JAPAN: Visionthing

There is a new breed of patrons in the design world that promote talent across disciplines and borders. Kanae Hasegawa reports from Tokyo on Japanese talent-spotter Teruo Kurosaki’s Idée project

In Aoyama, at the heart of Tokyo’s fashionable district where fashion brands like Marc Jacobs and Issey Miyake line up against the soon-to-beopened Herzog & de Meuron-designed Prada shop, stands Teruo Kurosaki’s Idée shop.

Started in 1982, Idée is a company as well as a project. It designs, manufactures and sells its own products, as well as working with architects. Design freaks can wander around the three-story shop full of designs by Tom Dixon, Richard Hutten, Claudio Colucci and Marc Newson and then relax in the organic restaurant, bar or cigar-smoking room.

The man behind this remarkable destination shop is a youthful-looking 51-year-old hopping around in his office above the shop. Talking about how he got involved in the design world, Kurosaki says, “After I finished school with an applied physics degree, I travelled around Europe. When I came back to Japan in 1975, I was an antique dealer selling Western furniture bought back from London. In 1982, I opened what then became the Idée shop. Initially, it was only selling products manufactured by other companies. Then in 1992, Idée expanded to have its own workshop, so as to be fully involved in the design process – from the prototype stage right through to the final product as it’s ready for the market.”

The philosophy behind Idée is to offer a choice of objects to furnish the home and at the same time enhance an individual’s life. With over 100 staff, a shop, an office and a workstation, and a production of about a 1000 objects a year, Idée has become almost a small industry.

Yet, as Kurosaki points out, there is a crucial difference between other big names in the Japanese industry and Idée. “Big companies are primarily interested in business and showing off their latest technologies. Their products have extra functions to make them worth more money. But what is crucial for a product to be remembered by the later generations is for it to bear the tag of “beautiful existence”, says Kurosaki. The primary philosophy behind Idée is to think about the human being, what action he might be making and which tools would complement the person’s act or movement. “We want the form to follow the minds of people,” he says.

Kurosaki’s main claim to fame is to have introduced Philippe Starck, Jasper Morrison and Karim Rashid to Japan and launched Marc Newson to the rest of the world, with the Embryo chair, during the 1988 Milan Furniture Fair.

Kurosaki recalls how he encountered Australian designer Newson purely by accident. When Kurosaki offered to put his designs into production, Newson moved to Tokyo, where he lived and worked from 1987 to 1991. Other Newson Idée-manufactured pieces are the Orgone Lounge, the Black Hole Table and the Felt Chair. Unbelievably, Kurosaki has quickly become “the godfather” to overseas designers whom he had just met.

Colucci is another designer whose talent Kurosaki stumbled across. Colucci arrived in Tokyo in 1996 and knocked on the door of Idée having heard of Kurosaki via Starck. Kurosaki was immediately interested in Colucci and offered him an office at the top of the newly built Idée shop. “Kurosaki is really extraordinary,” says Colucci. He gave me the best place at his office, but he didn’t tell me to do any work. I was at a loss with what to do.”

Kurosaki doesn’t usher the designer to come up with an idea. He waits until the idea is naturally conceived and ready to explode.

Kurosaki is a visionary man. When asked if he sees himself as a new kind of patron, he says, “I believe my stance is to be equal to any of the designers working with me. I don’t want to force them to think that I am paying for their designs and that they are working for me. We are all on the same level in that we share the equal passion to create something that will formalise the needs of human life. We have the same power in executing design.” Instead, Kurosaki regards himself as an editor, who selects, picks up the talent and places it in the most effective context, so as to stun the public.

Yuichi Yamada, editor-in-chief of Japanese magazine Design News, speaks of him as a connoisseur. “Kurosaki has an acute eye for discerning talent which must come from his experience as an antiques dealer,” he explains.

Unsurprisingly, most Japanese design graduates wish to work for Idée, rather than for some of the big manufacturing companies in Japan. They appreciate Idée’s working environment where they can be experimental in creating design. A few of the designers who have worked for Idée have gone on to set up their own design consultancy. In this way, Idée’s role has pioneered a new way of working for the younger generation of Japanese designers.

For the future Kurosaki has many plans, above all his Sputnik experimental collective – named after the Sputnik satellite (www.go sputnik.com). “With a group of international designers, I will be adventuring with Sputnik, landing on various cities around the world,” he says, with typical enthusiasm.

“We want to recreate the euphoria that people had when the first Sputnik satellite was launched in space. That event opened many scientific possibilities and by showing our planet from the galaxy, it turned a dream into reality.

“Our modern day Sputnik has the same ambition: to show the audience there are different values and lifestyles on this planet. We propose our idea for human life. We are just showing alternative ways of looking at things.” As one of the designers contributing to the Sputnik, Colucci says, “It’s fun. We all don’t know where we are going to end up. We don’t have a specific goal. But ideas come out naturally, or incidentally, through working with other designers.”

The Bali workshop is another adventure that should be operational by next autumn. “In the 20th century, the world was moving more or less around the Western culture and around the Atlantic Ocean,” explains Kurosaki. “But in the 21st century, I am sure that Asia and the cultures surrounding the Pacific will lead the dynamic scene in culture and design.

“I chose Bali as another base of our workshop because it has affluent nature and a wealth of materials. We are planning to open it in Cuggha district. There will be a separate warehouse, workshop, kitchen and guesthouse – all built in Balinese style from organic materials. Designers will come from all countries to work and live together. We will be producing furniture made out of local materials. There will also be a badminton court so that local people will be able to play with our staff. Idée doesn’t want to be a developer which takes away the land of from the locals,” Kurosaki says happily.

With such an endless flow of energy and the willingness to take risks, Kurosaki’s dynamic vision and enlightened patronage will no doubt be equally relevant to the next century.

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