by Dilpreet BhullarJan 14, 2023
Shiro Kuramata, a pioneering designer of postwar Japan, between 1960s and 1990s, was known for creating new instances of harmony in design by utilising the tension between material and form. At the core of his practice, as a furniture and interior designer, was the interplay of form and function, where he challenged the normalcy of design for domestic spaces and interiors, by bringing out ephemeral, unconventional, poetic, and seemingly impossible designs of his own. What essentially set Kuramata’s work apart from those in the art and design world is the way he challenged the quiet solitude of objecthood through his conceptual inclinations, surpassing genre, and increasingly drawing influence from and creating dialogues with other designers, architects, and artist groups. His work even transcended national boundaries and was celebrated throughout the world, with significant exhibitions in London, Paris and New York.
While Kuramata’s work is often clubbed into the genre of 'minimalism', the overused and insufficiently examined term acts as a misdirection. Minimalism emphasises modernist forms through the refusal of ornamentation, where structures, objects, and even canvases are pared down to their most basic elements. In the minimalist oeuvre, the seeming simplicity achieved through the marriage between form and function is seen as a means to bring out the 'essence' or 'essential quality.' However, this is where Kuramata’s work differs, in that it actively challenged the essentialisation of quality and the 'simplicity' of objecthood to create works that generated awe and spectatorship, besides yearning for qualities such as beauty, fascination, and timelessness.
Through his experimentations with material and form, Kuramata generated investigations into the opposition between natural and industrial. Historically, minimalism is known to have been influenced by Zen Buddhist philosophy and Japanese architecture and while these influence were seen in Kuramata’s use of simple shapes, the designer’s experimentations were in contradiction to the Wabi-Sabi philosophy of quality, aimed at exposing the 'innate character' of materials.
For Kuramata, often it was the contradiction of materiality that he sought. This can be seen in his experimentations with steel mesh, such as his iconic armchair titled How High the Moon from 1986, an edition of which is now housed in the Met. In this instance, the functionality of the armchair comes into question and takes shape as an art object. Much of his experimentation started with ordinary, mass-produced materials such as steel, acrylic, glass and aluminium, significant to the post-industrial age in postwar Japan. These unassuming materials spoke to the everyday domesticity of art, objects, and arguably, beauty, as they generously opposed the lavish designs displaying wealth, status, and royalty.
Notably, the fashion designer also designed interiors for over three hundred bars, restaurants and retail stores, most of which no longer exist and was also associated with the progressive design movement, of the 1980s, the 'Memphis group,' in which he was invited by Italian architect and lifelong friend Ettore Sottsass. While the strain of 'minimalism' continued and coalesced in Memphis group's designs, it was easy to spot a difference in their approach towards form, where colour and shape were emphasised over form. However, the melding of styles and influences, gave rise to most of Kuramata's playful work during this time, with works such as the Kyoto Occasional Table (1983) made of concrete, coloured glass, terrazzo stone and metal, and the sleek Nikko Cabinet (1982) combining lacquered wood and lacquered steel. The Nikko Cabinet is astounding, even today, with its dreamy, retro pink, and unusual emphasis on the cylindrical stand, that makes up most of the piece. The Ritz Scrittoio (1980), a geometric desk made of metal and wood that combines the pared down form of the table with a central intervention to account for storage is another notable design. However, one begins to observe the absurdity of the form, as it appears to have a life of its own,and the table form appears to rotate, creating a seamless wall form. World-renowned fashion designer Issey Miyake, known for his experimentation with form, was also greatly influenced by Kuramata.
With works like Cabinet de Curiosité (1989), Kuramata played with the familiar form of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ and added an entirely modern twist, combining neon colours with the transparency of acrylic resin to display objects as if they were floating. The designer’s best known and most iconic piece produced remains the Miss Blanche (1988) chair, with rose petals and foliage suspended in acrylic glass. Striking and dreamlike in its form, the light and airy quality exuded by the work is paradoxical, due to the actual weight of the chair.
Kuramata’s legacy lies between design and artistic sensibilities, where innovation lies with imaginative forms and material experimentations, and while Kuramata faced an untimely death at the age of 56, he continues to be celebrated and revered as a source of inspiration for generations of artists and designers.