The roots of Sori Yanagi, a pioneer of Japanese industrial design, lie in folk craft. The fusion of two seemingly opposite factors — the modern and traditional — makes his designs unique, yet surprisingly simple and attractive.
Embracing the spirit of “mingei,” or Japanese folk craft, which is deeply connected to people’s daily life, the 87-year-old designer stressed that what is important in a product’s creation is how perfectly it is designed to serve its purpose.
“Things that are easy to use survive, regardless of what is fashionable, and people want to use them forever,” Yanagi said in a recent interview. “But if things are created merely for a passing vogue and not for a purpose, people soon get bored with them and throw them away.”
The mingei spirit has at the same time prompted Yanagi to criticize the current state of industrial design that has tilted too much toward pursuing trends. He also questions mass production. He believes that both trends lead to mountains of litter.
“The fundamental problem is that many products are created to be sold, not used,” he said.
An ideal example for him of industrial design is the Jeep that he has driven for 50 years.
“The Jeep is properly designed for its purpose. It is really beautiful, although the design is simple,” he said, sitting on a chair of his own design at his workshop, Yanagi Design Institute, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.
Yanagi has been in the spotlight of the modern industrial design arena for half a century. Tableware, cooking tools and furniture that he has designed attract not only interior experts but also young consumers.
His “butterfly stool” of 1956 is highly acclaimed at home and abroad due to its harmoniousness with both Japanese and Western interior decor. It is also kept in collections of modern art museums overseas.
At a glance, his simple, streamlined designs seem to have nothing to do with folk craft. But touching and holding the products — forks, spoons, teapots and kettles — makes one realize how their forms fit the hand.
Yanagi said he believes that industrial designers should always create things that are comfortable to use.
When he designs a chair, he makes it comfortable to sit on. When he designs a teapot, he makes it easy to hold and serve tea with.
To complete a design he creates several molds, reviewing them again and again until they feel good enough for use, he said.
“I make molds for chairs and tables, too. They are one-fourth or one-fifth of the original size,” he said. “It usually takes three years to create a chair and five years to finish a Japanese tea pot.
“If products are made by hand, there is no way that they can be overproduced. This is the spirit of mingei.”
This philosophy comes largely from his father, Soetsu Yanagi, who was a leader of Japan’s mingei movement in the early 1900s and who coined the word. Sori was first influenced by avant-garde art, but eventually realized the universal values of folk craft.
He is currently the president of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, which displays his father’s collection of mingei works.
“I try to create things that we human beings feel are useful in our daily lives,” Yanagi said. “During the process, beauty is born naturally.”
He said he believes that incorporating the element of traditional folk craft into modern design is more important than imitating folk craft itself.
“Tradition creates value only when it progresses. It should go forward together with society.”
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