On Kenya Hara

I’ve been meaning to put this up for ages and haven’t got round to it. The current issue of ForbesLife, which came out about a month ago and is still very much on the stands in bookshops, has a massive profile of Kenya Hara’s that I’ve written. When I say massive, I’m not kidding. It’s more than three thousand words and if you buy the current issue, then not only do you get to see the profile alongside images of Hara’s creations (which helps make the thousands of words seem less…interminable), but you also get a fat magazine worth of articles and photographs. Not a bad deal.

For those intrepid enough to attempt reading the unedited article, see below and forgive any typos.

By Design

Look at the remote control closest to you. It is solid, unyielding and plastic. Everything about it establishes the fact that it is inanimate. Now imagine your remote control is a pale, almost fleshy colour. Its shape is the similar but it is soft; soft enough to wilt, curve and bend. Not just that, imagine your remote control breathing.

It isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds. In the mid-2000s, Japanese designer Kenya Hara designed the gel remote control for Panasonic. Not only was it soft to touch and had a fleshy feel, it could be switched on and off. If switched on and left aside (as remote controls tend to be), a soft light emanated from it and the centre of the device rose and fell, mimicking the motion of a living form at rest. However, the moment a human hand approached the remote control, its sensors would be activated and the device would visibly react to the human presence. The glowing light would dull and fade away. The remote control would stiffen in the hand, as though an animate thing was turning into an inanimate thing. This was, as Hara describes it, a “haptic” object. Rather than being a product that mutely performs functions, this one reacted to touch. Its role was to be more than functional, more than just visual. It was designed to make the user think.

“When I designed the gel remote control, I knew most designers would ask, what kind of shape or what kind of layout for the buttons?” said Hara, with a smile. “But if a designer would consider touch and softness, the feel of feeling, it’s the best design change, I think. The sense of touch, the sense of feeling is very important for us.” It isn’t that Hara believes a remote control should, in principle, be soft or that it should look like a slab of white tuna waiting to be sliced up as sashimi. Hara only wants to raise questions. “Questioning is creative,” he said, explaining the guiding principle that he has adhered to over an illustrious career spanning a little more than two decades. “If I can create a very fantastic question, my design has reached its conclusion.”

Japan has a reputation for elegance, minimalism and an aesthetic that is proudly rooted in tradition. Infusing beauty into the most quotidian of activities has been a hallmark of Japanese culture over centuries. Consider the meditative grace of a tea ceremony, the meticulous artistry of ikebana, or the precision and inventiveness of origami. These ancient arts and crafts have survived into the contemporary times and remained part of the country’s distinctive aesthetic even in the modern era, thanks to designers like Ikko Tanaka, one of the founders of MUJI, the Japanese brand of household goods that has become a global favourite and is known for its understated style.

Tanaka, who came into prominence in the 1960s, is widely considered among the most influential designers of his generation. His contribution to the story of modern Japanese design was to introduce Western techniques and create an intriguing hybrid style that nonetheless retained a recognisably Japanese quality.  Buddhist painting, Noh theatre and Kabuki masks met the geometry of Modernist art, Western typography and rich blocks of colour. When he drew the geisha’s face using geometric shapes that could have been plucked out of a painting by Wassily Kandinsky, it was as though tectonic plates of the country’s graphic landscape shifted. “Ikko Tanaka could pull off magic,” said Hara in a reverential tone. Famous for his posters, Tanaka had opened up possibilities with his work that changed how people saw design. He was also the one who came up with the radical, Bauhausian simplicity for MUJI. It was a bold move, particularly because it went against all the established conventions of wooing customers. “Cut off decoration and packaging, and generally the product looks poor,” said Hara. “But Ikko Tanaka could do that and make the article look more fantastic than before.”

