Design for Life: From Everyday Objects to Robotics

Kenya Hara graphic designer, Hara Design Institute, Nippon Design Center, Inc.
Masamichi Udagawa industrial designer, Antenna Design New York, Inc.
Tatsuya Matsui humanoid robot designer, Flower Robotics, Inc.

Paola Antonelli Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art

Paola Antonelli began her introduction by expressing her distress with the American interpretation of the culture of kawaii, citing as an example American pop-star Gwen Stefani’s ubiquitous and sometimes gratuitous Harajuku Girls entourage. Antonelli argued that fetishizing a single aspect of Japanese culture in this way decontextualizes and distorts it. “The reason why we are sometimes a little tired of that particular trend... is because it’s not interpreted or digested enough,” Antonelli commented. “What I find really interesting is this idea of different cultures digesting and creating a personal way to design in their own exquisite fashion.”

Kenya Hara, MUJI Horizon (Uyuni Salt Lake; poster). Ad design by Kenya Hara; photograph by Tamotsu Fujii; graphic design by Yukie Inoue and Izumi Suge. Photo © Hara Design Institute.
Antonelli furthered that this panel’s participants “bring the best of their culture to their amazingly universal designs.” In order to give context for their work, she showed some examples of work done by other, seminal Japanese designers, including Shiro Kuramata and Kenji Ekuan. Making certain not to oversimplify the legacy of Japanese design by suggesting a linear descent from one or the other of these very different predecessors, Antonelli noted, “It’s not that there are some designers who are exquisitely lyrical and other designers who are exquisitely pragmatic. . . . It’s all part of the same exquisitely Japanese culture.”

Antonelli took a few minutes to give examples of Japanese design in furniture that best represented the most ingenious applications of the Japanese cultural philosophy. Kuramata’s wavy chest of drawers, which is simultaneously functional and whimsical, demonstrates this quintessentially Japanese style. Tokujin Yoshioka’s “Kiss Me Goodbye” chair, “Tokyo-pop” stools (both for Driade) and his famed “Honey-pop” chair continue to expand the use of these qualities. These designs, Antonelli suggested, “ever so gently remind us of the Kuramata dresser. They take something that is absolutely symmetrical and perfectly solid and give it a little twist and a little hit and, all of a sudden, it reveals some inner soul that you didn't know it had before.” The "Honeypop” chair also stands out as an example of how kawaii can be positively fused with good design. “It’s still kawaii, it’s still cute, but it’s a cuteness that is very digested and metabolized, and that doesn’t need to show itself in decoration, but rather it comes from the structure within.”

Expanding on current design trends, Antonelli showed how some members of the new generation of designers were not shy about affiliating themselves with the fathers of Japanese design. A series of pieces by younger designers is titled “In Praise of Kuramata.” Kazuhiro Yamanaka’s lamp, “How High the Moon,” is a direct reference to Kuramata’s “Fly Me to the Moon” chair. The theme of dreamscapes so important to Kuramata’s work was exemplified in a variety of pieces, including Yamanaka’s “No Journey’s End” and “Rainy day” lighting fixtures. Masamichi Katayama’s angel lamp, Kouichi Okamoto’s inflatable balloon lamp and Yosuke Watanabe’s shoji paper/sconce lamp also blended elements of Kuramata’s design tradition with their own personal innovations and lyrical touches. Antonelli went on to show some work by talented designers like Yujin Morisawa, Rieko Miyata and Naoto Fukasawa, who also demonstrate quintessential idioms of Japanese design.

Kenya Hara
Kenya Hara began by describing his haptic exhibition, which was intended to encompass design that was “stimulating” or “present to the touch.” Twenty of Japan’s leading creators— architects, product designers, fashion designers, traditional craftsmen and a high tech design team—participated in the project, using haptic as their central concept to design products for daily use. Their first priority was the degree of sensory stimulation that the designs aroused.

This theme gave birth to many fascinating products. Fashion designer Kosuke Tsumura’s Hairy Lanterns incorporated hairs, which were meticulously hand-woven into a paper lantern, creating a mysterious, ominous atmosphere, which also simulates the sense of touch.

