Naoto fukasawa. The unseen outline of things.
naoto fukasawa at chicago museum of contemporary art 15 june 2010.
June 16, 2010, sitting in the retail showroom of Luminaire Chicago waiting to interview product designer Naoto Fukasawa. There won’t be much time because in 30 minutes he and Luminaire founder Nasir Kassamali are off to the Art Institute of Chicago to meet with Zoe Ryan, curator of the architecture and design collection, to tour Italian architect Renzo Piano’s new 294,000-square-foot Modern Wing.
Naoto is in town as Luminaire’s guest during Neocon 2010, the annual contract furniture exposition held annually in Chicago. The night before he spoke to 500 Luminaire guests at the Museum of Contemporary Art. After his presentation there was a reception back at the Luminaire showroom. Last night Naoto was in a sport coat and today a loose fitting shirt and jeans. I was told to speak slowly though his English is certainly polished enough to discuss psychology, human behavior, world cultures, and how design fits in.
Naoto debuted for many in the U.S. in the 2009 movie “Objectified,” a feature-length documentary about our complex relationship with manufactured objects and, by extension, the people who design them. One of a dozen designers in the cast, Naoto is an animated conversationalist, using his time in front of the camera to tell the stories behind concepts, sharing a unique perspective on the object/user relationship. The story telling is his signature delivery.
Design critic Alice Rawsthorn informs me that Naoto is quite well-known to the general public in Asia and Europe. Possibly the most well-known, in part because of his business acumen, his collaborations with renown talent, and his role as a good-design ambassador in these countries.
“Despite all the obvious things one could say about him and his work I feel that what sets him apart from all other contemporary designers is the magical skill to create products without any affectation but which profoundly dissolve into our behavior” ~Konstantin Grcic
[ a most efficient design conclusion ]
One defining characteristic of Naoto’s objects are their simplicity and “inevitable” conclusion. The solution appears effortless and obvious – A most efficient design conclusion. A most appropriate selection of material and construction. The “inevitable” is the realization of the process. But what of the concepting process? This is where Naoto’s life experiences, his mental routines, his designer’s eye take him and collaborators on many adventures and “ah-ha!” moments.
To catch a glimpse of what he’s thinking let’s excerpt from his 2010 book titled The Outline: the unseen outline of things. In this book Naoto collaborates with Tomotsu Fuji, a photographer that Naoto has never met but he had often found himself standing in front of his photos.
[NF] “An ‘outline’ is a contour of something. It is also the boundary that delineates an object and its surroundings. Since that which surrounds an object is air, the outline of a hole in the air that is shaped like an object is the same as the outline of the object itself.
The air (atmosphere) is composed of everything that exists around the object – elements such as people’s experiences and memories; customs and gestures; time, circumstance and sound; technology and culture; and history and trends. Should even one of these elements change, and the outline of the object changes too. People share this outline of the air implicitly.
My job is to determine this outline and to design something that slots right into it. When I first saw Tamasoto’s Fuji’s photos, I was surprised at the indistinct outlines of things. But when I thought about it, I realized that since objects blend into the air and the light, their outlines can’t clearly be seen by people. I was blown way by this fact. I thought, “Fuji takes photos of scenery, even when he’s photographing objects.” He captures both my designs and the air that surrounds them.
Many believe the purpose of taking photos is to erase the background and accentuate the object in question: thinking as much as possible that there is no world around said object.
There are many product designers who do not look at things around an object, who only look at the thing they are designing, who have the idea that the backgrounds attached to things just don’t matter.”
But objects don’t exist by themselves; there is always something that exists around them. This is Naoto’s design philosophy, based on an Eastern philosophy named hari which translates into a “tension.” There is a “tension,” a “force,” that the object and the surrounds inherently possess. And there has to be a balance to create the proper shape of the object. When the force of the object is greater than the surrounds the shape is pushed out. Conversely, a stronger outer surrounds force pushes the shape of the object in. He designs a chair, he has to decide the line, the outline. This is decided by the outside environment–humans, time, ways of sitting–many things decide the shape. An object on its own is not “good design.”
[DA]Perhaps this way of looking at an object and its surroundings drives Naoto to simplify and peel away the unnecessary, like the onion.
[ shape alone is not enough ]
Ten to fifteen years later Naoto began to question the shapes and drifted away from the purely visual. He thought, when you drink a glass of water you don’t think about the glass, just like when you write you don’t think about the pen. This is behavior “without thought” a very Western concept which will transform a bicycle basket into a wastepaper basket, a propped against-the-wall umbrella into a both simple and novel umbrella stand. The “without thought” philosophy now plays a major role in defining the relationship between the object and how the object is used, i.e., bringing in the user.
