BY Emily King in Interviews | 09 SEP 08
Featured in
Issue 117

Happy Shapes

Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa talks about his interest in the interaction between people, everyday objects and their environments

BY Emily King in Interviews | 09 SEP 08

Wall mounted CD Player, designed for Muji, 1998

Launched five years ago under the design direction of Naoto Fukasawa, PLUS MINUS ZERO is an anomaly in the generally bland world of household appliance design. Its small, idiosyncratic range of electronic goods and sundries radiates a force field of mute, three-dimensional charm. In Fukasawa’s hands even the most mundane things – a toaster, for example, or an air filter – become charismatic. According to the designer, the products have hari, a Japanese concept that in physical terms implies surface tension and in the emotional milieu refers to balance and fulfilment. Born in 1956, Fukasawa began his career in Japan designing micro-electronics before moving to San Francisco to work on computer-related projects for the design consultancy ID TWO, later to become IDEO. In 1996 he returned to Tokyo to open an overseas branch of the firm, and in 2003 he went independent, before launching PLUS MINUS ZERO the same year. Alongside creating ranges for PLUS MINUS ZERO, he is an adviser to Muji and designs for numerous international companies, including the well-known Italian concerns Magis and B&B. His signature object, the piece he refers to as a personal turning point, is a wall-mounted CD player, which was first presented in 1998 at a workshop titled ‘Without Thought’ and later realized by Muji. Resembling a ventilation fan, its defining feature is a single power cable/pull switch that operates with a satisfying clunk – an effect that is surprisingly difficult to achieve in the era of touch control. The form of the object can only be understood in relation to the experience of turning it on and off. Fukasawa argues that we have an innate awareness – in his words, a ‘core awareness’ – of design, and in responding to this instinct he arrives at inevitable form. T

he idea of inevitability through design may seem tenuous, yet Fukasawa’s objects have a presence, both authoritative and playful, that confronts relativism. Demonstrated by highly utilitarian yet extraordinarily satisfying pieces, such as the PLUS MINUS ZERO air-purifier from 2003, or the Magis Déjà Vu stool from 2005, his facility with pared-down form and rounded corners is unparalleled. At present incompatible international electricity currents confine PLUS MINUS ZERO electronics to Japan, but this is set to change with the adaptation of a selection of items and their introduction to shops in Europe. Not exactly designed at whim, these products are certainly created according to an idiosyncratic set of urges, and it will be interesting to see how this decidedly Japanese concept of boutique electronics translates worldwide.

Emily King How did you develop your approach to design?

Naoto Fukasawa I used to be interested in making form, just to give people a special feeling in their mind, but I was not really satisfied about why I was making such meaningless shapes. At IDEO in California my main job was creating the form for the computer box. The computer and the monitor are always a very big mass. We had to make something new with it. That was the way of design. My design was like a controlled kind of sculpture. People really liked it, and I was kind of satisfied too, but, on the other hand, after my products sold – six months on – they had totally disappeared. I was a nice form-maker, but there weren’t any reasons why I was making these shapes. So I stopped. At the time I was studying Japanese aesthetics. I found that I was able to understand very clearly the sensibilities of Japanese artists, that I shared those sensibilities, and this encouraged me to move back to Japan. Once I returned, I began thinking about tools, like a hammer or a knife. I feel more comfortable with those kinds of things. My goal is to find the inevitable form, to find the right form for our life. People don’t need design; they need tools for their life. Design shouldn’t be the goal.

EK What would be the first object you would associate with this change of attitude?

NF The Muji CD player from ’98: I just made the form without any kind of decoration. It comes from the time I returned to Tokyo from the USA. That was an interesting period for me. I was changing, becoming more of a Japanese designer. I was reading books about Japanese philosophy and found that they were all saying the same thing. For example, haikus. A haiku is an objective sketch. A really good one doesn’t express the writer’s mind, it is more about the nature, the world: ‘the bird is on the roof.’ Then someone reads it and they say, ‘Wow yes!’ They can access their own hidden mind through a general sketch. It is the same when I create the inevitable form: it is an objective sketch that allows the user to access their hidden mind. If I make a more decorative, more expressive form, saying ‘I don’t like this box, maybe I should make it more cute’, then it will no longer be the object that everyone likes.

