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Like many industries, design, art and fashion has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic — from major exhibitions and trade fair cancellations to drops in consumer sales.

But in Japan, there could be a fine silver lining to the disruptions. Not only has innovative design emerged from creators rethinking their roles in the evolving socially and environmentally responsible society, but Tokyo has also benefitted from becoming a show space for homegrown creations that would otherwise have debuted overseas.

This year, Designart Tokyo took a hybrid approach to its celebration of Japanese and international creators. While venues spread out across Tokyo are practicing the required COVID-19 precautionary protocols, the event’s talks and presentations and even a few exhibitions are being held online. (Note: The live events have already concluded but the exhibitions continue until Nov. 3.)

As usual, newcomers get a chance to share the spotlight with established veterans, with works varying from furniture and homeware to material innovations and artworks. On: Design picks up a few themes and trends in this list of highlights from the Omotesando, Gaienmae, Daikanyama and Shibuya areas.

Environmental concerns

Many creators are clearly thinking about the future of the planet, not only by recycling and upcycling, but also by researching more sustainable approaches to design.

h220430
Venue: Kashiyama Daikanyama

h220430 addresses the issue of fast-fashion factory fabric waste by upcycling it into products that will outlast any chain-store garment. Its Stump Chair looks like colored wood, and even has similar texture and weight, but it’s made from hundreds of layers of material. Texture and color variation of the textile is created by compressing layers of different shapes of waste fabric together with a bonding agent. Originally scheduled to be displayed in New York, the Stump Chair was designed as a flatpack piece for easy transport — partly because the designer wanted to carry it in his check-in luggage. To create a little friction between parts to make it even sturdier, the material’s surface was also purposely left slightly coarse.

Also from h220430 is the Linear Chair, a laidback low seat created from offcuts of faux marble from furniture factories. Like the Stump Chair, the design involves slotting together various flat shapes, without the use of any nails, screws or glue. All it needs are a couple of fitted cushions to make it extra comfy.

h220430's Stump Chair | MIO YAMADA
h220430’s Stump Chair | MIO YAMADA

Tanaka
“The Life of Clothing Through Denim, from Birth to Death to Reincarnation”
Venue: Kashiyama Daikanyama

From the huge circle of old jeans to the sea of pebbles below, everything in this exhibit is waste or a discarded item from denim production. Tanaka, a genderless clothing brand based in New York, explains that the artwork highlights eco-friendly possibilities for denim production, an industry notorious for its use of chemicals and high water and energy consumption.

Film footage projected at the center of the work reveals how Tanaka’s collaborator, Nishie Denim in Okayama, uses pumice-like eco-stone pebbles for stonewashing, the waste of which is then processed with organic matter to be used as compost. Contaminated water is also purified and returned to the factory for re-use.

Tanaka's 'The Life of Clothing Through Denim, from Birth to Death to Reincarnation' | MIO YAMADA
Tanaka’s ‘The Life of Clothing Through Denim, from Birth to Death to Reincarnation’ | MIO YAMADA

AaaM Architects / Shuyan Chan, Bob Pang, Kevin Siu
Venue: Omotesando Hills B3F Space O

You would never guess that AaaM Architects Carton (Re)Luminance lampshade is made from used Tetra Pak cartons. The Hong Kong design and research studio’s comment on one-use packaging is a silver gleaming work, lit from within by energy-efficient LED bulbs. AaaM Architects use sections of aluminum-film lined drink cartons to create the shiny components of its pendant lamp shades. Each module is folded like origami to catch the light before being bound together into structures that allow a glow to emit from below. The exterior is stunning, but take a peek inside to see the colorful display of fruit-juice packaging design.

Carton (Re)Luminance lampshade by AaaM Architects | MIO YAMADA
Carton (Re)Luminance lampshade by AaaM Architects | MIO YAMADA

Material focus

Experimentation with materials still produces some of the most innovative and artistic designs at Designart 2020.

