Hidden away in an unlikely courtyard in Tokyo’s Yotsuya neighborhood is what may well be the world’s first design shop stocked only with products by a single product designer. The Yanagi shop was opened in 1972 by Sori Yanagi, the son of Mingeikan (The Japan Folk Crafts Museum) founder Soetsu Yanagi, who is often mentioned in this column.
Sori was raised on a visual diet of Japan’s leading ceramicists and craftsmen and attended his father’s lectures on the importance of handcrafted wares. Soetsu led a reactionary war against manufacturing during the early 20th century, at a time when mass production was about to convert Japan into an industrial giant. Sori, influenced by french furniture designer Charlotte Perriand while she was visiting Japan, had to reconcile his ambition to become a designer with his father’s strong opposition to all things manufactured.
He did so by handcrafting the models that would later be formed into useful household articles. In 2001 I had the good fortune to visit Sori at the Yotsuya studio where he had been working for 40 years. His old U.S. Army jeep, which he used for a similar amount of time, was parked outside the studio. Inside the compact space were two tables, one for meetings and design work; the other for creating models.
His skill for shaping things is evident in the way many of his products have resisted the normal effects of time. Though Sori passed away in 2011 at the age of 96, his creations continue to be stocked by discerning shops around the world.
A particular area he excelled in is kitchenware. He set a standard that many designers, including myself, struggle to match. Among those enduring articles of everyday life — kettles, saucepans, ceramics, cutlery and cast-iron pots — there is one that stands out: a stainless steel strainer that sits inside an identically shaped bowl. He designed the bowl in 1960 following a conversation with chef Tomi Egami and added the strainer in 1999 — sometimes, the simplest and greatest ideas manifest slowly.
Stainless steel was a relatively new material for kitchenware in 1960, and Sori was eager to get away from designing with plastic. The bowl was ideally shaped for mixing and for washing vegetables, but with the addition of the strainer it became more useful: You could wash the vegetables and lift them out in one go, or rinse and cool soba noodles. It is one of those kitchen tools that get taken out of the cupboard regularly.
In 2006 Naoto Fukasawa and I held an exhibition called “Super Normal” at Tokyo’s Axis Gallery in which we gathered exceptional examples of design, including this bowl and strainer. We were honored by a visit from Sori. He looked around, admiring a few things, and stopped at his bowl and strainer, commenting, “It’s beautiful, who did it?” with a twinkle in his eye.
We never found out if he was joking, or had simply forgotten that it was his own design.
For more information, visit www.designshop-jp.com/japan-onlineshop.