Akiyuki Sasaki sits among his furniture creations — sofas, chairs, tables, all natural woods, clean lines and minimal forms with a nature-inspired palette of textiles — that at first sight feel unquestionably Japanese.
Yet there are subtle clues that this is no conventional Japanese brand, as the designer explains while picking up a small oak stool and running a finger along its gently curved sides.
“See this H-shape?” he asks. “It was inspired by a very old Chinese coin dating back thousands of years, which I saw in the National Museum (of China) in Beijing. My furniture has a lot of soft, flowing lines inspired by the Qing (1636-1912) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.”
The stool is just one of many examples of Chinese-inspired designs showcased in Ikasas, a furniture brand set up by Sasaki three years ago. The pieces mix inspiration from China’s rich cultural heritage with qualities so often found in Japanese design — a natural, minimal aesthetic, craftsmanship, high quality materials and attention to detail.
And Sasaki is not alone. China is emerging as a rich source of creative inspiration for a growing number of contemporary Japanese designers, thanks to its dynamic design scene and a new generation of Chinese creatives shaking up the status quo with raw-edged innovation. Testament to this is the presence of a string of Japanese names — from Muji’s cult art director Kenya Hara to architect Shuhei Aoyama — peppering a flurry of recent high-profile design events in Beijing, a city in the throes of a creative renaissance. Even one of the best design hotels, The Opposite House, was created by a top Japanese name: Kengo Kuma.
Sasaki’s Ikasas was one standout exhibitor at Design China Beijing, a major new trade fair (and sister event to the wildly popular Design Shanghai) organized by Media 10 Ltd. The event launched last month, showcasing 92 exhibitors in the city’s National Agricultural Exhibition Center.
It was 15 years ago that Tokyo-born Sasaki, now 37, traveled to China for the first time while working with his late uncle Toshimitsu Sasaki, an acclaimed Japanese designer. It was a trip that would have a far-reaching impact on his life.
“I was visiting a factory in Shanghai,” says Sasaki, whose creations have already won accolades, including a Kids Design Award. “And I had assumed that China and Japan would have a lot in common — but I was deeply struck by how very different they are from one another. Since then, I’ve visited many museums across China and I am very inspired by what I’ve seen.”
A growing passion for China led Sasaki to set up the furniture brand Ikasas, with a philosophy he describes as “complexity in brevity” as inspired by “oriental aesthetics.”
Sasaki’s interior furniture collections — minimal pieces in natural oak and walnut woods — are manufactured at a factory in Dalian, in southern Liaoning Province, and, aside from occasional pieces available at the lifestyle goods store Actus in Japan, they are mainly sold in China.
“In the past, Japanese and Chinese have had different taste in furniture,” says Sasaki, who also opened a concept space “930 lifestyle store” in Shanghai last year. “For most Chinese, there was this idea that the bigger, the better, whereas Japanese have often found elegance in simplicity. Now, as a growing number of Chinese travel overseas and broaden their horizons, there is perhaps growing appeal for similar tastes and styles as in Japan.”
For Japanese architect Aoyama, it was a sense of creative curiosity that initially led to his first visit to Beijing 15 years ago, shortly after graduating from university in Tokyo.
“A lot of architects had just started to become interested in Beijing, because of the Olympic Games and big name projects such as the Birds Nest (Olympic Stadium), CCTV Headquarters, National Theatre (National Centre for the Performing Arts),” he says. “I just wanted to see what was happening in the city, so I decided go to Beijing on an internship.”
As with Sasaki, it proved to be a fateful trip. Tapping into the energy of a city in a state of dynamic flux, today Aoyama runs the Beijing-based company B.L.U.E Architecture Studio, while living in a traditional hutong home in the heart of the city.
Highlights of B.L.U.E Architecture Studio’s oeuvre include the renovated Lost and Found furniture boutique in Beijing, a serene, minimal space of glass, wood and traditional gray roof tiles centered around an inner courtyard in a historic district of the city. Meanwhile, a tall box-like structure with a glass facade currently sits just meters from Beijing’s iconic Olympic Stadium as part of the innovative “House Vision 2018” exhibition of architecture, as curated by Kenya Hara.
Commenting on wildly contrasting creative climates in Japan and China, Aoyama says: “In Japan, the economy has been bad for decades and the population is declining. More and more houses are vacant and cities are shrinking, so Japanese designers are thinking about how to shrink. In China, the economy is still growing, cities are still growing, and designers need to think about how to control expansion.”
He added: “I think in China, people and society are just starting to realize the value of design. More and more people and enterprises are starting to place emphasis on design. On the contrary, in Japan, more and more people seem to be uninterested in design.”
With new-generation talents energetically redefining the “Made in China” label, it was perhaps only a matter of time before China emerged as a major source of inspiration for young global designers, according to Ross Urwin, the creative director of Design China Beijing.
“What does ‘Made in China’ mean today?” he asks. “For me, it means amazing quality, amazing innovation. It is the opposite of everything that in the past people criticized China for. Things have changed completely.
“If you go to any of the design shows here, you see such creativity. I love the fact that most designers are now looking toward their history and their heritage.”