Japanese designer Chihiro Tanaka is a self-proclaimed “Light Couturier” who creates delicately crafted lighting inspired by his training in fashion. Having recently been named a Rising Asian Talent by MAISON&OBJET ASIA, Justin Zhuang finds out how he arrived at the bright idea to blend the craft and techniques of two different disciplines.
How did you go from studying at Japan’s first dress-making school, Bunka Fashion College, to designing lighting?
I have a fairly extensive knowledge of fashion and textile design, so I thought if I could use and apply this expertise in a brand new field that I knew nothing of it would lead to something innovative. Lighting equipment involves work to verify its safety and durability, so entering the market is quite difficult. But that difficulty stimulated my curiosity and I plunged into this unknown world.
One of the biggest issues I’ve always felt about my understanding of design (and even the world) is it has been largely from the view of the West. Living in Singapore where English is our first language, I’ve easily gained accessed to the tomes (and tonnes) of writing about design from Europe and North America. Most of these are not only from the West, but are also about the West, as English-language writers and publishers are only just starting to take notice of the Asian design scene.
A hint that designers from my neighbouring countries might have something else to offer first came when I attended “The Way of Asian Design” forum in Singapore a few years ago, featuring Kirti Trivedi, Ahn Sang-Soo, Lu Jingren and Kohei Sugiura. Then, I chanced upon Kenya Hara’s Designing Design, one of a select few English-language publications from an Asian designer. At the beginning of this year, I discovered Chinese translations of Japanese design books on a trip to Taiwan, and I immediately bought them—assuring myself that my rusty Chinese language I picked up in school would hold me in good stead.
It barely did, especially since the books were in Traditional Chinese script, and I learnt the language in Simplified Chinese. Nevertheless, I’ve trudged through a few volumes of these Chinese-language design books along with other Asian design books over the year and here are some things I’ve picked up, accompanied by interesting related links:
Clockwise from top left: Books, Text, and Design in Asia (2006), The Way of Asian Design (2010), Dialogue in Design: Kenya Hara x Masayo Ave (2009), Graphic Design Magazine #21 (2011), Papier Labo (2010), and Ex-formation: Plants (2008).
The conversations mostly revolve around the history of craft and culture in the respective countries and how each designer has tapped into that for their design work. One becomes aware of the possibilities when designing in the language of a particular culture; and it struck me that the traditional Chinese character is both a graphic and word that represents what it means, which is unlike the Roman alphabet that makes up most of our modern-day languages.
The Way of Asian Design (2010) This is the printed volume of the proceedings that went on during a forum held in Singapore in November 2007. Four Asian designers—Kohei Sugiura, Ahn Sang-Soo, Lu Jingren and Kirti Trivedi— shared their design philosophies and showed how their work were underpinned by the region’s cultures and beliefs. Like during the forum, the speeches have been translated into English, which makes it very useful for those who can only understand Asia through this language.
A standout speech was Kohei’s design philosophy of “one in two, two in one” and “one in many, many in one”, which he attributes to how ancient sages in China and India thought how the universe works, thus the concepts such as Yin and Yang. In Kohei’s case, he compares a book to a universe, which hosts a multitude of characters, stories and elements in a single form, thus “one in many, many in one”. The structure of a book can also been seen as many pairs of pages that extend left and right to top and bottom; and this he says represents sky and earth, beginning and end, past and future. Yet, when the book is closed, this duality becomes one, thus “one in two, two in one”.
Kohei then extends this design philosophy to the reader too. He says, “…We readers of books have bodies that reflect this same duality, with the left half and right half. When we pray we join our hands together. In doing so, we unite the right and left sides of our bodies into one. Our body hosts one heart, and this one heart is what we offer together with our prayers.”
It is in this view that guides how he designs his books, which unlike contemporary zen-like Japanese designs are full of colour, details and possibilities—and got me re-thinking what I thought I knew as Japanese design.
