Fresh eyes

On the publication of a monograph of his work, Mark Delaney appraises Naoto Fukasawa’s rare position as one of product design’s original thinkers, while Clare Dowdy looks at a research project that also seeks inspiration from a wider sphere

By Mark Delaney

As product designers we suffer from ‘the curse of knowledge’. We know how things should look and how they should act; yet this knowledge is based upon existing products, so we often struggle to see beyond what the product should be to understand what it could be, and our solution ends up being a variation upon an existing theme. However, a few truly great designers have the ability to rise above the limitations of their knowledge to see the problem with fresh eyes. They are not hindered by product conventions or trends, and bring a distinct vision to bear upon any problem to create something different. Naoto Fukasawa is one of these designers.

Born in 1956 in Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture, Fukasawa graduated from Tama Art University in 1980, then spent nine years working for Japan’s Seiko Epson Corporation before relocating to the US in 1989 to join Id Two, the predecessor of Ideo, where he was mainly engaged with the design of computer-related equipment. At Ideo, Fukasawa began to question his approach to design – while he was without doubt a master of giving form to objects with many award-winning products and concepts to his name, he felt that there was something lacking. Henceforth, Fukasawa decided to shift his focus away from merely the tangible object to understand how design might be applied within a larger context.

After returning to Japan in 1996 to set up and lead Ideo’s Tokyo office, Fukasawa says his approach changed radically, and he began to develop and refine his philosophy of Without Thought, describing this concept as, ‘A really great way to look at objects. When you drink water, for example, you don’t think about the glass. You drink from it.’ He began to pursue an approach to design which resulted in objects that were in effect the pure essence of what that object should be, no more, no less, while the aesthetics remained flawless. As his former boss, chief executive officer and president of Ideo Tim Brown, says, ‘Naoto has gone from somebody who crafts objects to somebody who crafts relationships with objects.’

Fukasawa developed and refined his Without Thought philosophy by running a series of workshops with the internal design teams of many of Japan’s leading corporations, where he challenged the designers to set aside ideas of styling and form to arrive at simple, elegant concept products that seemed to be almost inevitable in both their form and function. While other concept designs of the time resulted in little more than the application of shapes to existing products – which soon looked dated – much of Fukasawa’s work from this period, such as the wall-mounted CD player manufactured by Muji, has stood the test of time.

In 2003, Fukasawa set up his own independent design office in Tokyo. Over the past three years, he has built up a client list that includes many of the world’s most design led-brands, such as B&B Italia, Artemide and Boffi. While other superstar designers tend to have a recognisable style, Fukasawa’s more philosophical approach leads him towards an aesthetic that could be misinterpreted as boring. Fukasawa describes design as ‘something powerful that cannot be seen, but only felt’; a development of the Japanese philosophy of Yugen (meaning ‘subtle’, ‘profound’), which requires objects to suggest rather than reveal layers of meaning hidden within.

For example, take his trademark use of a 2.5mm radius along the edges of his products. For most designers, the specification of a product’s corner radii is an almost unconscious act driven by manufacturing requirements. Fukasawa, however, noticed that a wooden section of planed timber, when handled over time, naturally takes on a radius of 2.5mm, so he appropriated this dimension for his manufactured products. This kind of depth of thought ensures that any Fukasawa product is not only visually attractive, but has a number of ‘later wows’: small refinements that the user discovers and appreciates over time.

In 2005, working with UK designer Jasper Morrison, Fukasawa founded Super Normal, a collection of simple, everyday objects that they felt added something to the atmosphere of our homes and which we’d miss most if they disappeared. At a time when design can often seem to be heading off into abstracted self-expression, the clarity and intelligence that Fukasawa brings to bear on his work is welcome and much-needed.

Naoto Fukasawa is published by Phaidon Press on 11 June, priced £39.95

By Clare Dowdy

here have been numerous attempts to visualise how domestic products will work in the future (remember Orange At Home), but few are as out-of-the-box as the work going on at Goldsmiths College in London. The college’s Interaction Research Studio has spent six years investigating the future of home technology. The upshot is The Curious Home, a show of electronic furniture and fittings.

Professor of design at Goldsmiths Bill Gaver, who heads up the Interaction Research Studio, and his colleagues are not trying to get products to market. Their raison d’être is experimentation in situ. ‘We want to understand what home means to people, and to get away from stereotypes,’ he says.

The studio uses Londoners as domestic guinea pigs, starting by getting them to carry out 12 tasks listed in a ‘cultural probes pack’. So the Dream Recorder task involves verbally recording last night’s dream for ten seconds into a digital recorder.

From all this data, a workbook of ideas was generated, from which a handful of design directions came. Once product designers Andy Boucher and Andy Law have made the idea three-dimensional, it’s placed in a household and the experiment begins, with reactions being monitored by ethnographers and documentary-makers.

‘The technology is a palette that we work with, but equally important is the 3D design,’ says Gaver. ‘Our prototypes look and feel like real products and that allows people to live with them for two- or three-month trials.’

He describes the group’s product aesthetic as fairly simple and functional, citing the Plane Tracker, whose Nasa-designed aerials track passing flight traffic and imagine views of their journeys. ‘It’s strange-looking because that’s the optimal shape for picking up signals – not because we want to be weird,’ he says.

With the Key Table, the premise is that the way people put things – keys, for example – down as they come through the front door indicates their mood. ‘We measure the force and the picture frame above (wirelessly attached) tilts, as a gauge of their emotions,’ says Gaver.

But this one is tongue-in-cheek. ‘Other people try to use technology to understand people’s emotions; we’re sceptical.’ So the Key Table is a piss-take, he says. Disappointingly then, perhaps, the guinea pig householders ignored the table and treated the dog in the picture frame as a pet. How British.

The Curious Home is at the Pacific Playhouse, 5-6 Playhouse Court, 62 Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 from 29 June to 15 July

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