Interior Design

A yen for simplicity

Gifted Japanese designers are making the hearts of homeowners beat faster with their precision, playfulness and lightness of touch. Katrina Burroughs reports.

May 10 2011
Katrina Burroughs

It’s as if there has been a G8 summit to discuss design, and the agenda-setting interiors brands, the global design powerhouses that commission the hottest contemporary designers, have issued this communiqué for 2011: think Japanese. Alessi, Ligne Roset, Cappellini and Conran have all been hiring Japanese designers to create directional homewares for their collections.

For some, it’s not a new path. Giulio Cappellini, creative director of Italian design company Cappellini, global talent scout and champion of the creative interior, has been a fan of Japanese art and crafts since he first collaborated with Shiro Kuramata on a series of landmark designs, such as the Homage To Mondrian cupboard, launched in 1975 (reissued in 2009, from £9,900). Cappellini’s most recent Japanese partnership has been with architect Oki Sato of Nendo, whose celebrated Ribbon Stool he unveiled last year, remixed with a perky pair of Mickey Mouse ears (from £350). Cappellini loves the way Japanese designers combine playfulness with profound attention to minutiae. “In Nendo’s works I see a spirit of lightness. That’s the pure spirit of Japan.” He adds: “We can spend all day looking at small details of the metal frame of the chair together. The difference between one product and another is really in this attention to detail.”

Oki Sato is one of the names that currently makes the hearts of creative directors across the globe beat faster. His finest design to date is arguably the Cord Chair, launched in 2009 (€10,000), which he created for Maruni, one of the oldest furniture makers in Japan. The Cord is a super-slender wooden chair, with legs of 15mm diameter, so waiflike that it’s very nearly not there. Each maple leg is hollowed out to conceal a steel frame for strength and left completely undecorated. It is a very Japanese collaboration between Maruni, renowned for its perfectionism and earnest “industrial application of craft skills”, and the wit and imagination of the designer. Oki Sato’s explanation of the project is as elegant as his furnishings: “In Japanese culture we like to try adding emotional value by removing elements. Addition by subtraction. You can tell this culture from traditional Japanese food. Cooks put all of their effort and energy into the preparation, but the output, the dishes, are really simple. You never see the effort, visually, but when you eat it, you can tell it is so special.”

What’s especially special about 2011, though, is that Sato is far from alone. Olivier Roset, of fashion-forward French interiors brand Ligne Roset, says he has never received so many proposals from gifted Japanese designers as within the past couple of years. Ligne Roset, like Cappellini, is known for its collaborations with established and emerging designers. Highlights of this year’s collections include works by three little-known Japanese creatives. Kensaku Oshiro contributes the Belize mirror, a solid American walnut frame set with an irregular, organically shaped piece of mirrored glass, like a puddle (from £359). Kazuko Okamoto’s modular shelving system (Oka, from £625), allows lavender or blue sections to be mixed with walnut or white bays. Most engaging of all, Hiroshi Kawano’s highly original Kasumi lamp uses bubblewrap to give an attractive, soft volume to the shade (from £173).

Olivier Roset says the trio is typical of the Japanese talent inspiring the design world: “We have always loved Japanese design, because it is very pure. We have always loved the craftsmanship of the Japanese, with huge thought for the products and materials. But now they’re more and more creative – always one step ahead of the others.” He says: “It’s delicate work, with lots of sensitivity, pure and timeless, ecological, natural… so the opposite of bling.” Has our taste for bling been blunted? Roset reckons that perhaps it has, and a yearning for modest, craftsmanlike pieces is part of the reason the most influential interiors brands are loving Japanese designers.

The glitzy princess of all things bling is surely the cut-glass chandelier. This year, collaborating with a Japanese artist for the first time in the firm’s history, Baccarat has reimagined its trademark crystal-dripping light fitting. At this year’s Salon del Mobile in Milan, Baccarat launched a limited-edition chandelier (edition of eight, €50,000) and lantern (edition of five, €50,000) in paper, studded with crystals and LEDs, by Eriko Horiki. Horiki works in washi (traditional Japanese paper), often on a grand scale – her installations appear in Narita airport and the Galleria in Tokyo midtown. The Baccarat fittings, available from October, don’t lack magnificence, but they’re fresh and innovative, clean and serene.

Hiroshi Ogawa, president of Baccarat Japan, which happens to be the French brand’s most avid market, describes the concept as “modernity with roots”, and says this is a typically Japanese combination. “We, the Japanese, respect heritage. Yet we always look for something modern and innovative. Japanese paper produced and created by Ms Horiki is very authentic and traditional. However, her designs and what she produces are quite modern, though highly respecting the real heritage value of Japanese paper.”