EK That strikes me as a very non-Western view, both of poetry and design. Do you think your way of designing is a very particular Japanese way of going about things?

NF I didn’t think so, but it is. The more I studied Japanese culture, history and philosophy, the more I realized that my approach to design is very Japanese. It just happened, naturally. I hate to express. I also discovered the idea of core awareness. If I ask someone what kind of design they want, no one really has a clear answer, as that’s a marketing question. But once I make something new, something better, everyone says, ‘Ah, this is what I wanted.’ You have hidden desires, you already have expectations, but you are not really aware of them. You don’t know your mind. The purpose of design is to discover those expectations. These kinds of things happen naturally, without the involvement of the mind.

EK When people are very comfortable in their environment, they do things without thinking, but being a Westerner coming to Japan, my sense of my body is off. I am not sure I can do anything here without thought.

NF Mind and culture are very different, but our bodies are nearly the same. They are more honest. Your body talks in different ways, through your surroundings, which include everything, even other human beings. I am touching this table while I am talking to you. My mind is focused on communication, but my body is thinking in other ways. Two things are happening at the same time, and touching is sometimes more real, more natural. The body mediates more naturally; it communicates different cultures and is more comfortable fitting into its environment.

EK Do technological developments change your approach to design?

NF I am always thinking about the position of the object. Where it sits between the body and architecture, which I call the wall. If I design a new computer, that naturally goes towards the body side, because it is getting smaller and smaller, fitting around the body. Other things, like a TV for example: it was a huge box that sat between the wall and the body, but now it is going more towards the wall side. And air-conditioners: obviously they are going to be in the wall, but now they are fitting into the wall even more so. The designer’s job is to try and find the right position.

EK So you are suggesting that things should go from the middle in either direction?

NF Not suggesting – that is what’s happening. If I wanted to design a new audio [player] in a funny shape, I wouldn’t be thinking about its position, its status. But take your iPod. People naturally want to have that; they were waiting for it. They already knew that eventually they will have the audio in their ear, either that or embedded in the wall. We cannot ignore these directions because everyone expects them. But how about the tables and chairs? They will stay in the middle for ever, maybe. They have stayed in the same position for hundreds of years. Of course, furniture exists because of the body. Once the body changes, furniture might change.

EK I was reading about the concept of hari that you employ in your designs.

NF Yes, hari is about tension. The surface of this sugar packet has hari, but as soon as you tear it, the hari is lost. If you are healthy, your skin has tension; then everyone says, you are really healthy, you have hari

EK But it means comfortable as well?

NF It means ‘well balanced’. If you are healthy, you communicate well with your environment. Sometimes it is used in a more concrete way, and sometimes in the abstract. For example, I could describe a very old lady who waters the flowers in her apartment every day as hari. Her flowers are the most important thing for her: giving them water puts her life in balance. It is about tension. The flowers’ need for water is a force towards her body and she has to push back. If you want to be a good designer, you have to study hard. The desire to be good is pushing you, and you have to study hard, to push back, in order to be balanced. So you have to study to achieve hari. This is my theory: hari is the balance between inside and outside forces.

EK What gives an object hari?

NF When I design, I try and find the right outline for a form, even for what is basically a straight-sided box. Getting the radius of a corner right, making a funny radius that is totally great, that is what gives a surface hari.

EK Is there ever any point in challenging people’s core awareness of design? Is it ever productive to try and make people accept what they don’t immediately understand?

NF Making tables that exactly fit the expectations of the environment creates a kind of disappearance. People don’t feel a new table there. I like that challenge. Even my design in this room: the body feels, ‘Oh this is a nice room’, but nobody knows why it’s good. Either the chair you design is very quiet, not really expressing anything, or it can be like a flower in the room, like a Philippe Starck chair. There are two different tendencies in design. There are those who like to create flowers and those who prefer to sort out the atmosphere for those flowers. I would say I am more towards the latter kind.

EK If you take the emotional route, can you arrive at inevitable form, can you come to the same sort of answers?

