The nature of design: The Mori Art Museum brings the outside inside

The nature of design: The Mori Art Museum brings the outside inside

Tokujin Yoshioka talks to CNNGo about nature and design ahead of his exhibition, Sensing Nature
Tokujin Yoshioka

The Mori Art Museum in Roppongi likes to chill out for the summer. Last year they cooled down with Ai Wei Wei’s clever comments on contemporary China -- broken tables, smashed pots and a ton of tea -- and this summer they are presenting Sensing Nature with Tokujin Yoshioka, Taro Shinoda and Takashi Kuribayashi. Subtitled “Rethinking the Japanese Perception of Nature,” the three-man show put together by Senior MAM Curator Mami Kataoka attempts to bring the best of the outside comfortably inside for an audience trying to escape the blast of our urban heat sink. 

Of the three contributors, Tokujin (who is typically known by his first name) stands out for being a designer, albeit one whose work often straddles the line between what is design and what is art. That's not surprising if you know that the 43-year-old Japanese-media darling spent 12 years working for multi-talented, multi-disciplinary fashion designer Issey Miyake. Tokujin curated a fascinating exhibition of his own works and inspirations at Miyake’s Design Site 21_21, “Second Nature” in 2008, and now he’s on display at the Mori with a clean, 15-meter long tank filled with the smallest of white feathers, the first piece you encounter in the exhibition. When blown by two fans in the giant vitrine, the feathers are churned up, roiling in the air as if they were a winter storm of snow.

CNNGo caught up with him before the opening of the exhibition.

Tokujin YoshiokaTokujin YoshiokaCNNGo: What did you learn about nature and design from your participation in the Mori exhibition?

Tokujin Yoshioka: I am interested in the beauty of the unregulated accident, that which cannot be reproduced nor comprehended with the mind -- in other words, that which is natural. We are effected by the appearances of natural phenomenon, but cannot understand how such natural beauty is produced, be it a life, a breeze, a color or even light. 

So I research the nature of such natural phenomenon and try to use the results in new works of design or art. Take, for example, the look of sunshine filtering through branches and leaves. We cannot reproduce it artificially, and I don't aim to do so. What I would like to incorporate the natural beauty of the accidental and experiment with our human senses. 

CNNGo: How do you define the Japanese understanding of nature and how is it related to your work as a designer? 

Tokujin: I feel that Japanese craftmanship is like poetry. The idea of nature is essentially contained within the Japanese word of 'monozukuri' (the process of creation), which I think shows the long and deep relationship between Japanese and nature. Because of my understanding of this, many people outside Japan like to think that what I naturally do as a designer is special and very “Japanese.” But the important thing is this, that even if we think that we can control nature, in reality it’s not possible. Instead, nature is what humans desire. 

CNNGo: Do you consider your installation for the exhibition to be a work of art or design?

Tokujin: Because of various factors, such as globalization, I think the day will come that not only art and design but also food, science and other fields related to creation will all be discussed on the same stage. Given this, I am not conscious of whether something is “art” or “design.” I am in the business of creating things, rather than of creating such categories. In my process of creation, I just go ahead and make things rather than first decide which category the product or object belongs to and then get into the creative process. 

For me, what comes first is that there is always something that I want to present, without any inhibitions, to the eye of the beholder. What is more important than anything else, is the idea of making something that appeals to my heart with the creation of this work. If I can appeal to people’s hearts with my creation, it doesn’t matter what specific category it falls in.

CNNGo: How do you see new consumer technologies such as cell phones and other digital devices effecting design aesthetically?

Tokujin: I feel that we are now living in an age that is dramatically and fundamentally changing our sense of values. Design and creation -- the concept of "arranging shapes” -- has changed significantly. As development moves towards digitalization in industrial products, we are entering an era in which the shape of objects disappears and sensations or experiences become designs or creations themselves.

I used to look for new materials in the past. I thought that was the direction that design would go, and I was attracted to the possibility of having new experiences by producing new materials. But new technology quickly becomes old, and instead -- though many may not think about it -- the only true beauty comes from materials that have already been found. For example, if you use crumpled or torn paper, you can feel its beauty. I feel there’s the element of chance with such materials there that increases the beauty of a work even more. 

CNNGo: What kind of materials are you currently interested in?

Tokujin: In my design, rather than starting from the material, I start with an idea first. There are many simple things that eventually complete a work, but the material is not necessarily what does it.

My design has something in common with Japanese food. Tofu is a delicious without a sauce, you can accept eating it plain. Japanese food culture values bringing out the natural beauty that is within something. A sushi dish can be made just by gripping a knife; you don’t need any other ingredients. By the thoughtful selection of materials, here such as fish and shellfish, you can begin to learn about the nature of the relationship between them and the sea; and then, by eating it, the dish becomes complete.

"Sensing Nature: Yoshioka Tokujin, Shinoda Taro, Kuribayashi Takashi" will show at the Mori Art Museum till November 7, 2010