re presenting a body of Japanese information to a Western audience, because a lot of the time the names aren’t known,” Pollock says during a video interview. “That’s even true in Japan … a lot of people may know the products, but they don’t know the designers.”

“Japanese Design Since 1945” is split into seven chapters. The first chapter is taken up by “The Design Titans,” those designers whose “impact and influence has been extremely broad and affected different aspects of the design world,” according to Pollock; you may already know of Issey Miyake or Yusaku Kamekura (of Tokyo’s 1964 Olympic graphics fame). Subsequent sections are organized by category — “Tables & Chairs,” “Food & Drink,” “On & Off,” “Promotion & Packaging,” “Warp & Weft” and “Lifestyle & Leisure” — and profile designers who have made particular contributions to those sectors. Scattered throughout are guest essays by designers, historians and curators and what Pollock dubs “Everyday Icons,” items of particular cultural significance and ubiquity that have stood the test of time.

While “Japanese Design” can be read cover to cover, Pollock says she “envisioned (the organization of the book) like walking into a design store. Where you’d have the tableware over here, and the furniture over there, and the textiles on the other side.” In other words, feel free to browse as you please.

Flipping through the pages, you may be struck by a name of note, or perhaps an intriguing item that inspires you to pause and read up on its creator. Particular emphasis is placed on the craftsperson’s mentality: Even if a product is produced in a factory setting, decisions are guided by the designer’s hand and eye, and techniques and know-how are passed down from one generation to the next. “Even if it’s not literally how materials are fashioned or how wood is detailed … (the mentality) has become part of the Japan design industry in many respects,” Pollock says.

Bag of tricks: Ceramic Japan Co.’s Crinkle series Super Bag, a flower vase designed by Makoto Komatsu, is one of the items featured in Naomi Pollock’s book, 'Japanese Design Since 1945.' |
Bag of tricks: Ceramic Japan Co.’s Crinkle series Super Bag, a flower vase designed by Makoto Komatsu, is one of the items featured in Naomi Pollock’s book, ‘Japanese Design Since 1945.’

Drawing on interviews with the designers, their colleagues and family members, as well as noted art critics, each of Pollock’s 70-plus profiles is easily digestible, providing enough information to feel substantial, but without getting bogged down in minutiae. She’s also upfront about the limited number of female designers, acknowledging their rarity in postwar Japan (though additional blurbs about several up-and-comers, such as textile designer Yuri Himuro, are included in the “A-Z of Designers” index in the back).

What truly makes “Japanese Design” a treat is its over 700 visuals. Painstakingly collected and impeccably arranged on the page, the book itself is beautifully designed. And don’t skip over the captions! Pollock drops interesting tidbits that will alter how you view the most quotidien of items — the classic shape of the Yakult yogurt drink’s bottle, for instance, was inspired by traditional wooden kokeshi dolls.

What’s clear throughout the book is the importance of the relationship between creator, consumer and living environment — it’s why so many of the designers and objects included remain household names and staples in Japan and, increasingly, around the world.

“In Japan, there is a belief that if you love something, if something really functions well, you’re just going to keep using it. You’re not going to throw it away and replace it,” Pollock says. “It’s the idea that (designers) could create things that are so loved people want to keep using them. To me, that is the highest form of environmental consciousness.”

Thoughtfully curated and beautifully presented, “Japanese Design Since 1945” illuminates why Japanese design has gained such global recognition.

“There’s a tactility about Japanese goods,” Pollock says. “They feel good in the hand, it feels good to sit in them, and that’s something that has this very universal appeal; you don’t have to be Japanese to understand and appreciate that.”

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