Style & Design

A Japanese designer lauds the allure of everyday aluminum

by Gianni Simone

Contributing writer

Today’s craftspeople put so much care into what they make that the objects themselves sometimes transcend the idea of being mere “things.” When done correctly, their works become art. The people who purchase their work then acquire something more than the object itself — they receive an emotional high.

Industrial designer Seiji Onishi gets that high from aluminum. The 75-year-old from Saitama Prefecture says he has been fascinated with the metal ever since he was 10.

“I grew up at a time when aluminum was everywhere,” Onishi tells The Japan Times. “One day, one of my classmates showed up with a round, metal lunchbox. I had never seen anything like it, I thought all lunchboxes were square, and I decided I wanted it for myself.”

So, Onishi set out on the hunt. He now claims to possess more than 500 aluminum objects, from household appliances and toys to cooking utensils and tools, their cold exteriors providing him with a constant source of warmth.

“I always remove any paint, labels or decoration, so I can better enjoy their essential form,” Onishi says of his collection. “In their humble simplicity and anonymity, they speak to me of the poetry of everyday objects.”

Many of the pieces Onishi owns were produced soon after World War II. Having lost the war, Japan was ordered to get rid of its fighter planes and other weapons. Instead of handing them over to the Allied Powers, they were dismantled, with many of the parts recycled for civilian use.

This passion for recycling was born out of necessity as Japan had few mineral resources. Objects that would normally be made of steel or wood were produced using aluminum, and to this day Japan leads the world in recycling aluminum cans.

Between 1946 and 1948 there was a rush to get hold of aluminum and other such materials that were turned into tools and objects of daily use. Most of these objects were produced in small local factories by individual artisans, as industrial designers did not really exist. Since such goods were produced out of necessity, there wasn’t much to them in the way of design as we know it today.

Cold comfort: While aluminum looks cold to some people, Seiji Onishi says these products warm his heart. | GIANNI SIMONE
Cold comfort: While aluminum looks cold to some people, Seiji Onishi says these products warm his heart. | GIANNI SIMONE

“People were not after beautiful things,” Onishi says. “They only wanted sturdy, useful products. These are the objects I collect. As a designer who always tries to keep things simple, I’m fascinated by a time when craftsmen used to make their products without bothering about design.”

Objects made of iron or copper are highly valued, but those made of aluminum are more or less treated like junk.

“Aluminum is a very humble material and now, ironically, people are beginning to take notice of it again,” Onishi says. “Once you reject the faddish idea of cool and short-lived attractiveness, the objects appear as a quiet testimony to a culture that valued meaningful interaction with material things. For me, this purity symbolizes the typical material-specific workmanship and refined simplicity of Japanese design.”

Nowadays, so-called zakka (miscellaneous goods) are all the rage in Japan, with the trendy 21_21 Design Sight museum even devoting an exhibition to the subject in 2016. Originally associated with items of daily necessity, from the mid-1960s this ambiguous Japanese term has been applied to the most disparate objects.

“Design has replaced functionality, and many of these things are just good-looking knickknacks of little or no practical use,” Onishi says.

Onishi’s collection is limited to Japanese products. Aluminum goods can be found worldwide but, according to Onishi, Japanese goods have a particular smell to them.

“It’s like water or soil,” he says. “For example, a farmer can tell you where a certain soil comes from. For me, it’s the same with aluminum. It’s also interesting how you can easily notice the difference between items from before and after the war. Older objects from the 1920s and ’30s are recognizable by their finer quality. That’s because, before the war, Japan had plenty of resources to use. It wasn’t until the end of the war that the rougher products came out.”

Ironically enough, Onishi’s collection is better known abroad than in his homeland, having already traveled three times to Europe). Still, he believes that it is important to show his “treasure” around.

“The traditional Japanese attitude of respect toward nature and the sustainable use of its resources has long been drowned out by a consumption binge matched by few other countries,” he says. “However, people never forget the beauty in their daily lives even when they are facing extreme hardship and poverty. By showcasing these humble objects, I hope to make people think about our traditional values.”

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