9+1 + Glass
Venue: JASMAC Aoyama

An interesting initiative, 9+1 is a group of creators committed to promoting and re-imagining craft techniques in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture. In the past years, it has proposed artistic applications of urushi lacquer, involving light, mirrors and even electronics. For Designart, it presents a series of works produced with glass artisans and manufacturers.

Craft Prism by 9+1 | MIO YAMADA
Craft Prism by 9+1 | MIO YAMADA

Among the exhibits, each of which exploit properties of glass to produce a visual effect, is Craft Prism, a collection of oval transparent vases that have been gently faceted to refract light like multiple lenses. When filled with water, anything behind the vases is magnified with such clarity that the patterns produced become striking decorative features. Other exhibits include “Flex,” a stack of wafer-thin sheets of rippled glass that seems too fragile to exist and “Tiny Cloud,” a humidifier composed of two connected giant test tubes, one of which creates mist from water to fill the other until it overspills in the room.

Tiny Cloud by 9+1 | MIO YAMADA
Tiny Cloud by 9+1 | MIO YAMADA

Ryota Akiyama
Venue: Omotesando Hills B3F Space O

Ryota Akiyama is Klein Dytham architecture’s pick for the Under 30 talents of Designart 2020. At last year’s festival, Akiyama introduced visitors to an experimental textile involving heating polystyrene blocks doused in bright acrylics to create bizarre rippled and cracked textures. This year, he takes it a step further, creating vibrant large-scale vases using the same process.

Some of the works look like ruched fabric, rippled with surprising uniformity; others have the appearance of otherworldly landscapes of ravines and valleys. Akiyama explains that each also has a unique texture, sometimes hard as a rock, other times softer and flexible.

Ryota Akiyama | MIO YAMADA
Ryota Akiyama | MIO YAMADA

Yu Qi
Venue: Kashiyama Daikanyama

Artist and textile designer Yu Qi has an almost architectural approach to fabrics, giving them three-dimensionality through the clever use of optical illusion. Her two works on show — “Starlight in Changing” and “Signals Being Transmitting” — use layers of translucent organdy, screen-printed with graphic motifs, washed to create gradations in color and heat pressed flawlessly flat. Luminous prints on the top layer are shadowed by those below to produce a stereoscopic effect when viewed at different angles.

Qi describes her work as “giving people a sense of illusion to make them feel the passage of time.” Difficult to put in words, they are something that need to be experienced in person.


Home comforts

With people now spending more time at home, the Designart showcase at World Kita-Aoyama building is focusing on home office goods, displaying major brands including Vitra from Switzerland and Scandinavian Muuto. Other venues, too, had their fair share of items designed to spruce up the home environment.

Stellar Works x Nendo
Venue: Omotesando Hills B3F Space O

This is the first time Shanghai-based Stellar Works is showing its furniture in Japan, an event that coincides with the opening of its new Tokyo store in Roppongi Hills. Headed by Yuichiro Hori, Stellar Works’ connections with first-rate designers has been consistent since its launch in 2012. This year, it debuts three new collections conceived by Oki Sato of Nendo, its first collaboration with the Japanese designer.

The Kite series re-thinks the lobby armchair into compact and minimal seating for small spaces. Gently tilted, the rounded seats encourage visitors to lean back into an adjustable back support cushion — the focus of the design. For a little extra privacy, half-round tubular backs curve around the user. Modular in construction, the rounded seats, tubular backs and cushion supports also can be assembled in different combinations. Though Kite was designed for commercial spaces, its compact nature makes it equally suitable for the home.

Nendo’s Blend stools and multipurpose Frame units both feature strong lines of black steel in seemingly simple yet functional designs. The unusual structure of the Blend stools’ split third leg not only gives it a little aesthetic flair, but also serves as a handy foot rest, while the L-shaped customizable Frame can be hung on a wall horizontally as a shelf or towel rail, or used free standing as a mirror rest and clothing rack.

Stellar Works Kite by Nendo Lifestyle | STELLAR WORKS
Stellar Works Kite by Nendo Lifestyle | STELLAR WORKS

 


Aida
Venue: JASMAC Aoyama

Three up-and-coming creators come together for Aida, a presentation of homeware designed to enhance everyday life. From Tunnel Design, Mari Kawakami scents delicate shallow cones of pattern-perforated paper, balanced atop thin wire stands to become decorative aroma diffusers, while Kosuke Nakano presents a wooden bench-like module that can be assembled into different shelf configurations using chunky pink washers.

