You don’t need a sweet tooth to enjoy the inaugural exhibition at Tokyo’s first dedicated design museum, but it helps. The show, which brings together 30 – mainly Japanese – designers and digital artists, centres on the theme of chocolate. As a way of gaining attention for a new venture, it’s worthy of Willy Wonka. ‘Nine out of ten people like chocolate,’ exhibition curator Naoto Fukasawa is fond of saying, quoting the American cartoonist John G Tullius, ‘The tenth person always lies.’
Fukasawa, currently Japan’s premier product designer after his work for Swarovski, Swedese and Plusminuszero, presents a mouth-watering confection of creativity at 21_21 Design Sight, a venue where he and fashion veteran Issey Miyake are directors. In a collection that melts distinctions between art and design, his own offering is the most plain yet enigmatic. A double two-pin socket in glossy brown, it perhaps alludes to Fukasawa’s no-fuss minimalism – he did, after all, create that pull-string CD player for Muji – or else the innate potential of electricity to charge our imaginations. Your guess is as good as mine.
Other exhibits seem more obviously fanciful. Take Yasuhiro Suzuki’s silver-foil fabrication of Ginkaku-ji (think famous temple recreated as an Easter egg), Himaa’s key with a bite-shaped chunk missing or Gaku Otomo’s white-chocolate model of the human heart. Some are slightly more conventional, however. Front, Swedish design’s answer to a girl band, has made a vase that’s performing a striptease with its wrapping paper. Vinta, one of Japan’s hottest design groups (aka Kohei Okamoto and Toshitaka Nakamura), has created a lamp with a stand which looks like liquid chocolate pouring into a pool.
But appearances can be deceptive. Alas, none of these items is edible. Fukasawa’s treats are just intended to excite the taste buds of design awareness. ’21_21 Design Sight is not about beautiful objects inside glass cases,’ says Gen Suzuki, who is exhibiting a playful means of serving peanuts. ‘Instead, it demonstrates the process of design thinking.’ In this respect, its aim is similar to Super Normal, the touring show that Fukasawa has curated with Jasper Morrison, which seeks to reveal the ‘designed’ element that we usually ‘don’t see’ in simple, even run-of-the-mill products.
Housed in a sleek concrete catacomb created by architect Tadao Ando, 21_21 Design Sight is forward-looking, as the name implies. The venue will stage contemporary exhibitions and promote design’s problem-solving qualities – in a country where (despite visiting westerners marvelling over the smallest details in signs or the electronically warmed toilet seats) an obsession with luxury obscures everyday functional brilliance.
The organisers hope the public will drop in casually when they visit nearby Tokyo Midtown, the city’s latest ¥300bn (£1.26bn) shopping paradise, but the directors are also reaching out to business. As manufacturing jobs migrate to China and South Korea, Japan’s economy will increasingly rely on the ingenuity of its creative industries. Keeping that talent fresh and motivated is vitally important.
‘Most designers in Japan work for in-house design teams,’ adds Suzuki, who has recently joined the Ideo consultancy in London. ‘They are highly skilled, but often operating in rigid environments, where their work focuses on a specific area for a long time. There aren’t many opportunities for in-house and independent designers and design consultancies to work together. If they did, this collaboration would result in more powerful and innovative ideas.’
21_21 Design Sight should soon become exactly the type of forum that Japanese designers need. In the meantime, if they crave outside-the-box inspiration, they could do worse than take a chocolate break.
Chocolate runs until July 29 at 21_21 Design Sight, 9-7-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan