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Architecture and Design

How Japan influenced Nordic aesthetics and vice versa, and why designs of both are growing more popular in Hong Kong

Simplicity, craftsmanship and premium materials characterise their furniture and other products, but Japanese designs may have the edge in Hong Kong simply because they are smaller

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 December, 2017, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 January, 2018, 6:54pm

Japanese interior designer Koichiro Ikebuchi may have based his studio in Singapore, but he remains deeply inspired by his home country.

Whether he is designing hotel rooms in Bangkok or a restaurant in Jakarta, Ikebuchi is known for projects featuring the clean lines, minimalist furniture and natural materials that are associated with Japanese designers. In the clubhouse of the Pavilia Hill residential development in Tin Hau, Hong Kong, which opened in mid-2016, Ikebuchi went so far as to install a swimming pool inspired by Japanese onsen.

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Asked what differentiates Japanese design from similarly sleek Scandinavian interiors, Ikebuchi is stumped. “I don’t see any obvious differences,” he muses. “Both are particular about details, both pursue simplicity, both prefer crude beauty rather than decorative and both have sympathy to craft works.”

But how did Japan and the Nordic countries end up developing such similar aesthetics? And why are brands from these countries so popular in Hong Kong?

For a start, there’s been plenty of historical cross-pollination between the two. Copenhagen’s Designmuseum Danmark is currently hosting an exhibition called Learning From Japan, which documents how Japan has influenced Danish design since 1870.

The exhibition will run until autumn 2018, and features objects including Danish pottery from the late 19th century that uses Japanese glazing techniques and a tray designed in 1984 by Snorre Stephenson for serving Japanese meals, which wouldn’t look out of place in a ryokan in Kyoto.

And the admiration flows both ways. YC Chen, founder of Hong Kong-based interiors firm Hoo, says Japanese consumers are big fans of Scandinavian design. “Japanese people love all the big Scandinavian brands,” he says, citing Carl Hansen & Son, Fritz Hansen and Louis Poulsen, among others.

As if to prove his point, last year Japanese department store Muji launched a line of Swedish-inspired goods called Found Muji Sweden.

When we were first using these designers seven or eight years ago, they weren’t that popular. Now you see a lot more shops selling these brands
YC Chen

Ikebuchi acknowledges that he regularly looks to Scandinavian designers for inspiration. “I love Tapio Wirkkala’s glass works, Finn Juhl’s armchairs and Georg Jensen’s silverware,” he says.

Despite the mutual admiration between Japanese and Scandinavian designers, Keith Chan, founder of Hong Kong-based interior design firm Hintegro, points out the differences in the roots of the two regions’ aesthetics.

Chan has long been inspired by Japanese design and recently collaborated with Kagoshima-based studio Vega House on a Japanese pebble garden outside whisky bar Mizunara: The Library, in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. Working alongside the Vega House designers encouraged Chan to dig into Japan’s design history.

Parts of Scandinavia and Japan are heavily forested and can experience long, dark winters, hence their affinity for wooden furniture and love of natural light. But Chan says there’s a more spiritual element behind traditional Japanese design.

“In the 16th century, a Japanese tea master called Sen no Rikyu believed that tea was something from God, from nature, so we had to worship it,” he says. “So he insisted that all of the materials used to build tea houses came from nature … and started using bamboo, wood and paper.

“That was the start of Japanese minimalism. The minimalism is not only about colour and materials but also about mindfulness. You have to put aside your ego before enjoying your tea.”

The two styles also emerged at different times. While the first codes of Japanese design were set down in the 16th century, a unified Scandinavian aesthetic didn’t emerge until the 1950s, when Nordic designers such as Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen rose to fame as figureheads of the functionalist movement.

Japanese gardens have a long, long history. Even if I spent 10 years studying it, I don’t think I could learn how to design one properly
Keith Chan

Chen believes the fact that Scandinavian furniture brands are the designer labels of the interiors world, and have been since they emerged in the mid-20th century, lies behind their popularity among Hongkongers, who, he says, gravitate towards not just the big Scandinavian brands but also the playful ones, like Hay, Muuto and Gubi.

Now Japanese brands such as Karimoku and Class are starting to gain similar cachet – and not just because, like their Scandinavian counterparts, they generally use premium materials for products that can be passed from generation to generation.

While the minimalism that underpins both means they can fit unobtrusively into most rooms, in Hong Kong Japanese furniture has the upper hand simply because of its size. “In both Hong Kong and Japan our flats are tiny, so we use small tables and small sofas,” Chan says.

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As for his work on the pebble garden outside Mizunara: The Library, Chan says he deferred unreservedly to the Japanese designers with whom he was collaborating. “Although I’m a designer, in this case Vega House did the design,” Chan says. “Japanese gardens have a long, long history. Even if I spent 10 years studying it, I don’t think I could learn how to design one properly. So they did the design, then I provided the labour and some materials from Hong Kong.”

He adds that Hongkongers should not simply copy designs or aesthetics from other countries, and neither should they cleave solely to a particular look. Filling standard Hong Kong homes with just Danish or Swedish furniture is not tenable because of the relatively big sizes, he says. But Japanese designs can also be unsuitable because they tend to be lower, height-wise, than Hongkongers are used to.

“We should try to find a balance,” he says, suggesting mixing home-grown furniture with, say, Scandinavian lighting and Japanese stools.

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Regardless of how people are mixing and matching their furniture, both Chen and Chan think that Scandinavian and Japanese design will gain more fans with time. “When we were first using these designers seven or eight years ago, they weren’t that popular,” Chen says. “Now you see a lot more shops selling these brands. I think this is just the beginning.”