Japanese design traditions provide a functional solution for one American company.
By Yayoi Nagata
“I need a story.” This is what the president and CEO of Fabric Images Inc., Marco Alvarez, emphasized when he approached me about a project. He wanted to know about Japanese culture and the hidden stories behind it. Culture-based design today is important because customers do not buy just products anymore; they want the experience behind it. Today Japanese architecture and design might be viewed as a trend in the United States, but how is Japanese culture determined, and who has the right to declare it Japanese design or a design inspired by Japanese culture?
I believe that anyone can tell his or her own cultural stories because each story is a shred of the culture, and storytelling brings infinite definitions of the word culture. Understanding is neither about analyzing nor debating; it is about connecting. In this case, one American company connects with Japanese culture by connecting to a Japanese designer.
Design element offers multiple functions
I was asked to design an element with an attractive form that would have the potential to contain multiple functions. The end product became “Element,” one of the rental product lines for Fabric Images. The purpose of the company’s new Free-Style Leasing was to allow designers to create any structure they wish by renting components that can be assembled in multiple ways. Because both the fabric and frame are rented, they can be reused or, when they are no longer reusable, recycled. I used ideas that originated from Japanese contemporary architecture and traditional Japanese fashion as inspiration. I sought to express intriguing possibilities with transformable shapes that are consistently linked to one another.
Today, designing is becoming borderless due to technology improvements, new discoveries of materials, and integrated human communities and lifestyles. Architecture and fashion in Japan are no exception. A common aspect is that they are made to protect us from our surroundings, serving as a shelter and a beautiful piece of art. Both are special art forms because they wrap the human body.
Our physical world influences how we choose to “wrap”—or protect—ourselves. Because of humid climates and natural disasters, such as earthquakes and typhoons, Japanese architecture and fashion have gone through characteristic developments that have resulted in repetitions of simple forms, layered structures, construction with fewer nails and less glue in architecture, and fashion without buttons and zippers.
Tradition plays a role in Japanese design
Unique patterns derived from family crests called kamon have influenced Japanese design. People started creating new designs, using their favorite kamons and applying them everywhere, including clothes and architecture. Simplified kamons became textile patterns and began to carry messages. There were patterns for newborns, festivals, new businesses and many other life events. People who send messages without words are considered stylish (iki), which is a traditional aesthetic ideal in Japan. Kamon has been accepted three-dimensionally in traditional Japanese architectural detailing and two-dimensionally in textiles and fashion. From an artistic point of view, things have multiple aspects and display versatility, depending on various viewpoints.
Functional beauty and minimal design are often associated with Japanese style, but they are returning to telling stories that provide an emotional connection with the viewer. One of the design elements I used is derived from a traditional Japanese textile design named Kikko, a pattern representing long-lasting happiness derived from kamon. Again, this pattern provides a wordless message, perhaps the most fundamental idea of design, and especially appreciated at exhibit sites, as well as in old Japanese society, because it is very important to catch the visitor’s eyes and attention without talking to them.
In Japan, people believe that odd numbers are good luck to make happiness last forever, because they cannot be divided evenly. When you attend a Japanese marriage ceremony, for example, you will see people give ¥30,000 or ¥50,000 as a congratulatory gift. You will especially see multiples of three everywhere in Japanese culture, from traditional fashion to architecture.
The element I have designed keeps to the story of multiples of three; it has three wings, six feet on the long side, three feet on the short side, and the angles are 60 and 120 degrees, a perfect hexagon. The message in this is to treasure every meeting, for it will never recur. It is natural to hope to keep good relationships forever, not only for marriage and friendship, but also for business relationships.
Japanese design incorporates human writing
Japanese people use three different kinds of forms for writing. The one which has the longest history is a Chinese character we call kanji, or “humans cannot live alone” (cc). The character means “human” in Japanese because each stroke looks like it is supporting the other, showing that we are meant to coexist. One of the interesting features in this design project was the possibility to create infinite forms from groups made with simple individual shapes. I designed single shapes that can be both a space and a form by using many of them, especially the element that I named “human factor,” which visually shows numerous stories inspired by human relationships.
For example, three human elements compose one arch. The arch can represent a group of humans such as a company. Company originally means “a gathering of people,” which says that no matter how the business was created, the power of humans still controls the company. When two arches are intersecting beautifully, they express a business relationship between two companies within the space and demonstrate human commitment visually. As well as an arch, six pieces of “human” elements create a perfect circle. Each of the elements is linked to another circle because humans have more than two relationships.