Hong Kong show celebrates Sori Yanagi, industrial design legend

Centenary exhibition offers insight into the creative universe of man best known for his Butterfly Stool

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2015, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 June, 2015, 4:31pm

An exhibition in Hong Kong marking the centenary of the birth of Japan's legendary industrial designer Sori Yanagi has recreated his creative world with a retrospective of his products and designs alongside a life-sized black-and-white photographic installation showing him at work amid a cornucopia of tools, models, books and prototypes.

"We tried to recreate the dynamic atmosphere of the space where Yanagi worked with his team for over 40 years," says local designer and brand consultant Alan Chan, who is hosting the exhibition, The Designer's Heart, in his own in-studio gallery, creating an intriguing studio-inside-a-studio experience.

"We wanted to show the objects as usable designs rather than exhibits so most of the items can be touched and tried out, just as Yanagi experimented in his studio. It provides a unique insight into Yanagi's approach to design as well as his practice of making prototypes by hand, a process that is referred to in Japan as 'think by hand'."

Chan, who travels to Japan regularly and collaborates with Japanese designers on many of his interior design projects, has long been an admirer of Yanagi's synthesis of two seemingly opposite design worlds: Japan's artisanal traditions and modern Western industrial design.

Yanagi's approach was heavily influenced by his father, the aesthetic philosopher Soetsu Yanagi, who established the Japanese crafts museum in Tokyo, amassing an unparalleled collection of traditional crafts from all over the country.

The young Yanagi grew up surrounded by some of Japan's leading artists and craftsmen of the day, including the master potters Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai.

Yanagi studied modern art and architecture in Tokyo where, inspired by the work of the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, he developed an interest in industrial design. His appreciation for the relationship between crafts and modern design emerged when he noticed how designers he admired showed a deep respect for the mingei ware his father had collected.

Although today best known internationally for his Butterfly Stool - a simple, poetic pairing of two curved moulded plywood "wings" held together by a brass rod - Yanagi did not restrict himself to furniture and products and during his 60-year career went on to apply his understanding of design to an extraordinarily wide range of works, including monumental pieces such as bridges and the Olympic torch.

Whatever the type or scale of project, Yanagi adhered to a set of key design principles - for instance, that the subtle qualities of objects are discovered through use rather than design. These he outlined in the book Essays by Sori Yanagi, which, to mark the centenary, has been translated into English and Chinese.

"The lack of access to Yanagi's writings up to now has meant that many young designers outside Japan have not had the advantage of learning from his design approach," says Chan.

It is this that inspired Shinichi Yanagi, the designer's son and chief executive of the Yanagi Design Office, to initiate an international exhibition and book release.

"His design principles are timeless. It is about a dedication to craft, as well as respect for traditions," explains Chan, who says his appreciation of Yanagi's work was a gradual process of learning about traditional handicrafts and Yanagi's thoughts on "anonymous" design. "My own Suchengzhai restaurant and teahouse project in Guangzhou, for instance, references these in the way we reinterpret traditional Asian lotus lanterns used for making wishes as modern lotus-shaped ceiling lights that appear to float in the sky."

According to the Hong Kong exhibition curator, Sunnie Chan, the designer's most famous products will be on show, including his minimalist steel cutlery, ceramic teapots, and the Butterfly and Elephant stools. Less well-known projects include Yanagi's distinctive graphic works for the Mingei magazine, and his design for public spaces, such as the Yokohama municipal subway, where he redefined the Japanese commuter's experience with the redesign of furnishings including station kiosks, telephone boxes, benches, waste bins and ticket-vending machines.

The exhibition will also feature rare video footage and prototypes illustrating the design process behind his kitchenware.

"Compared to Japan and Taiwan, where the works and influence of Yanagi are widespread, he is far less known in Hong Kong," says Chan. "The city has undergone many changes in recent years and the story of Yanagi leveraging domestic wisdom and manufacturing power is a useful reference for our own design community, which is too reliant on computers and technology, and seems to be losing its direction to consumerism."

The Designer's Heart: Sori Yanagi is on at www.gallery27hk.com until June 19