August 26, 2013
<i>Metropolis</i> + Japan
Last May, JETRO, the Japan External Trade Organization, delighted attendees of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, in New York, with the American debut of kansei (a Japanese concept that roughly translates to “emotional and physical appeal”) in a show called Japan by Design. This report is based on that introductory exhibition.
What is good design? If you ask an American, she might cite the Museum of Modern Art’s historic 1950s exhibitions of the same name, which championed simple, Modernist forms over ornamentation and historical styles. Ask a European, and you’ll hear mention of Dieter Rams’s ten commandments on the subject, which emphasize functionality, durability, and environmental responsibility. But ask a Japanese designer, and you’ll see good design through a different lens. For him, it means that a product has a high kansei value, or emotional and physical appeal to the user.
Kansei is manifested in three ways. The first is the expres-sion (hyojo) of an object, or its appearance. This includes color, texture, material, and surface treatments: all the qualities visible to the eye. The second is the creator’s gesture or intent (dosa), or the body’s physical responses to the object. These become apparent upon using or touching the object—how it feels in the hand and how its fragility or strength dictates one’s movements. Finally, there is the heart (kokoro)—the emotions an object stirs. This psychological dimension is the most abstract, but it’s also the most prized by Japanese designers, who speak of the feelings of recognition, attachment, or playfulness that an object elicits in its user, perhaps because it functions so well or is pleasant to look at.
What follows are products that skillfully fulfill the tenets of kansei. Some are simple and solid; they are the workhorses of a home. Others address environmental and social sustainability. Some are the fruits of designers and craftsmen who keep the traditional arts alive, while others, such as Nissan’s Cube car, use technology to speed straight into the future. This is a snapshot of where Japanese product design is today, and a glimpse at the directions it might take tomorrow.