NF Sometimes a designer really wants to have a cool shape, but they don’t see the outline in the world that the object must fit. If you see this outline, then you only have to cut to fit; but if you don’t see this hole, then what you make is a totally useless object. So what makes this shape? You might want a chandelier for your apartment, and I have to read your mind to find the shape, the kind of chandelier you would want to have.

EK So the hole in the world could be chandelier-shaped?

NF Well, that is too direct, but I have to understand what kinds of objects people want to have: whether people want to have a Jasper Morrison Glo-Ball, or a chandelier in their lives. Maybe five years ago everyone wanted only a Glo-Ball, but now everyone wants a Glo-Ball and a chandelier as well.

EK Is there a space in the world for the Starck chair?

NF Starck sees the holes, but he is always trying to make pieces that don’t fit. He has a very special talent. He knows the right form, but still he wants to push his forms where they won’t go. He pushes and pushes, and they really get a force from his energies.

EK Is your approach to design akin to Minimalism?

NF Japanese Minimalism is about harmony. So a chandelier can be minimized, even though it is not simple or minimal. It can take the form of the iconic chandelier – the drawing of the chandelier that everyone has in his or her mind.

EK You thought up the concept of Supernormal with the British designer Jasper Morrison. What is the relationship between that and the idea of good design?

NF Jasper and I have talked a lot about this. This is a very bad pen, a cheap pen from a hotel. You might have a good pen around, but you will prefer to use this one, because it is on the bedside table and you are already familiar with it. If I don’t use my design mind, I will naturally grab this pen, but if I am searching for a design object, I’ll go for the nice pen. Which one makes us happier in life? I think the hotel pen. So Jasper and I said, ‘Hey, you should really open up your mind, open your eyes and see which are the right things for your life.’ We want to make objects that fit your everyday mind, not your design mind.

EK Your and Jasper’s approaches to design are very different, though, aren’t they?

NF Yes, very different.

EK His objects look so normal that they are like a parody of normality, like a picture book, but your objects seem to be more about use, based in something like ergonomics, and as a result they often look quite odd.

NF Jasper has a very strong sense of form. Like a children’s sketch: kawaii – a Japanese word that means ‘cute’, but it is more than cute; it also means ‘very good’. Jasper’s forms are always kawaii, even when he makes a very serious product. He has a clear vision about his form; it is very solid. I respect such attitude, particularly because I tend to be more easily affected by conditions, I try to harmonize with the surroundings.

EK Your 8-inch television has the form of a cathode-ray tube, even though it is an LCD screen. Is this a design dishonesty?

NF The cathode-ray tube is an icon, a simple, iconic shape that everyone is familiar with. When people think of TVs, they often describe them in terms of this traditional shape.

EK But the form doesn’t correspond to current technology: it relates to a redundant mechanism. You don’t believe form follows function?

NF The function is more than simply one person watching TV. This television is part of the environment that surrounds you; it is in your bedroom or your kitchen, so it needs a friendly form. That’s a function, but it is not a technological function.

EK So it is emotionally functional?

NF Yes, emotion is a part of function. It is the same with colour. If I make something red, the colour is part of its function.

EK Tell me about your one-slice toaster?

NF Why do you need two slots?

EK I think we eat more in the West.

NF Yes, maybe. But if you are living yourself, without any other people, then you just eat one piece of bread in the morning. One slot is the right number. But, if three people are eating bread at the same time, then one slot is not enough. But I thought, ‘Why don’t you make toast for someone else first and then wait for your piece?’ That makes a better life. I think the toaster is a totally happy shape, like one of Jasper’s, like bread, and that makes for a very happy moment. No one really knows why this is a good product, but everyone says, ‘Oh that is a nice toaster.’

EK What prompts you to design a new PLUS MINUS ZERO product?

NF There is no brief, no product branding. We don’t decide that a toaster is a good object for the market, but we think that there might be a possibility for an interesting toaster.

EK So you never do market research?

NF No. Muji also doesn’t do market research, but is very successful.

EK How do you think about your consumers?

NF We are our consumers, we use these things every day. We understand the core of our awareness, the core of our product.

EK What is your latest product for PLUS MINUS ZERO?

NF A fan.

EK It is very round. What was its guiding idea?

NF Nothing, it’s just, like, a fan.

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.