In 2001, when the 71 year-old Tanaka approached Hara to join MUJI, Hara was already a well-known designer. He had a growing corpus of commercial work and in 1998, he’d been invited to design the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. Hara spent one sleepless night, agonising over Tanaka’s offer. “He wanted to pass his baton to me but I was very anxious about handling this very heavy baton,” he remembered. Hara ultimately joined MUJI and quickly took charge. While respectful of the importance MUJI gave to its creative department, he introduced significant changes, like bringing in industrial designer Naoto Fukusawa, to revamp the look of the products. The brand’s philosophy was sustainability and simplicity – or “no design”, as it was termed by the founders – and while Hara was a valiant champion of both concepts, he believed some modifications were needed at a practical level. “MUJI’s items were over 5,000. We needed to control the quality of designing,” Hara said. “Of course MUJI is ‘no design’ but no design should be practically controlled by design. That is a very difficult task.” Hara and Fukusawa managed to achieve this delicate balance. Within a few years, Hara had become synonymous with MUJI’s unique aesthetic.

In an age of monograms and logos that demand flaunting, MUJI’s insistence on minimalism stands out today more than ever before. It doesn’t have a logo and its products don’t have the brand name written on them. The palette is limited to pale, natural colours and black; the only deviations may be seen in items like soaps and highlighters. While detractors criticise the lack of frills and describe the trademark style as boring, MUJI goods inspire an almost cultish devotion among its fans. Use a towel or even a toothbrush, and chances are you will feel a prickle of dissatisfaction if you change back to your pre-MUJI brand. Characterised by a pristine elegance, Hara’s aesthetic is imprinted upon MUJI in a way that no logo could match even though he strenuously maintains he is only one of the many people who make up MUJI.

Hara said he hadn’t noticed anything intrinsically Japanese about his work in the early years of his career. “I was leading in design and getting the influence from abroad at first,” he said. “But a little more than 10 years ago, I found that all of my design is very deeply influenced by Japanese philosophy and the Japanese aesthetic.” Hara described this as “an awakening” because it suddenly struck him that he didn’t know as much about Japanese culture as he would like to and began researching. It felt to him like discovering something new – “fresh”, as he described it – and ten years later, Hara’s interest in his country’s creative traditions hasn’t waned. “Even today, I feel I don’t know that enough about Japanese culture,” he said. “So I should dig more. There are many treasures in the ground, in the roots.”

While Tanaka introduced Western modernism to the country’s design aesthetic, Hara has applied concepts from ancient Shinto philosophy to what seems foreign and international in order to renew the Japanese creative identity.  Hara said, “I always say the product is the fruit that is grown on the tree. But the condition of the tree is decided by the quality of the soil.” For Hara, the terroir of Japan’s creativity is characterised by its ancient culture and he cautioned against an indiscriminate fusion. “The way for design to be global is not to mix everything but to purify,” he said. “I don’t want to raise a big wall to keep from the global culture. Of course we should be global. We should connect design to the global context. That is very important. But purity is also very important. Knowing the value of one’s own culture enables a direct connection in a global context.”

One of the central ideas informing Hara’s imagination is emptiness, which isn’t to be confused with Western simplicity. In a lecture titled The Origin of Emptiness, that he has delivered all over the world including on his recent trip to India, Hara eloquently explained why this concept was “the backbone of my aesthetic sensibility”:

“There is no way to make an appointment with the gods. The only thing we can do is invite the gods as guests. … [Shinto Buddhism believes] if we create the conditions of emptiness then the gods that are the forces of nature might come to fill it. Because emptiness is itself the possibility of being filled. Gods who see everything couldn’t fail to see the empty space but that doesn’t give us the certainty that they will enter. They may enter. … Emptiness is not the message but we can see the beginning of communication in the very act of seeing the possibility latent in an empty vessel.”

Hara’s lecture goes on to explain how this notion of emptiness is the basis for the architecture of a Shinto shrine. The obvious deduction from this would be that Hara is a religious man but, despite being the son of a Shinto priest, the designer is not particularly attached to any religious faith. What fascinates him is the possibility of applying the ideas that have played such an integral role in the evolution of ancient Japanese culture to contemporary design in a way that makes a product both international and yet recognisably Japanese. His ideas are actualised in the artwork of MUJI. Neat geometry, white as an articulation of emptiness rather than a flat, basic colour – at their finest, MUJI products embody the poetic ambiguity of abstraction.  With Hara’s meditative words in mind, the MUJI catalogue suddenly looks not Bauhausian, but viscerally Japanese.

