SHIRO KURAMATA’S DESIGN CONTINUUM
INTRINSIC IN FORM AND MATERIALITY
As one of Japan’s most famed designers, Shiro Kuramata transformed the potential of design through an incredible output of work as a multi-disciplinary designer across furniture, product, interior and retail design. With an experimental approach of diverse materials and production, Kuramata’s works are each in contrast with the other in both form and material, yet are completely identifiable as icons of the 20th century. It was his understanding of materiality and its intrinsic qualities of reflectivity, transparency, translucency, opacity, and tactility that led him to create emotional, iconic works that remain some of the world’s most collectible designs to this day.
Shiro Kuramata, Glass Chair, 1976 | Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Shiro Kuramata
Shiro Kuramata’s works can be easily identified for their expressive and playful designs, vibrant in colour and irreverent of trends. With this radical and bold approach, Kuramata designed over 180 pieces of furniture, interiors for more than 300 bars and restaurants, and numerous retail store designs. Remarkably, he designed over 100 retail interiors for Japanese fashion brand Issey Miyake, with two remaining in Aoyama to this day. Kuramata’s design language melded Japanese traditional aesthetics with Postmodernism and design principles of the West, describing his approach as; “There are two ways in which I usually conceive an idea. One is to start from zero, to take away every bit of a “thing” that lingers around “that object”. The other way is to ask “why”, and to keep throwing the same simple questions at that “thing”. Exploring the potential of form with materials such as acrylic resin, glass, steel mesh, aluminium, marble and terrazzo — his radical approach pushed the capacity of humble materials, transforming them into something more special. Kuramata noted,“I’m interested in artificial materials such as glass, plastic, aluminium and so on. Those are the ones that do not exude a sense of time passing, they do not rust or stain with age.”
Shiro Kuramata, Miss Blanche, 1988 | Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Shiro Kuramata
Photo Jon Lam
Born in Tokyo in 1934, Kuramata grew up during the Second World War and notably, during the time of American occupation in Japan. Initially graduating in Architecture from Tokyo Polytechnic University in 1953, Kuramata joined a local furniture company Teikokukizai, and soon after enrolled at the liberal Kuwasawa Design School in Tokyo. At the school, students were encouraged to think for themselves rather than follow a specific direction or style — a concept based on the school’s kousei teaching studying the principles of form, derived from the German word gestaltung. In 1957 at the age of twenty-two, he began work for Tokyo department store San-ai. Kuramata once detailed, “I think that regardless of whether you’re freelance or not, it all comes down to personal attitude. At the time, I was responsible for a tiny window display and I believe that I could express myself through it, however small the space was. This hasn’t changed. I believe that if life and work aren’t separated but are on the same line, even when it’s about a very small thing, then it comes something enjoyable and not difficult.” Kuramata soon moved to work for a rival retailer in Ginza, the famed Matsuya department store for two years, before founding his own studio Kuramata Design Office in 1965 where he remained until his passing in 1991 at the early age of 56.
It’s this unconventional trajectory across disciplines that led him to a multidisciplinary approach of an unrelenting output of work. Numerous interiors, although many now demolished, still retain an originality that were ahead of their time. Through his extensive experimentation in materiality, Kuramata understood the additional emotional impact of conscious spatial design. He noted, “People tend to see my works in terms of the different materials I employ, but I seldom begin thinking about a design by looking at materials. My stance is not to say that something is warm because it’s made of wood, and cold because it’s made of metal, but I handle materials so as to allow for the possibility that wood may be cold and metal, warm. Through this paradox, particularly in commercial spaces, allows for a person to rediscover himself.” For his interiors for fashion companies such as Edward’s, Esprit and Issey Miyake, Kuramata designed original furniture that aided as an extension of the visual concept. The same design continuum applied to bars and restaurants, such as for the bar OBLOMOV in Hotel II Palazzo in Fukuoka (1989). Former DOMUS editor Deyan Sudjic also once noted, “Kuramata did more than decorate the bars and the nightclubs in which creative Tokyo could flourish, style its shops and make furniture for which comfort was not a priority. He was an active participant in that culture, in his collaboration with its artists, his enthusiasm for cinema and jazz, his political interventions and the poetic elegance of his own writing. He was, for a designer, remarkably eloquent about his memories and motivations.”