The third designer, Junichiro Oshima elevates colorful hand-crafted wooden trays into modern artworks by giving them matching stands, which pair beautifully with his range of vibrant metal tubular vases that can be rearranged and held magnetically in place on circular stands.

Aida by Junichiro Oshima | MIO YAMADA
Aida by Junichiro Oshima | MIO YAMADA

Toyooka Craft x Flavien Delbergue
Venue: Omotesando Hills B3F Space O

Hako, Toyooka Craft Ltd.’s collaboration with French designer Flavien Delbergue, is the woodwork company’s first departure from its usual range of more conservative products. Unlike Toyooka Craft’s dark wood cabinets and desk accessories, this modular box collection is made from a blonde hinoki (Japanese cypress) with a minimalist aesthetic that belies its usefulness. Different sized boxes slot atop of each other to be stacked in any combination and to any height. Each is decorated with small embedded corner lines of walnut, a nod to Toyooka Craft’s expertise at kumi-ki (nailless joinery. It’s simple but beautiful.

Hako by Toyooka Craft x Flavien Delbergue | MIO YAMADA
Hako by Toyooka Craft x Flavien Delbergue | MIO YAMADA

Degrees of tech

Tech is hidden by much of what is on display at Designart, be it items rendered by a 3D printer or via traditional craftsmanship and monozukuri. In many cases, the end product completely belies the complicated technology behind it. In others, cutting-edge innovations are front and center.

Yoy
Venue: Jasmac Aoyama

This bright idea from Yoy is beguiling in its simplicity: A flat lightbulb-shaped piece of acrylic spins in a socket. The pattern etched on the acrylic then creates the illusion of a 3-D image. Thomas Edison must be spinning his grave, in a good way. Yoy’s Unroll is another clever transformation: a tube of paper can be unfurled into a compact standing light with a pop-out lampshade.


Tennoha Milano / Timon
Venue: Jasmac Aoyama

The timepieces in the Timon line make a statement in their large size yet subtle presentation. A wooden ball slowly, incrementally rolls down a long incline. Time is actually being measured here, though the designer — Michio Akita of Takeda Design Project — is being mum about the technology, or magic, behind it. As long as you don’t think of Sisyphus, doomed to an eternity of pushing a rock up a hill, it might be a relaxing way to pass the hours.

Timeon | TENOHA MILANO CONNECTION
Timeon | TENOHA MILANO CONNECTION

daisy* / Masato Inagaki
Venue: Shibuya Hikarie Creative Space 8

Although much of Designart is about material goods, this retrospective of playful installations from the digital art collective daisy* dwells in the realm of pixels and augmented reality. Narikiri Showroom, for example, connects visitors in Shibuya with visitors in another part of the city and pits them against each other in a battle of manga-esque lightning balls and gesture-triggered displays of virtual strength. In Kojimachi Shoran, inhabitants of an AI-powered Edo Period Tokyo go about their business in a never-ending cycle of activity. For Hakoniwa, a 3-D scan of your face is projected onto a cute but creepy game avatar (think “Animal Crossing” on acid). In a time of social distancing, Daisy’s virtual worlds seem all the more relevant.


NTT Docomo/Kakezan
Venue: Omotesando Hills

Perhaps the prize for geekiest Designart exhibition should go to Spherical Drone Display, which combines a number of facets of developing tech to spectacular visual effect. These flying globes not only display dynamic visuals via rapidly circulating LEDS but also can recognize gestures (say of a concert performer) and beam an explosion of corresponding emotions on a giant screen. For example, via the flying globe, a hologram-like image of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu singing onstage can come close to concert goers, even in the cheap seats of a massive stadium. And in an age of social distancing, doesn’t that sound appealing?

Designart Tokyo 2020 runs until Nov. 3. See the event website for more information.

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