Making physical connections with people, whether via large-scale events and spaces or design concepts, and a continued celebration of traditional crafts, appeared to be a key direction for design in Japan this year.

“2018 was the year Japan embraced the idea of ‘shared space’ — designer shared space. WeWork has popped up in many obvious locations, but lots of other amazing shared spaces opened quickly, even in other parts of the country, such as Salt in Fukuoka,” says Mark Dytham of Klein Dytham architecture, one of the founders of Designart, Tokyo’s annual design and art festival.

“New hotels and hostels that embraced the idea of shared spaces and facilities have also opened, like The Millennials ‘hotel’ in Shibuya. Across the road, Hotel Koe Tokyo opened with a shared restaurant and cafe. A kind of first for Japan. Shibuya Stream Excel Hotel Tokyu, which opened in October, has continued this trend, where its lobby and restaurant are a part of the overall bustling retail experience.”

Hotel Koe Tokyo — which markets itself as a “lifestyle brand” hotel and brings together a bakery, cafe, event space and a shop floor housing Japanese-designed clothing and products — was followed by the opening of Nohga Hotel in Ueno, which openly supports Japanese design and craft by commissioning its amenities from local artisans. Nohga also hosts workshops showcasing the same industries, which include Kimoto glassware and Syuro metalware, to introduce them and the local community to visitors.

Such attention to provenance has been integral to much Japanese design, with the Interior Lifestyle Tokyo fair (IFFT) annually promoting regional booths featuring designer collaborations with local crafts. Highlights this year included a focus on production techniques and skill, rather than aesthetics, being reflected in everyday items in an exploration of new classic designs, or “standards.”

Yuki Ishiguro of Asemi, a co-winner of the IFFT Young Designers Award, for example, points out that his and colleague Lars Amhoff’s Asemi cups — which are identical in shape but are produced by different potteries across Japan — purposely direct users’ attention to their makers.

“We try not to put ourselves too much into focus, but rather the people who produce our products and the culture behind it,” he says of Asemi, which highlights the textures of different traditional ceramic styles as part of its main appeal.

For those wanting to see similar craft-related design before the year is out, lifestyle brand D&Department’s new series of D47 Museum exhibitions “Long Life Design,” which began this month, point to another growing development related to the prevalent respect for time-honored production techniques: the shift from artistic fads of mass-produced items to a focus on the longevity of design aesthetics. For the ongoing exhibition, D&Department — which specializes in promoting culture from all 47 prefectures of Japan — selected a range of contemporary everyday items that it believes will stand the test of time, all produced by local textile makers, ceramicists, woodworkers and more.

21_21 Design Sight’s current exhibition, “Mingei: Another Kind of Art,” directed by industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, also celebrates everyday objects by looking back at traditional mingei (folk art) works that continue to inspire designers, while introducing contemporary artisans and their reinterpretations of handicraft.

Though much of this sounds provincial, since Tokyo won the 2020 Olympic bid, Japanese design has also enjoyed the limelight internationally, with both independent and government support. The past year has been exceptional.

Recent major overseas events included the “Japonismes” series of art and design showcases in Paris and the openings of Japan House, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiative to promote all Japanese culture through permanent overseas hubs. Conceived by a team of high-profile architects and designers and creatively directed by Kenya Hara, the first Japan House launched in Sao Paulo in 2017. This year two more opened: one in Los Angeles, spatially designed by Junji Tanigawa, and another in London, with interior design by Masamichi Katayama of Wonderwall.

Back in Japan, up-and-coming designers found an international stage in their own backyard with Designart 2018. The Tokyo fair, only in its second iteration, garnered a significant amount of overseas press, with journalists picking up on young designers’ work, commenting on international collaborations, unusual uses of traditional craftsmanship, and a shift from the perhaps cliched perception of Japan’s minimalist aesthetic to more striking designs in bolder palettes.

Some of the most popular works included artist Noritaka Tatehana’s eye-catching collaboration with Italian furniture company Gervasoni, Yuri Himuro’s colorful Bloom collection of double-faced textiles and Baku Sakashita’s wire and washi (Japanese paper) geometric lighting.

“Recent design based on small production integrates ‘design and craft’ or ‘design and art,’ which appears to counter the mechanization (of mass production) to recover the human side of design,” says Sakashita about contemporary design in Japan. “As a Japanese designer, I practice my work based on this principle. I think that the trend is now occurring globally as well.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.