Shin Sobue’s coasters resemble petri dishes with tadpoles inside; when a glass is placed on them, the tadpole shapes seem to pulse underneath. This design is unique in that it stimulates the senses in other ways than form or color.

Electronics giant Panasonic provided a remote control made of bio-gel. When the remote is off, it is limp; when on, it gives the impression of sleeping, inhaling (expanding) and exhaling (retracting); and when you reach for it, it lights up. The focus here is not merely on form, but also on touch.

“Shark Skin Dots” paper by Masayo added small raised dots to the surface of paper used to cover a book.

Shuhei Hasado, a craftsman living in the mountains, created sandals; one pair uses traditional plastering techniques to grow moss in the insole and another uses pulp fiber and dry leaves.

Japan-based French artist Matthieu Manche made a pig-shaped electric outlet out of the medical silicon plastic usually used in artificial limbs.

Yasuhiro Suzuki created a life-like cabbage from paper, which could be dissembled into disposable bowls to be used for a party.

A collection of fully-functional juice boxes by Naoto Fukasawa were textured and colored to resemble the fruit whose juice they contained, including strawberry, kiwi and banana. A soymilk box was textured to look like a block of tofu.

The Water Pachinko machine (similar to pinball) was Hara’s own proud addition to the haptic exhibition. The surface is made of paper coated to repel water. “Like dew on lotus leaves, water forms tiny balls on the surface.” A slanted surface with raised barriers forms an effect like a pinball machine wherein droplets bead and flow down, forming what Hara referred to as “the lotus effect.”

“The concept of ‘haptic,’” Hara described, “leads to the idea that we not only design form by creating a shape or an object, we also design how it feels. A human being is a bundle of delicate senses. Science doesn’t only help the evolution of materials and media, it also helps us understand the senses, where there may be hidden a whole new, undiscovered territory. . . ‘Haptic’ means another design attempt to expand the world atlas of senses.”

Moving on to the concept of emptiness, Hara then described his involvement in the Japanese company muji, which deals in highquality, “no brand” products. In an effort to cut waste—from packaging to production—a design aesthetic was created around the concept of economy. In the context of muji, this concept represents a departure from the Western definition of simplicity. To describe the muji concept Hara prefers to replace “simplicity” with “emptiness.”

To illustrate this concept, Hara then showed a 2005 muji ad poster featuring a traditional Japanese tea ceremony room and a garden. The idea here is that the muji concept mirrors that of the unembellished tea ceremony. “Just because something is simple, does not mean it is beautiful or functional, but it always entails a quality of generosity. In a single simple product, anyone can discover an idiosyncratic way to use it for his own sake and within his own context.” In the tea ceremony, as with muji products, it is the behavior of the participants or the users, and not the space or the objects themselves, that defines the quality of the experience. “A couple of 18-year-olds will choose the same table as a couple of 50-year-olds because it fits their lifestyle. By not designing one table for the young and another for an older generation, we are free to have a table that will fit any interpretation. This interpretation of emptiness well describes the quality of muji products.”

This attention to emptiness extends to Hara’s approach to advertising. He feels it should be “an empty vessel waiting to be filled with your thoughts.” If an ad is linked to quiet, it encourages the viewer/receiver to be an active participant. In one of the muji print ads, for instance, a solitary figure is set against a vast salt lake. Hara insists that the image itself conveys nothing, and that its interpretation depends wholly upon the projection of the viewer. This image offers a “perfect horizon” in which Hara hopes to convey that there is “nothing, but there is everything.” muji’s “logo only method”—in which an image that is not apparently product-related is paired only with the company logo— encourages the acceptance of a variety of messages by refusing to impose any “power brand messages” on the consumer.

Masamichi Udagawa

As a Japanese man living in New York, Masamichi Udagawa has embraced “cultural anthropology” in his work. Together with his Austrian partner, Sigi Moeslinger, he formed the design office Antenna Design, which uses the foreigner’s point of view to its advantage.

