Designer Naoto Fukasawa's object lesson on the beauty of function

For a star designer, Naoto Fukasawa prefers to take a back seat to his products, which aim to fit the behaviour of users rather than perceptions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 3:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 3:50am

It was an umbrella propped against the wall, its tip tucked into grouting between floor tiles, that inspired Japanese product designer Naoto Fukasawa to consider how people unconsciously handle objects and how function comes to the fore when they perform actions without thinking.

"Design is about searching for that unthinking activity, then finding the best shape to be placed there," says the Tokyo-based designer, who last month spoke on the sense of comfort at PMQ in Central. The event was part of an exhibition of the designer's products at the Good Design Store gallery within the newly opened creative complex.

"Design without thought" is a strategy showcased in many of Fukasawa's best-known products, including the famous wall-mounted CD player he designed in 1999 for Japanese home-accessories store Muji. Inspired by the simple functional form of a kitchen extractor fan, the design accommodates a CD mounted on the front, spinning like the blades of a fan, and a power cord dangling below that acts as an on-off lead. The idea, says Fukasawa, is to introduce something new while hinting at something that people already know and with which they are immediately comfortable.

"Focusing on how the body interacts with an object is more natural and spontaneous. Your body already subconsciously knows what is comfortable and friendly but this is not the case with your mind. That is why I focus on behaviour without thinking."

Design should not be about celebrating the designer, he says. "An object can exist without me even if I made it. When designing something, you have to consider which factors are the most important. It is not about adding in something to express yourself. There is no reason for that."

Born in Yamanashi, Japan, in 1956, Fukasawa says he first became intrigued by the idea of "making things" after reading that product designers could make people happy with objects they create. "I liked making things but to make people happy makes me happy, too."

The young designer went on to study at Tama Art University and began creating watch and other electronics designs for Seiko Epson in the early 1980s. In 1989 he moved to San Francisco, where he joined ID TWO, a design consulting firm that became IDEO. In 1996 he returned to Japan to establish the firm in Tokyo, working there until 2003, when he set up his own practice, Naoto Fukasawa Design. He has received numerous awards, including the Red Dot, IDEA Gold Award, IF Award and Japan's G Mark.

Fukasawa's contribution, however, goes beyond the creation of beautifully designed household items. His studio's designs have shaped the modern Japanese environment while helping to create a new appreciation for highly functional environmentally friendly products.

For example, the automatic self-cleaning toilet with innovative heat recycling and water-and-energy saving technologies for Panasonic Electrical Works; a sculptural bookshelf created for B&B Italia, featuring a distinctive X-shaped brace to stabilise ultra slim Corian shelves; and the elegantly refined Hiroshima chair, crafted through an innovative blend of traditional craft techniques and industrial machines for Japan's Maruni Wood Industry. All exemplify the designer's hallmark of simplicity and design rigour to meld form and function seamlessly.

On the creative process , Fukasawa says he usually has a clear image of the product from early on. "If the reality is even just a little different from what was in my mind I do not feel happy." His working approach is simple: clients present him with the challenges they face and the conditions the design must meet and he sets about thinking how to solve them in the simplest way. "It is not about a shape or design or even style," he says about designing for happiness. "When I was young I tried to design beautiful things but after I turned 35, something changed. I realised I needed to add something that was not just for beauty."

It is not, he believes, a question of focusing on the process of making something but more about considering the subconscious - what he calls "design dissolving in behaviour" - a consideration that has become increasingly important as new technology fast eliminates the form, size and shape of products.

"Physical objects don't exist but functions still do. We used to design a telephone for the home and now we carry it with us. Air conditioners have disappeared into the wall. It means the interactions with those invisible functions are more important than making the shape or form."

In recent years Fukasawa's projects have expanded from intuitively functional product design to advising Japanese corporations planning the future of transport and banking. The greatest challenge facing designers, he says, is to make life simple.

"Life is so complicated. We need to focus on making life better; it is not just about money."