ArchiExpo e-Magazine - #15 - Japan's Wabi-sabi - ArchiExpo e-Magazine

A Little Japanese Wabi-sabi with That?

This issue takes you to the land of saké and sushi, with a little wabi-sabi on the side. The Recipe to Japanese Design offers the ingredients to perfecting imperfection, while Japanese Designs in a Global Market looks into who’s selling Japanese products and how they’ve managed to hold onto the renowned quality of Japanese design. Patching up Holes with Japanese Architects reveals recently completed renovation projects with a story to tell.

To end the International Year of Light 2015, we take you to the Paris Climate Conference to check out incredible Solar Street Furniture. You’ll also find out who received the Lighting Architecture Movement Project finalist awards. From DNA designed textiles to Japanese “virtual makeup” to the Fiii Fun House in Buenos Aires to 3-D drawing tools, this issue is a great read to kickstart your 2016 inspiration.

Special thought for German design icon Richard Sapper (1932-2015)

Zeitraum Leuchten
Hot Topic
Do we kill the hut? Or let it die with dignity?

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The interior design profession in Japan, as explained by designer Kita Toshiyuki in 2012, was nearly nonexistent. The lifestyle there simply wouldn’t allow it. Limited space and cluttered shelves pushed the average citizen away from inviting guests over to admire their lovely home. There is, however, a definite move...

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Hot Topic
Wabi-sabi: Respect for the past. Respect for nature.

I’m afraid that with the lifestyle the Japanese have today, they are no longer capable of understanding what a good product is,” Kita Toshiyuki in an interview for Nippon in 2012.

Architecture professionals, along with the Japanese government, have been working hard on getting this “desire for good design” back into the lives of Japanese people. By renovating interior spaces and offering the people a renewed way of looking at objects: Japanese design will continue to travel through time.

“It’s not about forms, colors or anything like that. It’s the idea,” Oki Sato, founder of NENDO explains design in this video at Maison&Objet Paris 2015.

The Four Ingredients in Japanese Design

Despite challenges and Western influences, there are four ingredients in Japanese design, according to professor Takahiro Miyao: irregularity, simplicity, emotional suggestiveness—getting people to feel something—and perishability, whose meaning encompasses both nature and impermanence.

Miyao explains in the video “Japan’s Culture – Design,” released August 5, 2014, that while the Japanese like simple designs, they “enjoy a contrast between regularity and irregularity.”

In the interior of a Japanese home, he says that the placement of objects and the design of the structure will all seem rather well put together. However, in the middle of such “regularity” will be an element that sticks out.

Another characteristic of Japanese design is its practicality. It is well known that Japanese products are beautiful, simple and practical.

Miyao points to crafts as the origins of this practical aspect. “In the West, the designers used to be hired by the rich and powerful to create something magnificent to impress people. In contrast, Japanese designers are essentially craftsmen, interacting with the common people. That bottom-up interaction led to Japanese design.”

“It’s more about the bottom-up interaction and practicality than Western design.”

Running Man pictogram by designer Yukio Ota

Running Man pictogram by designer Yukio Ota

He references the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and how Japanese design influenced Western design at that time. Pictograms were created by Japanese designers to indicate understandable directional signs. Designer Yukio Ota drew the “running man” pictogram in the early 1980s, which has been adopted around the world as the international exit sign.

A thought for designer Yukio Ota, who passed away on July 6, 2015.

“Japanese design is a means of communication and of achieving harmony in a bottom-up way, as compared to the top-down nature of the West.”


Wabi-sabi, Beauty in Imperfections

“There’s a big crack in it,” a client said to Mira Nakashima at U.S.-based George Nakashima Woodworker. Nakashima furniture pieces offer “the tree” a second life, while respecting its organic aesthetics like ridges, cracks and holes. “People don’t always understand what we’re doing here,” Mira told ArchiExpo.

Mira’s father George, of Japanese descent, had the opportunity to work alongside renowned architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. His world travels sent him to Tokyo where he worked at the Antonin Raymond office.

George Nakashima brought Japanese culture and values to the United States when he opened his woodworker shop. Mira, having grown up in the shop and around these values, describes them as “Respect for the past. Respect for nature. Nowadays these values are in danger of being lost.

Nakashima furniture, similar to its Japanese-based counterpart Sakura shop, radiates respect for nature and natural forms. “Wabi-sabi,” Mira said.

In Japanese, wabi-sabi represents the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is often described as beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Characteristics of wabi-sabi are roughness, irregularity, simplicity, asymmetry, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.

Japanese Values: “They Don’t Study ‘Things.’”

“The idea of everyday life is so important in Japan,” explains artist, scientist and innovation synthesizer John Maeda in a TEDxTokyo video on design published in 2012.

According to Maeda, Japanese values include benevolence, brotherhood, staking one’s life on technology and skills, humanity versus technology, perseverance no matter what, the notion that failure leads to wonder, Kokorozashi, mashups and learning from everyday life.

Kokorozashi (Jap.): The fundamental disposition of will and longing to find truth and enlightenment.

