New Form Follows Function

Sori Yanagi pioneered Japanese industrial design.
Rebekka Bay, Creative Director of UNIQLO New York R&D Center,
visits the former studio of Sori Yanagi,
whose products have become a part of her daily life.
Beautiful, functional products for everybody——
time to explore the philosophy behind these designs.

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Sori Yanagi, whose design efforts in postwar Japan included everything from small everyday items to large-scale public works projects, maintains an international reputation as an exponent of the mid-century aesthetic. To Rebekka Bay, a Denmark native and lifelong student of design, the name Sori Yanagi is a perpetual source of curiosity. To learn more, Rebekka paid a visit to the offices of Yanagi Design, the general foundation established by Sori Yanagi in 1953. Meeting in a space that faithfully represents Sori’s studio in its heyday, Rebekka sat down with Shinichi Yanagi, the designer’s son and Chairman of the Yanagi Design Office, to discuss Sori’s designs and the philosophy behind them.

Shinichi Yanagi:Tell me about your first encounter with my father’s work.

Rebekka Bay:Like most Westerners, it was the Butterfly Stool. Over the years, I’ve also collected lots of his kitchen utensils. I actually have a bunch of questions for you about his work, if you don’t mind. Sori was a contemporary of world-renowned masters like the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen, the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and the American designer Charles Eames. In what ways was his work similar to or different from theirs?

Shinichi:Although I’m fairly certain these men knew each other, I don’t think there was any imitation going on, in any concrete sense, or that they strongly influenced each other’s work. When a great artist sees something spectacular, they might find it inspiring, but that doesn’t mean they’ll wind up copying it. Each of these figures came from places with unique histories and cultures and distinctive ways of life. While inarguably modern, their designs were steeped in these rich cultural traditions, which inevitably influenced their sense of form.

Rebekka:So in terms of common ground, would it be fair to say they shared a drive to create modern products rooted in their respective cultural contexts, rather than sharing an aesthetic?

Shinichi:I would agree. Although there was some overlap in their materials and methods. Take the Butterfly Stool, constructed using molded plywood, a new and popular material at the time. In the early 1950s, the interior designer Isamu Kenmochi introduced the work of his friend Charles Eames to Japan, which led to the introduction of techniques for molding plywood and novel materials like FRP. My father found all of this very exciting. The ability to bend wood in three dimensions, any way you wanted, opened up a world of possibilities. New materials and techniques alter the way we view design. Stronger materials or structures, for example, can change the thickness of a chair leg. But a greater sense of possibility doesn’t mean anything goes. It was all about creating products people would actually want to use.

Headquartered in Yotsuya, Tokyo since its establishment in 1953, the Yanagi Design Office has been devoted to the legacy of Sori Yanagi since his passing. The space is filled with his various collections and resources, along with other relics like his old desk.

Rebekka:A tool is only useful if it gets the job done. That makes me think of the Mingei movement, founded by Sori’s father, or your grandfather, Muneyoshi Yanagi. What do you think of the relationship between Sori’s designs and Mingei?

Shinichi:To be honest, I don’t think Mingei had any explicit influence on his aesthetic. What I will say is they shared a fundamental interest in the things the average person uses every day, and a belief that these things should be beautiful. This idea was instrumental to my father’s designs.

Rebekka:What drove him toward industrial product design, rather than Mingei, with its focus on handiwork?

Shinichi:We need to consider the historical backdrop. In the early twentieth century, following the Industrial Revolution, Western countries were struggling with the dramatic increases in population caused by modernization, and by the 1930s, the problem had spread to Japan, where the population growth rate was approaching 10%. The population was set to almost double in ten years. There was no way all the things that people need to live their lives could be produced by hand. Mass production was imperative. At the time, however, mass production equaled poor design, and that was a big problem. My father sought to find a way to make life better without sacrificing beautiful design. Of course, something can be incredibly functional and beautiful, but if it costs too much to make and has too high a price tag, the average person won’t be able to use it. My father’s mission was to make things that would benefit the masses.

Yanagi Design Shop

4-6 Edelhof Daiichi Bld. 1F, Yotsuyahonshiocho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 160-0003, Japan

Not far from the Yanagi Design Office, the Yanagi Shop offers a modest assortment of items designed by Sori Yanagi, such as his cutlery and kitchen utensils. Taking a look around, Rebekka says “There are so many things I want!”

Rebekka:At UNIQLO, the theme for Fall/Winter 2019 is “New Form Follows Function.” I can sense some commonalities between this idea and Sori Yanagi’s design philosophy.

Shinichi:I see what you mean. As a matter of fact, towards the end of his life, my father loved to wear clothes from UNIQLO. This isn’t the sort of thing to tell the brand’s creative director, but I think what he liked most was that it isn’t what you might call “fashionable.” Simple designs, low prices, high-quality. He couldn’t stand the in-your-face design approach of brand-name goods or the fashion industry’s obsession with speeding up the buying cycle.

Rebekka:UNIQLO goes beyond fashion. Our focus as a brand is to improve upon basic designs, offering products that make life easier and better. As with Sori Yanagi and his products, our hope is for our customers to use any given item for years to come.

Shinichi:My father used to say, “The lifecycle of a product should be at least a hundred years.” At this point, many of his designs have been in use for over sixty. His cutlery, still in production after ages on the market, has sold about the same over the past few decades, no major spikes, but no dips either. From a management perspective, who could ask for more than that? In my personal opinion, capitalism today has gone too far. This idea that you can always increase sales is unsustainable. In the 1970s, my father became increasingly concerned with the environment, asserting that “instead of focusing on making things, we need to reconsider how we’re throwing things away.” Slowly but surely, consumers have begun to sympathize with this idea. By continuing to produce Sori Yanagi’s products, we hope to keep this message alive.

Rebekka Bay
Creative Director of UNIQLO New York R&D Center. Born in 1969 in Denmark. Formerly Creative Director of <COS>, <GAP> and <Everlane>, Rebekka has been Creative Director of UNIQLO New York R&D Center, since 2017.
Sori Yanagi
Industrial Designer. Born in 1915 in Tokyo. Graduated from Tokyo Fine Arts School (today, Tokyo University of the Arts). In 1957, his Butterfly Stool and white porcelain designs won him a Gold Medal at La Triennale di Milano. From 1977 to 2006, he was Director of the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Komaba, Tokyo. He died in 2011.

Text by Kosuke Ide, Photography by Keisuke Fukamizu

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