When visitors dropped by Francfranc Forest in Omotesando during the Designart fair in Tokyo last October, many couldn’t help but linger at a mesmerizing array of delicate white geometric shapes. As they marveled at the suspended forms and the ethereal shadows they cast, the designer, Baku Sakashita, stepped over to shed more light on the spectacle. The subtly swaying installations were not merely decorative, he explained; they were, in fact, lamps, lit from above by tiny lights in discreet brass fittings.
This Suki series of lights, he told visitors, was a reverent deconstruction of Akari lamps, a famous work of Isamu Noguchi, one of the forefathers of contemporary Japanese design. In Sakashita’s re-interpretation, Noguchi’s large washi (Japanese paper) 3D forms become small translucent circles and squares, his bamboo frames are alluded to by thread-like wire, and instead of emitting a glow from within, LEDs illuminate the Suki works externally.
Such bald referencing of a well-known classic is an unusual admission for a designer, but in an interview at his Tokyo studio a few months after Designart, Sakashita reveals that he himself is an unusual artisan with an unexpected background.
“I was a doctor for five to six years,” he says, describing how he also spent over a decade building a career as a radiologist.
“I actually wanted to be a watchmaker when I was in high school, though,” he adds with a laugh. “So it’s sort of come full circle.”
Sakashita grew up in Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture, a city famous for carpentry, lacquerware and ceramics, and an area that played an important role in the mingei (folk crafts) movement led by Soetsu Yanagi. Though he says it was natural for him to be interested in crafts and design — he even made his own art objects — he chose to pursue medicine at Hokkaido University.
“There are a lot of Isamu Noguchi and Yasuda Kan sculptures in Sapporo, and I went to Noguchi’s Moerenuma Park, not really thinking about design at the time,” he recalls. “But I knew that Noguchi had gone to Columbia University to study medicine before he became a sculptor, so (even back then) I was conscious of that way of thinking.”
As he gestures toward a copy of Masayo Duus’ “Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey without Borders” placed on his studio table, he adds, “There’s a lot of biographical information in here. Reading about Noguchi’s decision to make that leap, that shift — that was inspiring.”
Now a graduate of Tokyo’s Musashino Art University, which he attended while still working as a radiologist, and of the Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL) in Switzerland, Sakashita admits that changing careers involved “a huge mental leap.” His father, he says, was against it, fearing that it was a vocation that he couldn’t make a living from.
But less than two years after graduating ECAL, Sakashita is already garnering media attention, especially overseas. His Suki lights, released in 2018, have impressed a number of design publications — including Architectural Digest, Elle Decor and Wallpaper*. Some of the works will also be featured in this year’s Milan Salone SaloneSatellite upcoming collaboration with the online WallpaperStore*.
“In Japan, less people want to buy something that is half art, half design — bespoke works,” he explains when comparing local and overseas interest. “In Europe, limited editions and one-offs are more popular and there are a lot of craftspeople and artists (making products). I relate to and prefer that concept of you design, you make it, you sell it.”
Noguchi — Sakashita reminds us — worked in a similar manner: “He was making sculptures. The Akari works happened to be illuminated sculptures. When you look at his tables or chairs, it’s impossible to think of them as mass-produced,” he explains. “I’m not really conscious of a distinction between art and design.”
Small-scale production, he suggests, also has benefits.
“Without the limitations of the mass production process,” he elaborates, “the artisan can realize meticulous and ideal designs.” That places emphasis on craftsmanship, legacy and tradition, important qualities he believes modern design was “obliged to abandon.”
That’s not to say he rejects leading contemporary concepts in favor of older ones. In fact, Sakashita mentions that it was reading books by famous contemporary designers Kenya Hara (art director of Muji) and Naoto Fukasawa that inspired him to apply to Musashino Art University.
“Before Hara and Fukasawa, the Western concept of ‘Japanese design’ was just dawning — they are the ones who defined it, and they have left a legacy that’s very clean and minimalist,” he says. “I think now, though, there are a lot of designers thinking it’s time to take over and evolve from that.”
Good designers, including Naoto and Hara, he says, are not creating something brand new. “They are building on something from the past.”
“It’s true that I really like Noguchi’s Akari series, but that is also based on traditional chōchin lanterns, which nobody is credited for developing,” he says as an example. “The spirit of adapting something from the past is not about it being old or retro — it’s good design. It’s taking good components of older design and incorporating it into something new.”
Sakashita points to the many Japanese cultural traditions, including the tea ceremony and sukiya-zukuri architecture, that have their origins overseas. Likewise, he mentions that design as a concept was originally imported.
“The history of Japanese design started in modern times, when the country imported the foreign concept of design. But if you examine the combined lineages of Japanese traditional arts and crafts, you could also say people in Japan were designing long before,” he says citing ancient Jomon pottery as an example. “I think contemporary Japanese designers, whether consciously or not, have carried on the legacy of Japanese arts and crafts, and this enabled them to create their particular code — simple, white, delicate and meticulous — now seen by the world as Japanese design.”
When asked about the recent boom in Japanese designer and craft collaborations, Sakashita re-iterates that assimilation and evolution of Japanese design is part of its process.
“It’s possible to say that the recent trend of integrating traditions is, therefore, part of the process,” he says. “Eventually, like those past examples (of Japanese cultural traditions) in history, I think a pure form of Japanese design will emerge.”
Making Suki: It’s in the details
“For most of my pieces,” Baku Sakashita says. “I don’t have a particular desired result and I don’t know what the final product will look like.” But that, he explains, is by design.
He starts with the materials — in this case, tengujo washi, believed to be the thinnest paper in the world at 0.03 millimeters, and fine wire — and examines and manipulates them to learn how their properties and limitations can create forms.
“Take this circle,” he says, pointing to a section of a Suki light, a perfect circle of translucent washi, seamlessly outlined in fine wire. “I didn’t know if I could actually make that. But once I realized it’s possible to make that shape, I got a better picture of what the overall design may be like.”
Other design-process discoveries include having to increase the humidity of his entire studio to attach the paper to the wire, and then lowering it again, so that the paper shrinks to become taut and perfectly flat.
“For me,” he says, “the most important thing is the detail.”
For more information about Baku Sakashita, visit studiobaku.jp. His works, including a brand new piece, titled Phase, will be on show at the Milan Salone SaloneSatellite exhibition in Fiera Milano Rho, April 9-14.