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In March this year, I vis­ited the Bar­bican Art Gallery to see ‘The Ja­pa­nese House’, an ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plor­ing Ja­pa­nese do­mes­tic ar­chi­tec­ture from the end of World War II, a pe­riod that pro­duced some in­cred­i­bly in­flu­en­tial con­tem­po­rary de­sign. It had a pro­found ef­fect, from the im­me­di­ate aes­thetic of the homes on show (see above) to the wider stylis­tic sen­si­bil­ity that seems to sur­round any­thing to do with Ja­pan. Of course, in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, Ja­pa­nese style is all shoji screens, tatami mats and a sin­gle Bon­sai tree placed just so on a black lac­quered con­sole. No doubt there are many Ja­pa­nese peo­ple with ter­ri­ble hoard­ing habits and homes full of clut­ter, but when I con­jure up vi­sions of Japon­isme, I pic­ture only Zen sim­plic­ity, ex­quis­ite ce­ram­ics, del­i­cate paint­ings and an ex­treme sense of stuff so­phis­ti­ca­tion that we in the West do not ap­pear to be nat­u­rally in­clined to­wards. This is ob­vi­ously a sweep­ing state­ment that brushes over the rich­ness and breadth of the coun­try’s his­tory, pol­i­tics and cul­ture. Plus, a love af­fair with the East is noth­ing new. In fact, the term Japon­isme was coined by 19th-cen­tury French aes­thetes to de­scribe the emerg­ing craze for all things Ja­pa­nese, and the con­cept of East meets West has long been a pop­u­lar de­sign mantra. But ar­guably, through­out the last 100 years of in­tense change, Ja­pan has re­tained a tremen­dous sense of stylis­tic self; a unique way of mar­ry­ing moder­nity with tra­di­tion, and I feel this lat­est it­er­a­tion of­fers a lot for us to learn from to­day. ➤

A month af­ter vis­it­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion, I was in Mi­lan for the in­ter­na­tional fur­ni­ture fair, an an­nual ex­trav­a­ganza that show­cases new de­signs from the great­est global brands. And there, echo­ing my in­stinct, was a dis­tinct flavour of Japon­isme. It was ev­i­dent in the ob­vi­ous – tra­di­tional cast-iron teapots and stems of cherry blos­som adorn­ing ev­ery other dis­play stand — to the more sub­tle aes­thetic cues (think low-slung, pol­ished wood tray ta­bles at Ar­mani Casa and fur­ni­ture at Riva 1920, an Ital­ian brand renowned for its in­ven­tive use of wood man­u­fac­tured us­ing Shou Sugi Ban, the an­cient Ja­pa­nese art of hand-char­ring tim­ber to a tex­tured black fin­ish). The tech­nique was also de­ployed at French de­sign com­pany Roche Bobois to lend Christophe Del­court’s clas­sic ‘ Leg­end’ book­case a fresh, new ‘Car­bon’ fin­ish ( below left). I saw Ja­pa­nese in­flu­ences too in the skinny sim­plic­ity, as if hand-drawn with a marker pen, of Shanghai- based Neri & Hu’s ‘Lan­tern’ floor lamp ( below, far left) for the Ger­man-brand Clas­si­con.

The trickle-down ef­fect

Cru­cially, this New Japon­isme is not just at the posh de­signer end of the cre­ative spec­trum. Fired Earth re­cently launched two wall­pa­per lines, ‘Kyoto’ and ‘Nara’, with dis­tinctly Ja­pa­nese mo­tifs. And John Lewis will shortly un­veil cush­ions, plates and wall­pa­per pan­els (see right) in­spired by the col­lec­tions of Ja­pa­nese art and de­sign at Lon­don’s Vic­to­ria & Al­bert mu­seum. As Pip Prinsloo, de­sign man­ager of Home at John Lewis, puts it: ‘The in­flu­ence of Ja­pan is far-reach­ing: from its cul­tural tra­di­tions, food and crafts­man­ship to its fu­ture-think­ing mav­er­icks and pi­o­neers. We see Ja­pa­nese in­flu­ences in so many as­pects of how we think, live and look’.

The thing is, the in­her­ent sim­plic­ity and el­e­gance of Japon­isme is se­duc­tive be­cause it ap­pears to be based on four key in­gre­di­ents: har­ness­ing the power of na­ture and nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als; rev­el­ling in fin­ish and tex­ture; pay­ing at­ten­tion to the small­est de­tails; and ap­proach­ing de­sign not only with a re­spect built upon cen­turies of rit­ual and tra­di­tion, but also with a healthy ir­rev­er­ence that en­ables con­stant evo­lu­tion. It sounds so easy, but cer­tainly it’s this lat­ter el­e­ment, which can’t be au­then­ti­cally em­u­lated out­side of Ja­pan, that adds the x-fac­tor.

Re­gard­less of this, as in­ti­mated ear­lier, Ja­pan has long ex­erted a powerful pull on the West. Con­sider Wabi-sabi, the Ja­pa­nese no­tion of the beauty in im­per­fec­tion that was the 1990s buz­zword. It’s a con­cept epit­o­mised to­day by the work of Bel­gian architect Axel Ver­vo­ordt (self-de­scribed cre­ator of ‘calm, peace­ful spa­ces in which beauty is dis­tilled to its purest form’ – think un­adorned plas­ter and slabs of un­fin­ished wood as ta­bles) and his com­pa­triot, architect and de­signer Vin­cent Van Duy­sen (in­te­rior, far left), re­cently ap­pointed cre­ative direc­tor of Ital­ian pow­er­house Molteni & C.

