Product Letter 07.2010

Dear Readers,

This month our Newsletter is entirely devoted to Japanese architecture and design. At the 100% Design exhibition in London we met the up-and-coming young designer who presented his perfectly formed designs under the Nosigner label.
In addition we discribe the change which Japanese architecture has undergone and present some of the projects of the world famous architect Kengo Kuma.

This year we took part in 100%Design with our own stand for the first time, and we were delighted by the positive response.

Be inspired!

Your Architonic team
Zürich | Frankfurt | Berlin | Barcelona | London
Nature as the taskmaster
"Do you want me to show you the best product in the fair. I've got it on me." My colleague took the business card of a Japanese architect out of his trouser pocket, squeezed it lightly between two fingers and then set it in front of me on the table. And of course we wanted to meet the designer of this tiny piece of architecture. The 26-year old, who does not wish to reveal his real name, presented his poetic furniture and object designs at 100%Design under his 'Nosigner' label, and turned out to be one of the highlights of the show.

Spring Rain, Nosigner

Architonic: You originally studied architecture and your teachers were some of the best-known architects in Japan. Why don't you create architectural designs?
Nosigner: My attitude to architecture was very much influenced by a workshop "Archi TV" held by students from Tokyo and the Architectural Institute of Japan with Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima and others as guests. I was representative of the workshop. We dealt with the relationship between the human dimension and architecture. It became clear to me that our body is the centre of all design. For me everything which is outside the human body is architecture. And if you are not able to design small things like a salt shaker well, you will never manage to create designs on a large scale.

So is the work you are doing at the moment a kind of preparatory stage?
One day I'm sure that I'll work as an architect in the classical sense.

Can you rely on financial support when you have finished your studies in Japan?
(laughs) No, not in the least. Everything that I earn with my design work is invested in new designs. There's not much left over at the end.

At the moment you produce all your designs yourself.
I'm very happy that I can still work and design independently. I am currently working as a consultant to a furniture manufacturer in Tokushima. Tokushima is a relatively small town in the south of Japan. The town is well known for its traditional craftsmanship, but things are not looking good for the economy of the region because Japan is too expensive and many manufacturers have relocated their production to China. I would like to support the town, and in addition I have the opportunity to work with experienced craftsmen there.

In a world which is growing closer together, do the origins of a designer still play a significant role?
I have naturally been strongly influenced by my origins. Japan has some wonderful traditions and it would be a shame if these were lost. My design Sumi for example, is a traditional lunchbox from the Tokushima region. It has been made with local craftsmanship. With my design I want to remind people about these customs.

What differentiates Japanese design from European design?
Naturally I can only speak from my own perspective, but the way I experience international design I get the impression that European designers have an entirely different approach. Japanese design often has a core, a deep significance which is almost more important than the surface.
(After some thought) In order to put it in visual terms: if you want to display a circle, a European would draw a circular line. For Europeans the line and the area which is contained inside the line are the relevant elements which create the form. A Japanese, on the other hand, would draw a dot and then draw the circle around this dot. The circle can be large or small, but it always has the same central point. This point is the heart, the important element which is encircled by the line. This density of significance makes Japanese design difficult to adapt.

To what extent does this approach show itself in your design?
It is important for me to be aware of where my design is really coming from. Nature inspires me with its perfection. In fact I don't really regard myself as a designer. In the last analysis I do nothing in my design but implement natural shapes and laws. Arborism is the design of a table which illustrates this approach. The structure of the table's legs follows the fractal algorithm which shapes the natural growth of a tree's branches.
(After some thought) Perhaps this is why I am reluctant to sign my designs with my own name, because all I'm really doing is copying the logic of nature.

The interview was held by Nora Schmidt

Buisness card, Alborism, 2007
Baubiologue, 2004, selescted as one of the twelve best diploma projects in Japan
The power of the empty space
The architect Kengo Kuma
Over the past hundred years Japan has succeeded faster than any other country in Asia in raising its economic influence to western levels. And in the process Japan has gone through a cultural and social change which has been profounder than that of any other industrialized country. The development of Japan as an industrial and naval power was initiated with the accession to power of Meiji in the year 1867. The island state, which was previously cut off from the world, rapidly opened itself up to the rest of the of world and curiosity about western culture spread rapidly. Japan's population doubled to 50 million within 45 years. Institutional architecture adapted itself to western styles, in other words first to Neoclassicism and then to Modernism. However, the real architectural change only came after the second World War. Up to that time traditional Japanese architecture had been characterised in particular by wooden construction. These houses had an average life span of 30 years. In those cities which had been completely flattened by the war there was finally an opportunity to establish long-lasting architecture in the style of the American metropolis. There was experimentation like never before. The year 1959 saw the emergence of the Metabolists, whose focus was the city of the mass society of the future. Their flexible major structures stood for the liveliness of Japanese urban development, and concrete and steel became the ultimate building materials. Kenzo Tange, Arata Isozaki and others earned world fame for the new Japanese architecture.

