Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Book Reviews Archive

Designing Design

by Kenya Hara
Lars Müller Publishers, Baden, Switzerland, 2007
474 pp., illus. , 50 b/w, 400 col. Trade, 39.90 Euros
ISBN: 978-3-03778-105-0.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


In our hands, a shiny white book. It embodies a cool, crisp aesthetic of whiteness, which is the subject of a heartfelt essay by this notable Japanese designer, found in the center of the book. Kenya Hara discusses white as a design concept, in relation to chaos-producing entropy, and in contrast to black type or powerful red symbols. He discusses white in the context of Japanese color theory in the Heian period, 794 to 1185. The piece closes with his series of white-on-white magazine covers, photographs of barely-there objects.

There is a simplicity and economy to Hara’s ad campaign called "Nothing, Yet Everything" for MUJI (a Japanese department store that appears comparable to IKEA), its motto "Lower priced for a reason". The ads show wide, sparse landscape vistas with the MUJI logo perched atop the horizon like distant Stonehenge. Shots are taken around the world, from ice floes to picturesque villages in Cameroon and Morocco. The designer advocates an emptiness like that of a bowl, and the simplicity of a traditional Japanese tearoom. One can almost hear Hara–I imagine him soft-spoken and patient–selling his ideas through the use of attractive metaphors to the corporate bigwigs.

He has been the organizer of exhibitions of the redesign of everyday things that resulted in startling solutions: ice cream dispensed in various shapes, juice containers like fruit (banana, kiwi, strawberry) skins, and pasta shapes rethought by various architects. His portfolio gives us elegantly simple hotel, rice and wine packaging, and a series of symbols of sports for the Beijing 2008 Olympics that show active figures like ancient caligrammes.

In one essay, Japan is described as a pachinko game into which many Eurasian influences drop. In his historical essay "What Is Design?", Hara traces aesthetics from Ruskin and Morris through "The Prank of Postmodernism", with kind words for both Droog Design and John Maeda. He expresses his sadness about the 2005 Expo that veered from its original green ethic (its motto was "Byond Development: Rediscovering Nature’s Wisdom", and was to be held in a forest) through a series of commercial compromises.

Hara has delivered thoughtful museum signage, soft fabric signs in a hospital, and proposed puffy vinyl roadsigns. He is a proponent of haptic design, using sensations of touch as well as sight. A disposable tissue is embossed like a snake’s shed skin, a book cover is given a blistered, braille-like pattern, and similar nubs upon a piece of paper turns it into a pachinko game that uses water drops. We are shown a hanging lamp like a wig, a touchable gel doorknob like a cartoon character’s hand and a quivering translucent gel remote control. Weirdest of all is a "Mom’s Baby", a fetal multi-socket electric cord that evokes both the umbilical cord and suckling. Want a few of those lying around your carpeted floor?

Work by Hara’s students at the Masahimo Art University Department of Science and Design includes nature on the ground around the Shimanto river photographed in the shape of footprints, to trigger in viewers the sensation of walking barefoot. The river gets depicted by them as an asphalt highway, and a parking lot where it is dammed. One student cuts photographs of it into cubes. The students learn that nature, in both its emptiness and its small details, becomes another medium in the hands of a thoughtful designer like Kenya Hara.



Updated 1st February 2008

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2008 ISAST