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Some trends don’t just peak out after a year or so. In Japanese product design, the focus on traditional artisanship through international promotions, collaborations with contemporary designers and the re-appreciation of traditional everyday objects is still going strong — perhaps because it dovetails so perfectly with a seemingly never-ending global obsession with minimalism.

But that’s not to say things haven’t evolved. Tweaks that offer more variety include the appearance of warmer materials, such as rich, dark woods; more color and texture in textiles; softer, rounded shapes; and more obvious nods to traditional decorative details and antique looks. As we approach the year’s end, here are some other advances and ideas that may not be “trends” yet, but are worth mentioning as developments we can hope to see more of in 2020.

Sustainable wood

Much of popular contemporary Japanese design use natural materials, yet the promotion of certified sustainably sourced materials often seems absent.

There are two main routes available for sustainable forest management available to Japan — the international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Japan’s Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) — but according to the Forestry Agency of Japan’s 2018 annual report, only 10 percent of forests in Japan are certified. That’s actually an uptick from 2016, when it was only 2 percent, but still low compared to countries such as Austria, Finland, Germany and Sweden, which are all over 75 percent.

&Craft’s decorative wreath product, made from FSC-certified Yamanashi wood. | MIO YAMADA
&Craft’s decorative wreath product, made from FSC-certified Yamanashi wood. | MIO YAMADA

This year, however, the government introduced a new forest management law and forest tax, which it says is designed to aid neglected forest maintenance and boost the timber industry, while the FSC launched a Japan standard certification, making it less complicated to apply.

At the November IFFT Interior Lifestyle Living show, it was nice to see small outfits, such as &Crafts, a DIY wood projects and interior goods company, wearing its FSC certification of Yamanashi wood as a badge of honor and promoting sustainability as an important factor of consumer choice.

Hidakuma — a collaboration of the city of Hida in Gifu with Tobimushi, a wood-processing business specializing in sustainable forestry, and creative company Loftwork’s network of designers — also chose to showcase its variety of different local woods, including a range of offcuts, such as wood chips and log ends that it sells instead of discarding.

Recycling and upcycling

The March unveiling of Tokujin Yoshioka’s 2020 Olympic torch design, made of aluminum reclaimed from prefabricated housing units used to shelter those affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, reminded us that re-using materials can add value to an object — that of emotional investment. But for a nation that has a reputation for stringent garbage separation rules, design initiatives in Japan that focus on recycling are still surprisingly sparse.

Though the ethical consumption showcase at the June IFFT introduced mostly overseas initiatives, the November iteration of the fair did offer an interesting, almost conceptual, exploration of the potential of upcycling materials in an exhibit directed by designer Keiji Ashizawa. A few small contemporary product launches also advocated recycling, such as Moheim‘s knitted PET bottle vase cover, while timber product manufacturer Wood Maker introduced its corrugated wood, a promising versatile material made from the discarded veneer of timber processing.

A chair made of Wood Maker, an innovative corrugated recycled wood material, on show at the Interior Lifestyle Living show in November. | MIO YAMADA
A chair made of Wood Maker, an innovative corrugated recycled wood material, on show at the Interior Lifestyle Living show in November. | MIO YAMADA

Elsewhere, the collaboration between furniture maker Karimoku and Ishinomaki Laboratory, a DIY design initiative that began as a local community workshop to help revitalize the 3/11 tsunami-struck area, proved an interesting concept. Karimoku’s specialized treatment of its factory’s repurposed discarded wood produces an unusually refined material for Ishinomaki Laboratory’s designs that purposely celebrates the wood’s “flaws.” Little nicks, woodworm holes and dents become attractive flourishes worth paying extra for.

Another refreshing upcycling project — the ReBuilding Center Japan in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture — won a Good Design Award this year for its community-based use of reclaimed wood for space design, interior goods and DIY workshops. A cafe, store and a studio, the ReBuilding Center Japan sells all manner of vintage found knick-knacks, tableware and even bits of reclaimed wood from just ¥300, as well as some unusual original upcycled furniture.

New materials

Feel Good Creation — a CMF (color, material and finish) design company that brings together Japan’s manufacturers with designers to develop new materials and products — won a Good Design Award this year for its 2018 “CMF Tokyo Sense” design exhibition. A showcase of the fruits of various collaborative projects, the exhibition’s accolade highlights a general increased interest in material design and manipulation.

Feel Good Creation products include encasing Showa Aircraft Industry’s honeycomb panel (currently used in JAXA satellites) in acrylic for a reinforced and decorative design material; sandblasting texture into wood using Fuji Finetech technology; and experimenting with plastic molding techniques of Muroshima Seiko.

Muroshima Seiko’s new Ovov mini product developed with Feel Good Creation
Muroshima Seiko’s new Ovov mini product developed with Feel Good Creation

This year, Muroshima Seiko released a new version of Ovov, a puzzle game of flexible translucent parallelogram pieces that it devised in collaboration with Feel Good Creation, while jewelry designer Masako Ban released a series of pieces created from Showa Aircraft Industry’s honeycomb acrylic.

Other material interest appeared during the 2019 Designart festival, where unit DraadD‘s “Views of Nature” exhibition at the Axis Building, running in tandem with Material ConneXion Tokyo’s annual show, explored unusual production techniques involving paint, volcanic ash and polystyrene.

Manufacturing new designs

Last, but not least, 2019 also saw a few unique products born from collaborations of contemporary designers with Japanese manufacturers with very specific skills that are perhaps often overlooked.

Rikagakukikai Seisakusho’s Sekiei hand bell, designed by H Concept
Rikagakukikai Seisakusho’s Sekiei hand bell, designed by H Concept

Some of these, like Showa Aircraft Industries, have worked with Feel Good Creation, but a couple of others have produced unique works that may not become a lucrative money-making business for the factory, but draw attention to Japan’s manufacturing finesse. To end on a few of 2019 On: Design favorites, these include glass laboratory equipment maker Kamata Rikagakukikai Seisakusho’s collaboration with H Concept for its stunning Sekiei hand bell and wind chime, and Nishibe Chemical’s bensan toilet sandals, elegantly updated with leather accessories by design brand Bench.

Nishibe Chemical’s bensan toilet sandals, updated with leather accessories by design brand Bench
Nishibe Chemical’s bensan toilet sandals, updated with leather accessories by design brand Bench

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