Over in Italy, architect Mat­teo Bri­oni has re-in­ter­preted Wabi-sabi as a con­tem­po­rary take on the raw earth brick build­ing process. Adding ad­di­tional nat­u­ral el­e­ments such as jute, hemp, mother of pearl and even onyx and quartz to the earth, he has cre­ated ex­tra­or­di­nary in­te­rior wall fin­ishes.

And the new in-the-know-ja­pa­nese-thing? Kintsugi, the art of fix­ing bro­ken ob­jects, usu­ally pot­tery, with gold seams. You can buy kits to do this your­self (see over­leaf). ➤

So, what’s next?

If we were to at­tempt to look fur­ther into the fu­ture, then clearly the Ja­pa­nese stu­dios are the ones to watch. Two in par­tic­u­lar stood out for me this year. Firstly, Toku­jin Yosh­ioka, the de­signer per­haps best known for his ‘Sparkle’ plas­tic stool for Kartell in 2013 or the 2000/2010 ‘Honey-pop’ pa­per con­certina chair (now in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of many ma­jor mu­se­ums), both clever sub­ver­sions of a ba­sic fur­ni­ture type. In Mi­lan this year, he showed a piece for Louis Vuit­ton that am­ply demon­strates his now trade­mark thought­ful­ness with a twist. Ev­ery year, the French fash­ion house selects a hand­ful of de­sign­ers to work with its leather maestros and pro­duce lim­it­ededi­tion pieces. Yosh­ioka’s con­tri­bu­tion was the ‘Blos­som’ stool (right), an origami-es­que ma­nip­u­la­tion of leather and wood or metal, twisted into the form of a seat. Se­condly, Nendo, one of the most pro­lific Ja­pa­nese stu­dios, pre­sented ‘In­vis­i­ble Out­lines’, a se­ries of new works in the Mi­lan show­room of cloth­ing brand Jil San­der. Asked to sum­marise the dis­play’s con­cept, Nendo founder Oki Sato ex­plained, ‘It’s about bound­aries, bor­ders, edges of things; about show­ing new ways of see­ing things’. This trans­lated as vases in­spired by jel­ly­fish, made from a thin, trans­par­ent sil­i­con which wob­bled as if un­der­wa­ter; lights that were hung within the out­lines of boxes that made them into a sort of mise-en-scene with other ob­jects; and the ‘Flow’ col­lec­tion for Ital­ian brand Alias, which merged side ta­bles with large bowls, and shelv­ing units with bul­bous storage tubs, and was de­scribed by Sato as ‘enig­matic yet func­tional fur­ni­ture’.

To con­clude...

It seems to me that Ja­pa­nese de­sign­ers in­tu­itively take a prob­lem and solve not only the ini­tial dilemma but also redefine the very thing that is be­ing chal­lenged in the first place. It’s a sort of sim­ple com­plex­ity that fits per­fectly with ‘New Mod­ern’, the on­go­ing trend for in­creas­ingly luxe ma­te­ri­als and fin­ishes, jewel-bright colours and ex­ag­ger­ated tex­ture that I ➤


in­tro­duced in this year’s Spring/sum­mer Trends Book. But what’s ex­cit­ing is I feel we’re now at a point where th­ese two cul­tural forces – East and West, if you will – meet with­out re­ver­sion to pas­tiche.

I con­clude, then, with this thought: the Ja­pa­nese architect Tadao Ando, now in his mid 70s, once said that the pur­pose of his art is ‘to cre­ate a space where peo­ple can live, think and cre­ate’. I think that this is a won­der­fully broad def­i­ni­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture, and one that per­mits end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties. Per­fectly ex­em­pli­fy­ing this state­ment is my favourite of his works, the ‘Church of the Light’ in Osaka Pre­fec­ture (right). It’s a seem­ingly hum­ble, un­adorned, re­in­forced con­crete box, but nar­row slots in the shape of a cross, the height and width of one end of the build­ing, en­able nat­u­ral light to pour in­side, be­com­ing a strik­ing il­lu­mi­na­tion, a sym­bol of wor­ship and an ever-chang­ing decoration in one (it was com­pleted in 1989, the same year as Amer­i­can star­chi­tect Frank Gehry’s self-con­sciously de­con­struc­tivist Vi­tra De­sign Mu­seum). For me, this build­ing is sym­bolic of the ge­nius in the Ja­pa­nese ap­proach to de­sign, in that it pos­sesses a bril­liant sim­plic­ity.

And the po­ten­tial of this ap­proach feels very right for now, when the world seems rather un­safe, com­pli­cated and bro­ken. How to fix it? Surely with thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, to­tal re­spect for the nat­u­ral world, open­mind­ed­ness about the fu­ture and ac­cep­tance of the past. Bril­liant sim­plic­ity.


Clock­wise from top left Pieces re­paired with Hu­made’s DIY Kintsugi kit. Toku­jin Yosh­ioka’s lim­ited-edi­tion ‘Blos­som’ stool for Louis Vuit­ton. In­te­rior by Bel­gian Wabi-sabi cham­pion Axel Ver­vo­ordt. Lac­quered pots by In­dus­trial Fa­cil­ity in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ja­pan Cre­ative. ‘Sanuye’ wall hang­ing from Oka. ‘Kyoto’ wall­pa­per by Fired Earth

Clock­wise from top right Vases by Nendo, in­spired by jel­ly­fish and made from sil­i­con. The ‘Church of the Light’ by Tadao Ando. Nendo-de­signed ‘Flow’ storage for Alias and ‘Gaku’ pen­dant lamp for Flos hung within a frame to cre­ate a mod­ern mise-en-scene

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