It’s not just the decorative flourishes of the interior that are turning Japanese this year. The tools of everyday life are being transformed. Alessi’s latest launches include the Shiba range of pots and pans by Naoto Fukasawa. Fukasawa is the fêted industrial designer whose Hiroshima chair for Maruni (from £715) created such a stir last year, who has also contributed to the collections of B&B Italia, Magis and Artemide. For Alessi’s 2011 collection, he has started with the idea that a typical household only uses so much cookware, and concluded, “Why not make that capsule collection absolutely perfect?” The Shiba set, named after a stubborn, spirited little Japanese dog, is robust and simple, with aluminium and stainless-steel bodies and stocky Hiba wood handles (from £35 for the stainless-steel saucepan with lid). It feels satisfying in the hand and looks at once traditional and absolutely new.

“This is not something new for us,” says CEO Alberto Alessi, who points out he has been working with Japanese designers for two decades, collaborating with Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa (founders of the Tokyo-based firm Sejima, Nishizawa and Associates, or SANAA) and architect Toyo Ito. “What is new, working with Naoto Fukasawa, is we feel we are going back to the fundamentals of design, a new simplicity. Being so simple, actually Naoto is very demanding in terms of precise detail. He was asking my technicians to adapt every detail of this very simple pot… for instance, the form of the handle, which is not regular, has a special shape designed for the hand – in fact, to fit the hand of Naoto.”

Though European design houses have fallen head over heels for Japanese designers, some of the most spectacular pieces to launch in 2011 are expressions of Japanese passion for foreign design; for instance, Shin Azumi’s Nara range for Danish firm Fredericia Furniture, which takes its name from Japan’s ancient capital in the Kansai region of Japan. Azumi says: “There is a lot of common cause between Danish design and Japanese craftsmanship, and that’s why Japanese people love Danish furniture.” Azumi explains how he conceived his solid wood Nara dining chair (£452): “I always try to create a maximum effect from a minimum solution. I tried to extract from Danish furniture and develop it further, with my way of thinking. I think it looks Danish but lots of people have mentioned that the dark painted version looks like black ink calligraphy – the chair looks like a character. That’s coming out completely unconsciously.”

To say the Nara range has been well received would be an exercise in understatement that the designer would probably appreciate. It has been rapturously welcomed. Chrystina Schmidt, co-founder of Scandinavian interiors stores Skandium, says: “I looked at it and thought, ‘This is another milestone.’ The Wishbone chair set a new aesthetic in its time and now the Nara chair has truly managed to set new standards in chair design. There’s that bareness and simplicity that you find in Japanese interiors, a natural understanding of laying things bare and making them as precise as possible, with care in detail, right down to which glue you are choosing.”

Such care in detail is catnip to design insiders right now. Products on which almost OCD levels of attention have been lavished are acknowledged with prizes by public bodies and sought out as never before by private buyers. Join is a prime example (limited edition, £6,600 each). A series of three Hinoki (Japanese cypress) screens, created last year by design duo BCXSY (Boaz Cohen and Sayaka Yamamoto), Join is on show at the Design Museum in London (until August 7), among the designs shortlisted for the Brit Insurance Design Awards. Cohen and Yamamoto collaborated with a master of Japanese Tategu wood joinery to make works that combine Japanese craft with contemporary forms. “The pieces are handmade with such precision – each screen requires a variety of different tools that are often custom-made by the craftsman to address a specific task,” explains Yamamoto.

Kuniko Thompson of Biden Designs can attest to a new wave of enthusiasm for fine Japanese crafts among London interior designers. She imports furniture and accessories from Japanese artisans mainly working in Kyoto. “It’s a place very rich in culture, where the capital was for over 1,000 years, and the good craftsmen tend to be based there,” she eplains. Her bestseller is a basketwoven wallcovering (£870 per 93cm x 750cm roll) in Paulownia, the timber from which traditional Japanese umbrellas and clogs are made. Doesn’t sound so special? “It’s precisely a tenth of a millimetre thick,” she says. “It’s extraordinary. Sliced into incredibly thin strips, with a lovely natural sheen and texture. It looks different in every light and from every angle.”

This combination of understatement and overdelivery is perhaps key to the appeal of Japanese design. It’s what Carmel Allen, creative director of The Conran Shop, calls “taking the everyday to an art form”. She explains: “Every little thing is done with such mindfulness, always elevating it, always wanting to be pioneers.” This month, The Conran Shop in London is showcasing the work of ceramicist Kaori Tatebayashi. The bowls, jugs, teapots and cups and trays are inspired by nature; for instance, the pattern of Kage plate, named after the Japanese word for shadow, is drawn from a plant silhouette. Working in a limited colour palette and a repertoire of very few forms, Tatebayashi has stripped tableware back to its basics – like Fukusawa with his pots and pans, she is creating the ideal capsule collection (from £24 for bowls to £180 for jugs). She says: “I would like my work to be fresh and innovative, but comfortable to use at the same time. I hope my tableware gives you a quiet, sensual treat.” Who says these summits never come to any worthwhile conclusions?