Masamichi Udagawa & Sigi Moeslinger, MTA/ NYCT r142a Subway Car (interior); photo © Ryuzo Masunaga.
This fresh perspective, Udagawa suggested, is especially relevant with regard to public space. Unlike commercial or private space, where an individual can choose not to engage, public space cannot be ignored or avoided. The designer, therefore, has to take particular care that public spaces accommodate everyone.

For many New Yorkers, New York City’s subway’s might be seen to epitomize public space. In designing subway cars and Metrocard vending machines for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (mta), Antenna Design employed its fresh, outsider perspective. “When we were designing the exterior, the most important thing was to make sure that when the train pulls into the platform it is immediately identifiable as a ‘new thing.’ For that, we tried to give it a slightly anthropomorphic expression, so the face of the train looks sort of like a happy face— greeting you in the morning, on your way to work, which may not always be pleasant.”

As a Japanese, Udagawa was initially appalled by the subway system; he found it dirty, messy and dark. He felt that this unpleasant environment encouraged unpleasant attitudes, which contributed to “a vicious cycle.” His design sought to reverse this: “If people are treated nicely, they will be less hostile.”

In order to achieve this, he decided to make the interior as bright as possible, employing a color scheme that added lightness. A dark shiny floor with light walls and ceilings created the illusion of a bigger space. Udagawa hoped that this would make people feel more comfortable, more in control, and thus less likely to want to vandalize the space or treat it unkindly.

Safety being a top priority, Udagawa added diagonal bars at the ends of the seats near the doors to help prevent theft. A digital message board offering time and location information was added on the principle that “with more information, people feel less anxious.” Further measures were also taken to increase wheelchair accessibility.

While some of these design considerations were intuitive, others were generated out of in-depth research. In order to address the needs of subway users most fully, Antenna made a full-scale mock-up of the new L train and held an open house, inviting hundreds of people to tour it and offer feedback. Likewise, they organized focus groups and conducted interviews to gain more detailed feedback.

Another of Antenna’s projects for the mta was the design of vending machines for the fare card system. Initially, Udagawa said he considered having it operate like an atm. But from statistics, he learned that nearly half of subway riders don’t have bank accounts, and consequently don’t have any experience with atms. This inspired him to draw upon two other precedents: the soda machine and the behavioral aspects of transactions associated with visiting a store. “With the soda machine, the first thing you do is pop in your money. But nobody gives their money to the cashier upon entering a store,” Udagawa observed. “You first go in, check out the products, check out the price, and then make a decision, bring that to the cashier and, finally, pay. So it turned out to be a rather opposite model.” As with the subway car, they created a mock-up to test these two models, and the store model was found to be the more preferred one. Non-English-speakers and people who are visually impaired were also invited to test the machines for further adjustments.

Much of this philosophy also went into a kiosk Udagawa created for JetBlue Airways. Antenna designed both the physical enclosure and the interface. “Again, there is the slightly anthropomorphic gesture of hugging, reaching out to you. This is not a stranger, this is a familiar JetBlue experience.” The machine also mimics dialogue through large letters and slightly quirky instructions—another element of the JetBlue branding—and it uses icons whenever appropriate.

In a similar vein, Antenna designed a new information terminal for Bloomberg LP, which sought to support the company's brand identity and improve the productivity of traders and bankers. In order to assess the needs of future users, Udagawa once again used “cultural anthropology” approach, visiting the trading floor and offices. He noticed that the previous environment was very cluttered. There was high pressure, high stakes. “People were literally surrounded by gadgets and screens. Each gadget seemed to be trying to impose so much importance, it created such a cacophony.” In order to create a better working environment, he took a “subtractive approach” to give back some breathing room. The result was a more minimal and efficient environment.

Antenna’s design oeuvre is not limited to high-tech industrial work. The firm also does installation pieces for museums. One example is a media exhibit device at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “The Door” is a self-standing, revolving door, made of screens, which is placed in the center of a room. It has an actual door handle, which, when pushed, causes the machine to ring like a doorbell and rotate, showing web-based art on the integrated screen. Every 15 degrees of rotation resulted in the display of a new work, which creates the effect of the viewer/actor arriving in or entering a new space while remaining physically sedentary. “‘The Door’ is a comment on the web experience, which is full of spatial metaphors.”

