This month, “On: Design” looks at recent product designs from two major creators who enjoyed the limelight during the Tokyo Olympics: Nendo, whose huge dynamic cauldron housed the Olympic flame, and Kengo Kuma, the architect behind the National Stadium.
In the past couple of months, Nendo has added two unusual vases and a very modern butsudan (home Buddhist altar) to its oeuvre, all of which appear deceptively simple in their minimalist aesthetics.
First is the visually trippy Nendo Circle+Square Vase (¥13,200 at nendohouse.co.jp), which rolls three vase designs in one. At first glance, it looks like a tall porcelain vessel with a teardrop-shaped base and a leaf-shaped opening. When viewed from a little distance, however, it turns into a mesmerizing optical illusion.
Look at it head on and it is a tapered cuboid vase with a wavy top. Shift your viewpoint to 60 degrees from the right, and it becomes a cylinder. Move again to look at it 60 degrees from the left and it returns to a cuboid, but with a straight-edged square opening.
Not quite as visually bizarre, but equally clever, is Nendo’s new Mizuki lineup of T-shaped multipurpose vases designed for Danish jewelry and homeware brand Georg Jensen. Here, Nendo was inspired by the viscosity and fluidity of water.
Forged from a single sheet of sterling silver and hammered into shape by Georg Jensen silversmiths, the Mizuki is split into three levels inside. If water is filled to the top of its central vertical tube, flowers can be placed in it upright, like a regular vase. Add more water to fill the deeper side of its T-bar top, and blooms can be supported horizontally with stems resting in a wide pool. The higher, opposite side of the T-bar top is left open to form a simple spout, allowing the vase to double as a water jug.
The third Nendo creation, which is awaiting a release date, acknowledges changing attitudes to memorializing the dead in Japan by offering an alternative to the traditional home altar.
Usually an elaborate affair, a butsudan comprises a large cabinet housing a Buddha figure or image, accompanied by memorial tablets or keepsake urns and other religious accoutrements, including candlesticks, incense burners, bowl bells, vases and display stands. Nendo has distilled all this into Oka, a minimalist altar that looks like a miniature landscape of rolling hills.
A simple black or white rectangular tray instead of the usual bulky cabinet, the Oka features mounds and dips that each have a purpose. The largest one at the back acts like a tiny tumulus, hiding a keepsake urn below. A small basin to its left can be filled with water to become a vase to float flowers in, while its neighboring dip is an incense stick holder. A second, smaller hill turns out to be a bell that can be rung with just a gentle push of its peak.
Nendo is also tapping into the trend of cremation jewelry with a set of matching Oka pendants, each a tiny urn that tucks away into its own miniature mound case when not in use.
Kengo Kuma is renowned for using both traditional craftsmanship and contemporary innovations in his buildings. For the Kuma to Shika lineup of household goods, though, he brings architectural concepts to Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten’s artisanal goods.
Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten works with various traditional industries, helping them produce contemporary products, while also creating its own lineup of items branded with its signature deer motif. Kuma to Shika, which means “Bear and Deer” in Japanese, is a limited-edition lineup of 10 household items designed by Kuma and made by woodworkers, metalworkers, washi paper and fabric makers, and more.
Some designs are simple, such as the small rectangular Mino-yaki building tile magnets (¥1,650) and botanically dyed dishcloths made of kaya-ori (¥1,320), a cotton fabric often used for mosquito nets. Others manipulate materials in decorative but useful ways, such as the compact radially folded hisan bōshi tote bags (from ¥6,380), made from the same mesh textile used to cover buildings to contain debris during construction.
Two “On: Design” favorites reference Kengo Kuma design concepts and can artistically transform wall space. The kumiki shelf unit (¥8,800) re-interprets architectural kumiki wood joinery techniques with four trapezoid sheets of shina plywood that slot together for an angular design, echoing Kuma’s iconic interlocking wood facades and interiors. Alone, it’s a unique small shelf that can be used either way up, but when combined in sets of two or more, their slanted edges jut in and out to form zig-zag waves of shelving.
Similarly compelling is a minimalist 3D wall hanging of handmade washi paper (¥55,000), textured with flecks of wood chips and geometrically folded in a manner akin to Kuma’s huge 2018 Milan Design Week “Breath/ng” sculpture. At 50 centimeters wide and 114 centimeters tall, it adds dimension to a wall space and can be folded flat when not in use.
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