Jasper Morrison developed the “Super Normal” concept with Naoto. Konstantin Grcic is the person I organized a major exhibition on earlier this year. He briefly worked for Jasper and also works with Naoto on projects for Muji. Konstantin is an incredible designer who like Naoto has a keen sense for bringing innovative solutions to the task of designing everyday objects. Rather than seducing the user with intricacy, Morrison and Naoto have inspired designers such as Grcic to rely on a straightforward approach that is nonetheless inventive.
[ the business of design and design collaboration ]
At one point, Naoto creates a truly innovative CD player that is seen by the Japanese retailer Muji in MOMA. Muji produces the player. Four years of design consultation with Muji leads to a seat on their board of directors. He continues to design and Muji now has 112 outlets outside of Japan, four in NYC. In 2001 Naoto is hired by a CEO of a toy company in Tokyo to create a new kind of consumer electronics and he is now a partner in Plusminuszero, a domestic electronics brand with a pure and simple aesthetic. Plusminuszero further pushes Naoto into marketing and retail modes, diversions he enjoys and is good at. In 2010 Japanese design house Maruni Wood Industry appoints him their art director.
Naoto also enjoys a synergy with carefully selected creative collaborators. We know of photographer, Tamasoto’s Fuji. When Naoto’s name is mentioned, it’s not uncommon to also hear those of English product designer Jasper Morrison and German product designer Konstantin Grcic.
Naoto is also involved in a partnership in Tokyo that is less about commercial and more about raising an awareness of design. Partnering with fashion designer Issey Miyake and graphic designer, Taku Satoh, they ask Japanese architect Tadoa Ando to create a space for design laboratory-like 21_21 Design Sight which will feature rotating exhibitions. 20_20 refers to perfect human vision. 21_21 means better than perfect. Of course. The naming theme is reminiscent of Naoto’s 2006 collaboration with Jasper Morrison, their installation label “Super Normal.”
[ the interview with designapplause]
[DA] what is your favorite color(s) ? [NF] | i don’t have a favorite color. regarding design, colors are really driven by the solution. what are your favorite shapes ? | ha! see favorite color. what time do you get up in the morning ? go to sleep ? what time of day are you most creative ? | my creative moments are not scheduled by the clock. my designers, they can stay up till midnight. i like sleep. will you retire or continue designing to the end ? | design is not work but a way of life. do you use internet or mobile technologies for research, enjoyment, purchasing, communicating ? | i don’t take much time to read but i always seem to be looking for information. i am not a slave to technology but i do know how to use technology. i tend to go to the internet for a quick retrieval of information. what are your passions ? | i can’t think of any. maybe life ? who inspires you ? | matisse. achille castiglioni. it seems one gets inspired by those people you feel you have common beliefs and interests. what is your favorite/least favorite material to work with ? ha again! see color and shape. what are your favorite/least favorite kinds projects ? | i like projects that make life better. your solutions are very conceptually based. “cloud” took 10 minutes. how much time do you spend on the concept phase ? how important is the concept, say versus, execution when selling an idea to the client? how long does it take to sketch out an idea ? | not long ! true, visualizing cloud did not take very long. but the solution was not just me but B & B too. they have a very talented and experienced in-house design and manufacturing capability. the vision is sometimes fleeting compared to the execution. how will products evolve in the future ? they will get smaller. many may become embedded within us. are there already too many products out there ? there are not enough good products. naoto: thank you, i had many more questions. well then, to another day.
[ what’s REALLY necessary ]
Tamotsu says, “Naoto has built a mountain cabin with no running water or electricity where he spends his weekends. Living with these inconveniences shows him what is really necessary in life. This man, who designs cutting-edge industrial products, places himself in inconvenient situations when he thinks. I believe I can trust in the expressions and the words that emerge from such a man. ‘Objects’ do not tell stories, but in fact behind them lie many words and truths.”
[ new: maruni roundish series ]
One year later since Neocon 2010, what’s happened? Just in from Maruni: Roundish.
photo credits: maruni wood industry inc. / roundish. photo by yoneo kawabe | 2011
[ Fukasawa background ]
Born in Yamanashi, Japan, in1956. He graduated from Tama Art University’s product design department in art and 3D design in 1980. After working for Seiko-Epson in 1989, he moved to U.S. and joined American design company IDEO. In 1996, he helped set up ‘IDEO’ in japan. In 2003 he established Naoto Fukasawa Design. While doing design consulting for major companies in Japan, he worked for furniture companies in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. In 2003 he also established Plusminuszero (±0) and acts as its design director. He has continued to hold workshops that are based upon his own thoughts, “Without thought.” In 2006, he founded Super Normal with Jasper Morrison. He is a lecturer in the product design department Musashino Art University and Tama Art University in Tokyo.
[ naoto fukasawa design ] [ plusminuszero ] [ muji ] [ 21_21 design sight ] [ luminaire ]