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” was an installation piece Udagawa created for a gallery space in SoHo. Reflecting the transition of the SoHo neighborhood from a gallery district to a shopping center, the installation is a mock boutique intended to make a critical commentary on consumer culture. The boutique housed empty hangers—intended to be read as invisible clothes—and a changing room. Each hanger had a size designation (s, m, l, xl), and when the user took the appropriate hanger to the dressing room to try on the invisible clothes, a sensor that recognized the hanger size triggered the projection of the perfectly-tailored “clothing” onto a video “mirror” in front of the user.

Udagawa concluded by saying, “Through these experimental installations, we investigated the future possibility of how to infuse our otherwise innate environment with technological experiences. We learned greatly from these experiments and reflect what we’ve learned into our actual practice. And vice versa—the actual practice informs us as to what should be experimented with next.”

Tatsuya Matsui
Tatsuya Matsui opened his presentation by running a bbc video clip about u.s. Army robotics applications. The clip featured a “robosoldier,” whose bomb-diffusing and sharp-shooting functions reflected the negative impressions many people have of modern robotics.

Tatsuya Matsui, P-noir. Photo © Mori Yutaka.
Matsui followed this with a video of his own designs, including a creation called “Posy,” a robot resembling a small girl who carries flowers and dances. “I want ‘Posy’ to be the most beautiful creature, one that in the future will be able to dance with the prima donna at the opera in Paris. In order to do this, ‘Posy’ will need a human emotion system, which will take me 30 years to build," Matsui said. In considering the ultimate function of robot technology for the 21st century, his primary concern is for robots to help make people happy.

The video reel of Matsui’s creations included clips that utilized one of his dancing projects. “Posy” also made her Hollywood debut in Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation, though that scene was deleted from the final cut.

Another lifelike robot, “P-Noir,” which takes the shape of a clown, was created for the Japanese National Science Museum. Matsui then showed a special robot, “Palette,” which functions as a mannequin and surveillance device for jewelry stores.

Matsui also emphasized that his designs were not limited to robotics. In the realm of product design, for instance, he created a portable smoking kit, which combines a cigarette case, ashtray and lighter into a single, sleek piece.

Matsui also designed a computer prototype for a “Lunar Cruiser” for the Japan Space Agency. This research project takes shape in the form of a futuristic multi-level box that allows passengers to have a front seat view for an interstellar journey, anticipating future space tourism.

Another project for a French parfumerie involved a store façade of falling water on the Champs Elysées. Matsui conjectured that, in the 21st century, “air, water and light will be the most important design elements.”

For a show window in Osaka (at 70 meters, it’s the largest show window in Japan), Matsui made a robotics system, which perceives the movement of people outside the window, adjusting the lighting scheme to suit their viewing needs.

Matsui also created a new style of bank to suit the needs of the Japanese population, which now does almost all of its banking online. The layout of the bank resembles a private European bank.

In closing, Matsui showed his design concept for the brand new Japanese airline “Star Flyer,” for which he used stark, black-and-white elements throughout—including the exterior, complimentary chocolates, soap, lounge and airplane interior.

We saw squishy remote controls and hairy lamps, but then we saw hard-surfaced, spartan robots. Is there any crossover between those? Is there any way for the image of the robots to be softened, so that we want to touch them?

Matsui responded that his goal in creating robots was not to make them too human-like. His robots are somewhere “between human and object,” which makes designing them difficult. Matsui felt that perhaps what is seen as “hard” is merely acceptable as an inherent aspect of the robot.

Udagawa remarked that he appreciated the somewhat abstract expressions on the robots’ faces. They reminded him of theatrical masks, with which—though the masks are frozen in expression—actors can convey rich emotions through behavior and movement. This abstraction allows for interpretation.

Hara reacted similarly. Perhaps, he suggested, “like an empty vessel, the expressionless face may encourage projection of viewer’s emotion and reactions.’