When asked to describe the central characteristic of Japan as he sees it, Hara answered without hesitation.  “Japanese people have a great sensibility to see the beauty,” he replied. “But if the Japanese people can sense a very small beauty, they can’t sense the huge ugliness.” According to Hara, it is this double-edged attribute that has led to people allowing their cities to become clusters of ugliness. However, it has advantages that reap benefits for the society. “When I come back to Japan, to Narita Airport, it is very clean,” he said. “The architecture of the airport is very worrying and old but cleanliness of floor, of the toilets is perfect. Why? The person who is working at cleaning, the workers, they have their own aesthetic. It is not enforced. They want to do it. They have their standard. That is very important virtue of Japan: the cleanliness, the dedication, the meticulousness, the precision. Being very careful to be perfect, that is a kind of Japanese aesthetic.”

Taking an idea and reinventing it respectfully is something that Hara believes in sincerely. To articulate what he meant, he offered a metaphor. Imagine you have two identical glasses. One is full and the second is empty. If you pour the water from the full glass to the empty one, some water will inevitably be spilt. So you top up the glass with some more water from another vessel. Pour this glass’ water into another, and similar spillage will occur. Again, a little bit of water must be added. Keep repeating this over and over again, and after some time, all the water in the glass will be new, even though it apparently looks the same.

Hara’s equivalent of pouring water involves applying ancient Shinto concepts to his design and being an enthusiastic teacher. In addition to his many commitments as a designer, curator and author, Hara is also a professor at the prestigious Musashino Art University in Tokyo. “Teaching in university is a great experience for me,” he said. “If I don’t, I have no chance to communicate with young people.” Inevitably there are differences in sensibility between Hara and his students, but this doesn’t bother Hara. He believes design is an attempt to understand and reach universality in a way that pays attention to details, rather than subscribing to a generic idea of modernity. “Today’s trendy design often make people go, ‘Wow!’,” Hara said, pulling his face into an expression of melodramatic shock as he exclaimed with mock theatricality. “But this ‘wow’ diminishes speedily,” he pointed out. “A small wow is very important. Small wows are difficult to find but they have a more lasting effect.”

Early on in his thought-provoking book Designing Design, Hara writes about visiting a pasta factory with fellow designers and seeing the complexity of making something as ordinary and staple as pasta. Two of Hara’s colleagues attempted to create new pasta shapes. Designing Design has images as well as the rationale behind these new forms, which are unlikely to land up on our plates any time soon. Akio Okumura created i flutte, or the flute, and it was shaped like a whistle. “Okumura’s macaroni design satisfies the teeth’s desire for the density of al dente and the tongue’s love of the smoothness of noodles,” wrote Hara, under the picture of i flutte. “The rising crest of a wave is designed to be cooked just enough to retain a somewhat firm texture, while the part of the wave that tumbles down upon the shore is cooked soft and smooth. His solution generates both of these textures simultaneously.”

Behind the cleanest lines and simplest curves lies a layer cake of reasons as dense as Okumura’s. Designing Design is an inspiring read because it is as close as one can get to being privy to Hara’s thoughts. There’s a remarkable clarity in Hara’s thinking even when he raises questions, like when he wonders how different the world would have been if the Industrial Revolution hadn’t spread its tentacles beyond Europe. Hara has a deep-seated mistrust of Westernisation. “Japanese people received Western civilization 140 years ago and it was the beginning of the great turmoil,” he said while talking to ForbesLife. “It began a mix of Japanese culture and Western culture and the great turmoil [resulting from it] continues even today with globalisation.” One of the effects, Hara pointed out, was the homogeneity that plagues metropolises all over the world. “I hate the average city,” he said. “If I was king of the world, I would probably not let them build cities like that. A sense of culture is rooted in locality. Today if it is modern, there is no difference. Globalisation is a term for the economy, an Anglo-Saxon economy. It mixes everything, but becoming a common average is not stimulating for a culture.”