Shiro Kuramata, Cabinet de Curiosite, 1989 | Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Shiro Kuramata
Photo Daniel Kukla
Kuramata’s eclectic approach to design was inspired by a diverse group of individuals such as experimental architect Arata Isozaki, performance art group Gutai and even the work of Marcel Duchamp who was a key visual and intellectual point of reference for him. As a trained architect, Kuramata was more interested in space than form, and could create surprising, transformative spaces with such minimal clarity, even amongst external visual noise of the city. Kuramata noted, “The main Western influence on my work is the Bauhaus, and subsequent modernist functional design. I started in design because I could see myself reflected in this ideology. On the other hand Italian design has always fascinated me on account of its extreme freedom.” Inspired by the playful spirit of Ettore Sottsass and a passion for vibrant colors, Kuramata joined the Memphis Group early on in 1981. Ettore Sottsass once explained, “For him, an object, a piece of furniture, an installation is never finished inside the borders of its own physicality. For him, around an object, or around a piece of furniture or around an installation there is never a silence, never abstract dust; always the air around is vibrating, as if it were shaken by a central provocation. That's why very often Shiro was trying to represent not only the object, or the furniture, or the installation but also the many mysterious vibrations that were produced around.”
Shiro Kuramata, Cabinet de Curiosite, 1989 | Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Shiro Kuramata | Photo Daniel Kukla
Kuramata was constantly exploring industrial materials and pushing boundaries in production. Kuramata’s Miss Blanche chair designed in 1988, featured “floating” paper flowers suspended in a chair body made of acrylic resin with aluminium legs. The design stood as a poetic reflection of the notion of eternal beauty, with the chair’s title inspired from a character in Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, evoking the character’s frail vanity longing for preserved beauty. His steel mesh armchair How High The Moon designed in 1986, was intended as a philosophical meditation on the greater concept of a chair, made from expanded steel mesh meticulously handmade by metal craftsmen. Another one of Kuramata’s most influential furniture designs, a glass chair designed in 1976, set a precedent for the use of glass stripped down to its essential elements showcasing a transparency and seeming weightlessness that had never been achieved before. Made from glass planes connected by an innovative new glue, the structure featured no screws, nails, or traces of how it was joined — completely revolutionary at the time. Kuramata noted that the concept was first inspired after watching Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, where he was disappointed by the average and unprogressive set designs. Seeing the film inspired Kuramata to think about the type of furniture he would have designed instead. Created with one of Kuramata’s greatest collaborators Tomohiko Mihoya, who was just nineteen years of age at the time overseeing the family’s glass-making business and deciding to work exclusively on Kuramata’s projects. Mihoya once noted, “It was electrifying, I had never thought that simple flat glass plates could become three-dimensional. That was the moment when I decided that I would bet my life on a designer named Shiro Kuramata.” The pure materialism and minimalism of the glasswork saw further reiterations as a bookshelf Glass Shelves (1976) or Glass Table (1976), and inspired the addition of a second material such as metal, in Expanded Metal Leg (1985). Kuramata once noted, “Glass has no scent and no flavour, it is sensual yet modern.”
Shiro Kuramata, Feather Stool, 1990 | Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Shiro Kuramata
For Kuramata, he achieved a beauty in his works that have stood the test of time, yet when designing them, he was conscious they teetered on a temporary existence on the edge of vanishing. If he were still alive today, he would have been surprised to see that his works continue to be a source of inspiration for current contemporary design. Kuramata once noted, “When I look back on the work I’ve done, it seems I’ve been trying to replace light with shadow. There is still a long way to go, however, before I reach the state of mind described in Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise Of Shadows.” With an unparalleled breadth and depth of an extraordinary body of work across furniture, interior and retail design, Kuramata undoubtedly remains one of Japan’s most famed designers ahead of his time.
Shiro Kuramata, How High The Moon, 1986 | Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Shiro Kuramata | Photo Daniel Kukla
Text: Joanna Kawecki
Images: ©Courtesy of Friedman Benda