Moving from an older Japanese designer to two contemporary ones, this is another conversation-drive book that revolves around Kenya Hara and Masayo Ave, who travelled between their bases of Berlin and Japan to chat about design in the two countries, society and their personal lives. There is certainly a thread here amongst these Japanese designers regardless of generations: how they see design as integral to the way they live. They don’t see it in terms of its “value-add” or how well it sells, or whether it is aesthetically beautiful. To them, design is an expression of values, which makes it such a personal and powerful endeavor.
Reading the conversations between the duo, I found it curious that the Japanese feel design in their country is too insular and needs to make itself understandable to the global arena to survive. Ironically, this is the reverse of what I have been thinking about Singapore, where design is so attuned to globalisation that it has no voice of its own.
These two books are really photo books for me because both are in languages I do not understand.
GRAPHIC is an independent South Korean design magazine started in 2007, and is now trying to reach out to the world by publishing both in Korean and English. The issue I got was Korean-only because it is an “archive” of another Korean magazine, DESIGN, which it regards as a pioneer of the community, having been publishing since 1976. It’s a fantastic flip through 400 of DESIGN’s covers and a selection of Korean works that together paint how the scene has evolved. Unfortunately, I ‘m not able to read the essays, which I can only imagine help to make this issue of GRAPHIC, a significant one in understanding its country’s design history.
As for the Japanese-only Papier Labo book, I gathered from online that it is a custom printing press formed in 2007 in the Sendagaya area of Tokyo, and this is a book that documents the work that goes into this studio. I was simply struck by how beautiful the book is as an object, as well as the photography of the works they have created and studio life.
This is essentially a report of the 2007 edition of Kenya Hara’s Ex-formation project, an annual research he conducts with students at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo to understand how little we know, to question what we think we know and understand. For this edition, the group explores the theme of “plants” and they design a series of projects that present us new ways of looking at them as silhouettes, food, products, and colours—which makes the book a delightfully unexpected page-turner.
If you know of other Asian design books worth checking out, do drop me a comment. I understand Jamie Winder and Iain Hector from Where You Going? are already working on a book about Southeast Asian design after traveling through this area, so that should be something to look out for.
Hong Kong retail store Goods of Desire opened in Singapore two weeks back and I finally checked it out last night. The label, founded in 1996, sells an eclectic collection of goods ranging from clothing to homeware that are designed to be “quintessentially Hong Kong”. One of their most distinctive design approaches has been to appropriate everyday things from the city to create goods that represent Hong Kong.
I walked out of the store wondering, where is Singapore’s Goods of Desire? It’s not a difficult concept to execute and many Singapore designers have used a similar approach to design an array of Singapore-inspired products. One of the early pioneers is Casey Chen, who created the Taxi Lamp (2002) and the DynaGlo Lamp (2005). There’s also &Larry, who has designed various “Objects” that express Singapore’s identity. More recently, we have Singapore Souvenirs (2009), where a group of industrial designers explored 37 new concepts of what a Singapore memento could be. This has become a permanent project of design group triggerhappy.
Besides representing Hong Kong, Goods of Desire also designs products “to live better”, promoting a certain lifestyle. Again, Singapore has a generation of young designers doing just that. Uyii produces bags by hand because “in this world of mass production, there is a place for special designs with handmade touch”. Similarly, local label wheniwasfour wants to “play a part of the demographic that enjoys ‘slow living’, simple happiness”.
What is missing in Singapore at this point is some kind of “super label” that connects all these creations. Currently, small shops such as S U P E R M A M A and little dröm store carry many of these products, and design studio FARM, also commissions, produces and sells such products via its online store. However, to take these designs to the mass market, and even internationally, there needs to be a certain volume and presence.
I don’t think what Singapore lacks now is creative talent — there are many more labels that those I’ve listed — but rather someone or an entity who can offer the commercial expertise and financial backing. Just as Hong Kong has its Goods of Desire and Japan has MUJI, it’s only a matter of time before such a concept store emerges from the shores of Singapore.