Toshio Suzuki described Studio Ghibli’s approach to animation,” continues Maeda. “It’s to never go out into the field of research. They never do research. They don’t study ‘things.’ They have to research their everyday life.”

Japanese design is known for its wabi-sabi. A good number of top designers from the land of saké and sushi accentuate the “four ingredients” in their product designs and carry on this international legacy. Despite Toshiyuki’s past concerns about how Japanese people view beautiful objects, Japanese design will certainly live on.

Enjoy this video on a traditional Japanese tea ceremony:


Hot Topic
Japanese values are something foreign customers really understand and see in the products.


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  • A 21st century cabinet of curiosities, New York’s Chamber boutique leads its second annual limited editions collection of unusual and experimental objects.

    Human Nature,” curated by renowned photographer and filmmaker Andrew Zuckerman, follows the seasons with two separate installments, called Chapters. ‘Tis the season for winter holly or, perhaps, for sitting by the fire!

    The collection’s featured object is the Black Gold Bank by Amsterdam-based artist Quintus Kropholler. The artist worked asphalt along with custom modified bitumen and pink Scottish granite to form Black Gold, a new material nominated for the New Material Award 2014.

    Feel the fire with ceramicist Tim Rowan’s “Woodfired Raritan Clay Box,” baked in a wood-fired kiln in which flash ash and coals from the seven-day firing process melt upon the surface, forming a naturally occurring glaze pattern on its surface.

    Human Nature collection, courtesy of Chamber Gallery

    Human Nature collection, courtesy of Chamber Gallery

    Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Maarten Baas extended his original ‘Smoke Project’ with “Where There’s Smoke.” The project consists of 25 design classics that have been burned and preserved with transparent epoxy in Studio Baas and den Herder’s signature hand. The “Zig Zag” chair, a part of the original “Where There’s Smoke” series, is Baas’ contribution to the Chamber collection.

    The season calls for shades of gray and black. “Tacitas Stones, The Chamber Collection” by bravo! brings together seasonal color and natural elements. “Hono Bench/Coffee Table” by UHURU, Bill Hilgendorf & Jason Horvath does the same with its dark brown wood; it really is a tree stump. Ultimate ArchiExpo favorites are the “Lasso” horse-saddle rocker by Ika Künzel and the “Brick Sofa” by Versus + KiBiSi.

    Marlène Huissoud’s “Bee Vase” goes beyond appearance. The designer used propolis, a biodegradable resin that bees collect from trees for a sealant in their hive, then made properties resembling smooth glass by traditional glass-blowing and engraving techniques. The black variant Huissoud chose possesses a much lower melting point than glass. “A single beehive produces only 100 grams of propolis per year, meaning these unique vases are few and far between.”

    Another flying friend, “Birds on Loos” by Australian glass manufacturer J. & L. Lobmeyr, engraver Pavlína Čambalová and Zuckerman, is a tale of its own. It stems from architect Adolf Loos’ work in 1931, his iconic glass tumblers from “Drinking Set No. 248”. Based on Zuckerman’s photography, Čambalová etched five species of exotic birds, which were placed on the base of the glass.

    To end on a wabi-sabi note, in honor of this issue’s Japanese fix, several objects exemplify a positive human-to-nature ratio. The “Tea Set” by Kai Williams and the “Garden Tray” by Chen Chen, the “Luck Plant” by Luna Paiva and “Cymbidium Ming Vase with Gold Leaf” by Jeremy Cole.

    Cymbidium Ming Vase by Jeremy Cole

    Cymbidium Ming Vase by Jeremy Cole


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    The French ministry for Ecology sponsored the Clover Street Lamp project for Paris Climate Conference 2015. The selected designer, Mathieu Lehanneur, invented the urban lighting furniture collection Clover.

    The lamp resembles a tree: a wooden pole—only local wood used—with three petals on top that house the lighting within and is accompanied by a matching wooden bench. The lights are equipped with LED lighting, positioned downward to maximize the light capacity.

    The lamps’ upper surface is equipped with solar panels that face the sun and collect solar energy during day time. This gives Clover Lamp three hours of streetlight autonomy.

    The lamp’s self-service hatch allows pedestrians to charge their phones while getting some rest on the bench.

    With his range of urban furniture, Lehanneur demonstrates the capacity of renewable solar energy and inspires new ways of making our cities a cleaner and better place to live.


    Amelia Card

    Amelia Card is a freelance writer and author currently based in Los Angeles, California.

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    Frederick Bernas

    Frederick Bernas is a journalist, filmmaker and photographer living in Latin America.

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    Olga Sterkhova

    Olga Sterkhova  writes and translates in three languages: Russian, English and French.

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    Erin Tallman

    American artist Erin Tallman is a journalist for various online publications and is the Editor in Chief of ArchiExpo e-magazine. She has published three books, including her first novel.

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    Vanessa Liwanag

    Vanessa Liwanag, is an MBA alumni of the prestigious Mod’Art International in Paris and founder of Creative Talents Worldwide.

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    Hilary Edesess

    Hilary Edesess is a freelance journalist based in Marseille, France. She blogs about culture, art and urban design.

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    Erin Gigl

    Erin Gigl is a freelance design and travel writer, editor and artist.

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