The needed to be rooted is critical to Hara. It sounds ironic when one keeps in mind that it was Hara who suggested MUJI think of itself as a global brand, with branches all over the world, rather than a Japanese brand. However, for Hara, expansion is not to be equated to becoming mass-market manufacturer. With every foray, MUJI has tied up with an eminent designer in order to develop products that respond to the local culture. “Every Zara is the same. Every Chanel is same. But MUJI is not same,” said Hara. “In each country, we gather a collaborator. So in Europe area, we collaborated with Jasper Morrison, the British designer James Irvine, Konstantin Grcic, German designer. Of course, MUJI doesn’t announce this but we do collaborate. MUJI changes. What is MUJI is a very important question and one we’re always thinking about. This thinking, it is an engine for MUJI.”

One of Hara’s most-seen works is a poster he designed for MUJI. It shows a panoramic vision of a flat, white landscape and a bright, blue sky. On the right hand side is a tiny speck that is just about discernible as a human figure. The poster has nothing else. There’s a stark quality to the image, accentuated by the richness of both the white and the blue, as well as eloquence. Rather than no narrative, the image contains a wealth of possibilities and is open to interpretation. You read into its few elements whatever you wish to and consequently, the poster will mean different things to different viewers. The one hope that Hara pins upon his work is that it will make people think about what they choose to surround themselves with in their daily lives because he believes this is how culture is enriched. “Designing is a kind of education of desire,” he said. “Your design has the power to influence. Design should want to make some improvement to the quality of the soil in which you have roots.”

It is with the hope of lighting a spark of awareness about aesthetics as part of everyday reality that Hara has embarked on what he calls House Vision. “The House Vision project is how we can create our own home by ourselves,” he said. “If the people who can create houses by themselves, design becomes much stronger. People will learn much from a project like this – about material, lighting; about the space they really need.” Hara has maintained that good design should not lose sight of the fact it isn’t created for designers, but for consumers. Its role in society is to provide answers to issues faced by society. For example, a chair is required because people need to sit. If a design can raise more questions while fulfilling the intended requirements and without damaging the strengths of a particular culture, then it is excellent. Much of Hara’s disdain for contemporary consumerism and his lack of trust towards modernity comes from the way it threatens creative legacies. In Designing Design, Hara wrote, “Technology has no point unless it subtly awakens and activates the senses of its recipients. Looking around, I notice that on the contrary, people today have been gradually developing thick skins because of technology. They wear elasticized or fleece clothing, sit on comfortable sofas and eat potato chips while watching large-screen TVs.” He then listed some abilities we’re in the process of losing, ranging from letter writing to ikebana to peeling an apple with a knife. “And we laugh it off as nonsense, the training of the old designers,” he said. “But it isn’t a matter of skill. It’s a matter of sensory sophistication, or enhancement.”

Haptic design, or design that responds and is alive to touch, is the future according to Hara. “There are two plates of creation,” he said, borrowing a term from geology. “One is the Eurasia plate. This is an old plate. This thinks design is about shape, colour, material, balance and movement. All the elements are outside elements. Haptic is another plate of designing. This is about how can one feel through design. Not the external phenomena but the internal phenomena is very important for haptic. If the people consider feeling, then design changes.” Hara is not the only one of his tribe who is excited by this new ‘plate’. One of those who is intrigued by haptic design is architect Shigeru Ban, who designed toilet paper and a special dispenser that was square rather than circular. Unlike a regular roll, there was resistance at every tug. Not just that, the dispenser protested with a sound even as it dispensed the paper. This everyday object that usually tumbles obediently now was no longer compliant. It resisted and sought to remind the user to not be wasteful with paper.

Hara’s gel remote control belongs to the haptic school of design. Like Ban’s toilet paper dispenser, it wasn’t an inert object. The importance of touch is of growing importance to Hara in the increasingly digital world, in which new media faces a challenge: to involve all the senses, rather than being simply visual. “Haptic is design for the other senses,” he said. “Today, people think the external look is very important. But please, consider this. Think of your lover. You love his voice, you know him for his touch, not only the face. This is why the haptic is important.”

Despite being one whose work is largely visual, Hara does not believe the prevalence of visual elements in contemporary culture threatens creative genres like text. The internet in particular, according to Hara, is not really a visual medium. “Remember life is a thread of time,” he said. “Media that doesn’t use time, that is very effective. If someone sends me a move and it takes five minutes, or even three minutes [to downlad], it is boring. I lose interest. But words and photographs, they don’t need time. That’s why they are effective.”

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