Antonelli was reminded of the robotic dog (shown earlier by Kashiwagi). This robot began as a male dog, which even lifted its leg to urinate, but eventually became more and more abstract to suit a broader spectrum of human tastes. “I think that was quite an interesting process— how to deal with verisimilitude,” she said.

Where and what did each of you study?

Matsui initially studied art, first in Japan and then in France.

Udagawa earned his Bachelor’s degree in Japan at a technology-savvy industrial design school, where he was also exposed to mechanical engineering and material sciences. When he was working for yamaha in the late 1980s designing electronic musical instruments, he was inspired by experimentation happening at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, specifically the “product semantics” idea, whereby products speak to users through metaphors and symbols.

Hara studied art at Musashino Art University, eventually earning his Masters degree. He said he believes that methodology is always looking for an outlet, so he established the Hara Design Institute. He also believes that working with muji has been an education in and of itself.

Can you crystallize your relationship to human beings? What do they represent to you? Are they a goal, an inspiration or a happenstance of design?

This question inspired Hara to tell a story about visiting Indonesia to see a ballet. He stayed in an old hotel with cottages in the yard and a stone pavement courtyard that had been walked on for 100 years. “Barefoot, it told me a lot of information.” He went on to say that there is not too much information in the world, but rather a lack of specific, vital information. He believes “the human brain loves to have information. Plenty of it, massive amounts of information. The sensory map can be viewed and should be addressed.”

Udagawa suggested that even though designers deal with physical entities, ultimately, the experience of using a product, being in an environment or interacting with an installation occurs in people’s heads. Thus, much of a designer’s activity involves hypothetical work— how might people react to and interact with a given design? The relationship of the user and the creator becomes part of the creation process.

When it comes to design, Matsui responded, there are other design considerations beyond shape, form or color. Some of these design elements include smell, memory and other senses. Design, in Matsui’s view, is a merely a trigger to those preexisting impulses. Matsui added that, through his robots, he seeks to demonstrate that “functionality and art can stand together.”

On the topic of functionality and art, Hara added, “The difference between them is the design.” In his opinion, beauty is not in shape, but in light and the play of light, which relates to a human being’s memory and senses.

Antonelli also invited Kashiwagi to comment. In his opinion, Matsui’s robots’ strongest feature is their appeal to the human sensory experience. This was evident at the Parisian exhibit, where everyone was surprised that the robots were not strictly functional, but that they also had an aesthetic purpose. He concluded: “Behind all design there is culture. It can be positive or negative. What does one see from far away?”

That introduces a very interesting concept. What does one see, from far away, when looking at Japanese design? How do you think that your design is Japanese?

Udagawa conceded that there is an archetype or landscape generated by everyone’s childhood experience. “Certain things create mechanism of rationality,” but that can change, he added. However, “in relation to working in New York City, I think of myself more as a foreigner, generally, than as specifically Japanese.” Udagawa also noted that the stereotype of Japanese design is that it is very reduced and abstract. Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more” concept really exemplifies Japanese design, “however, Mies isn’t Japanese. . .”

“Do you think my work is very Japanese?” Hara asked the audience. To the outside world, processes rather than products might be perceived to be “Japanese.” Hara was also reminded of a quintessential Japanese concept that “before something happens, we know it will happen,” and he confessed to pursuing that philosophy in his designs.

Matsui-san, one of the things that’s coming up for you is your installation at the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Milan. What do you think of Leonardo da Vinci in light of today’s robot culture?

Matsui admitted that he was not especially interested in Leonardo da Vinci, and said that he was actually more inclined to like Michelangelo. “I never gave Leonardo much thought,” Matsui said. Three years ago, however, when Japanese robots were exhibited at the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, the technology was very popular with the Italians, he said. Appropriately, it seemed to Matsui, since Leonardo fused aesthetics and technology. “The museum needed that kind of element. I believe if Leonardo were here, he would have been an otaku of Japanese culture.”

This panel originally took place on March 19, 2005.
Topics:  Design

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