By Regina Connell.
Why is Japanese design such an inspiration to so many? Ask a creative (a designer, architect, artist, craftsperson, or the like) and this is the typical response: a little sigh, a slight eye-rolling, followed by profoundly unhelpful utterance such as, “Oh well…you know…it’s just so perfect.” The comment ends with a rueful shake of the head.
Let’s put the inability to articulate the cause to one side (it’s like asking why you love someone). But why does Japan evoke these feelings? How has such a small country had such a profound effect on designers and artists? How has a country with a concept of beauty (let alone values and culture) so commonly thought of as “different” from ours in the West come to dominate the imaginations of our artists and designers?
Call us biased but we think much of Japanese culture–and thus design–is built around a craft ethos and it’s this craft ethos we connect with and respond to.
This ethos is founded on an obsession with materials and with practice and technique. The ethos celebrates perfectionism–including perfection in imperfection–and detail and the very small moment. Its energy comes from the willingness to abandon oneself in what one’s doing. And it finds its soul in the commitment to engage all the senses–including the heart.
But the essence of the ethos is just one thing: a radical celebration of–and commitment to–what it means to be human.
It’s easy to dismiss this as the exclusive province of Japanese cultural extremeness, and yet…it resonates with us at some deep level. In this twitterfied, soundbitten, over-spun, over-scaled world, we don’t just respect exceptional, honest, noble work. We crave it. We come home to it. Because we are it.
And that’s part of what went through my mind as I walked through the Museum of Arts and Design’s exquisite exhibit of Japanese work in their permanent collection. Entitled Beauty in All Things: Japanese Art and Design, the exhibit (and exhibit design) is breathtaking, lovely, still, warm.
The exhibit highlights aspects of Japanese aesthetics–wabi sabi, shizen, datsuzoku for example–by showcasing the work of contemporary Japanese designers and artisans.
And we’re not talking about endless iterations of deeply subtle tea ceremony ceramics. Instead, the work often reflects innovations in materials, technique or form and a great deal of it feels fresh, daring, and provocative.
My favorite? Shihoko Fukumoto’s lyrical, dreamy, contemporary take on the Tea Ceremony Room. A glowing shibori meditation using traditional Japanese indigo, it’s spiritual, thoroughly modern, substantial, emotional. I could look at the diaphanous walls billow for hours, constantly changing our perception of a most traditional ceremony.
While the Japanese tend to de-emphasize the personality of the maker, that’s all I found myself thinking about. How on earth could artisans such as Hiroshi Suzuki create such intricately textural emotional work out of a hammer and metal? (See how on this video.)
Or how does Jin Morigami create such fluid, organic, large sculpture out of a painstaking weaving of bamboo? Obsession. Patience. Commitment.
And what is it that impelled the genius team at industrial design icon Nendo (in collaboration with fashion design icon Issey Miyake) to make an unstructured chair (yes, functional, comfortable) out of the paper used during the pleating process for Miyake’s clothes? An almost industrial process meets wabi sabi meets an emotional, philosophical exploration of that most human of conditions: impermanence.
Beauty in All Things inspires and illuminates. Balm for the senses, balm for the soul.
Open through June 3, 2012.