However the younger generation, including Kengo Kuma, who was born in 1954, has taken a completely different direction. By using natural materials, traditional methods of manufacturing and very restrained design they are paying tribute to their cultural roots and driving forward a new concept of modern Japanese architecture.
This withdrawal from Monumentalism was accompanied by the recession which began in the early nineties, and whose after-effects are still being felt today. It was also the period when Kengo Kuma decided to work in the countryside, outside of the city. In contrast to China or Korea there is very great respect in Japan for traditional craftsmanship. Kuma creates the kind of sophisticated and economical architecture can be created with building materials such as wood and stone. His aim is to bring traditional architecture back into the consciousness of the people, and to re-interpret it for the tenty-first century.

  The power of the empty space  
Lotus House, East Japan 2005, Photos by Daici Ano

According to Kuma the problem of architecture in the European style is its formalism. In the case of Classicism, structure and its proportions are the main focus of interest, and Modernism, too, occupies itself in particular with the beauty of form. Kuma's designs, however, are particularly adaptable as a result of their formal modesty. He considers the typical features of the landscape and the environment the decisive starting point of his work. Architecture has to adapt humbly to its surroundings and become part of them.
As a design feature Kuma uses gaps which enable constant visual contact between the house's occupants or visitors and the outside world and nature. Crevices and gaps of varying sizes pass through his designs like a leitmotiv. An impressive example from the year 2005 is the 'Lotus House'. The travertine façade with its chessboard-like pattern of openings is wrapped around the window front of the house almost like a curtain, creating a delicate interplay of light and shadow. In addition the honest use of materials becomes apparent. The natural stone does not cover the underlying construction and instead forms a major element of the design.

The 'Great Bamboo Wall' is a house dating from the year 2002 and lies in a municipality near the Chinese Wall. The interior walls consist of bamboo rods arranged vertically at a distance from each other, while a grid of bamboo rods breaks the sunlight coming in from above. An immaterial texture created by light and shade is created. Bamboo, which only in recent years has been manufactured into composite materials (see special topic), is almost always used in its original form. In Kengo Kuma's architecture it is cleverly turned into a link between nature and culture.

Great Bamboo Wall, Beijing 2002, Photos by Satoshi Asakawa

The Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo, which was completed in spring of this year, is very much a project which could question whether Kuma's general concept of architecture can be adapted to an urban environment. And the answer once more lies in the detail. The vertical panels which form the façade are ceramic, a material which because of its porosity frequently needs to have a certain thickness or be reinforced with concrete. In the case of the museum, aluminium profiles have been used to reinforce the ceramic material, which has made it possible to create particularly fine edges. And even if this feature of the material lends a certain air of transparency and fragility to the building, it hardly stands out from the usual urban scene and fits in with its surroundings. But if we have understood the master correctly, this is exactly what he is aiming at. After all, a city is only a city.

Text by Nora Schmidt

Suntory Museum of Arts, Tokyo 2007, Photos by Mitsumasa Fujitsuka
100%Design at London
In 1995, when 100%Design was for the first time organised in a tent in Chelsea, it was for the most part young producers and designers who presented their collections. Even if it is hard to imagine now when we look at this year's exhibition, in the early days 100%Design was the first platform at which international designers were able to present their work in Great Britain. The exhibition, which now takes place at the same as the London Design Festival, has since become a major European focus for manufacturers, dealers, designers and design fans from all around the world. Of course for designers it has over the years lost some of its original charm, in particular as a result of its massive growth in size. "There weren't so many wash basins and tiles in the old days" comments one British designer who has been part of the development of 100%Design from the very beginning.

The change in the exhibition has been a strategic one, however, and has its positive side. It was soon realised that in order to compete with the established furniture fairs such as Milan and Cologne the exhibition would have to create a niche for itself. And the division of the exhibition into 100%Detail, 100%Materials and so on has proved to be highly effective, in that the show has now succeeded in becoming increasingly important for architects, too. Construction and material solutions of top-quality and design interest which architects normally have to spend a great deal of time looking for at specialist trade fairs are here selected and presented in a well-organised and accessible way.

This year Architonic has for the first time taken part with a stand of its own.

  100%Design at London  
Architonic stand
With Designspotter at the IMM Cologne
After its great success at the last Cologne furniture fair Designspotter will be there again in January 2008. In Hall 2, in other words in the best possible location, talented young designers have the opportunity to present their products at the 450 sqm Designspotter stand.
You, too, could be there!

  With Designspotter at the IMM Cologne  
Designspotter 2007