Naoto Fukasawa’s exquisite synthesis of east and west has produced a wide range of products in seeming perfect balance. His objects, however, merely look simple.
By Brian Ashcraft
Wearing a dark suit and a chocolate shirt, Fukasawa clicks through pictures of his work on a MacBook Pro. “I’ve been made by three different experiences: in-house corporate design, consulting, and freelancing,” he says in fluent English. “So I’m kind of unique.” His formative years were spent in America. Upon returning to Tokyo in 1996, Fukasawa found a colorful cartoon aesthetic permeating all aspects of consumption: fun and poppy and superficial—the opposite of the pure, deceptively simple-looking products he would later create for the domestic electronics brand Plus Minus Zero and the Italian furniture maker B&B Italia. Ironically, Fukasawa found the traditional meaning of Japanese form during his stay abroad; upon returning home, he set about revitalizing it.
Fukasawa entered the design profession in the early 1980s, during Japan’s bubble economy. After eight years toiling in R&D at Seiko Epson, designing concept printers, monitors, and wristwatches, he was itching for new opportunities. He saw one in a 15-person firm called ID TWO (now IDEO). Not confident in his English, Fukasawa brought his portfolio and a translator to the job interview. “That was good for me, but a very funny idea to them because I would be working with them in English,” he recalls. “So why do I need a translator? But I really wanted to tell them about myself, and I thought I might regret it if I didn’t.” The polished portfolio—full of Formula 1 race watches and printers and other electronics—spoke louder than anything else. “It was clear that this was someone who had built up a lot of experience,” IDEO’s current CEO, Tim Brown, says, “and really knew his craft of creating objects.”
Comfortable, casual San Francisco was not Tokyo. “We smoked cigarettes together and talked about the complexities and contradictions of American and Japanese society,” recalls British-born Sam Hecht, a former IDEO colleague, of their shared expat experience. Not only was the atmosphere different, the work was as well. At Seiko Epson, Fukasawa was part of an industrial-design team that worked closely with engineers. At IDEO, he was on a largely international interdisciplinary team that included engineers, designers, and even a clinical psychologist. “It was interesting to see the journey he went on over the next ten or fifteen years,” Brown says.
Besides meeting with clients and doing observational work, the designer had his first opportunity to voice a philosophy. Every Friday afternoon a group of ID TWO designers would have drinks and blow off steam. They tossed around the idea of inviting weekly speakers to make the meetings productive. Fukasawa, however, thought it would be more useful if team members spoke about their own philosophies and how their cultures influenced them. They all agreed on one condition: that Fukasawa go first.
The result was a presentation on hari, an Eastern philosophy, distilled down into design language. “That was a big breakthrough for him personally,” Brown says, “because it gave him a platform to begin to develop his thinking.” The reverberations were felt around the office. “Hari is usually translated as ‘tension,’” Fukasawa says, “but that’s not correct. In Japanese, young people’s skin, it’s very smooth. That’s called hari skin. If you describe an energetic person, then we’d say a hari person. It’s very hard to explain.”
He pulls out a piece of paper. “This is a human,” he says, drawing a small figure. “This is force.” Small arrows pointing at the figure are added. “If I want to become a good designer, some of my desire is to change the force around me. I push back, and the shape is balanced. If the force is too big and the inside power is weak, then the shape is pushed in, right? And if my desire or goal is very powerful, then the shape pushes out, and it’s very expressive. Hari means there’s a balance, a fine line between the two forces together.” In product design, hari is about finding the most suitable shape to express an object, or rather for the object to express itself. “If I design a coffee cup, I have to decide the line, the outline,” Fukasawa says. “This is decided by the outside environment—humans, time, ways of drinking—many things for a shape.”
After returning to Japan, Fukasawa says, his approach changed “quite radically.” While still in San Francisco the designer had begun to question the shapes his emerging philosophy helped to create. “Everyone would go, ‘Wow, Naoto, that design’s really great,’” he says. “I thought it was really great too, but I doubted why it needed to be that shape.” Form wasn’t enough; Fukasawa shifted his focus away from the purely visual. “That was a very radical step in terms of industrial design, and probably the bravest one he’s ever made,” says Hecht, who came with Fukasawa to set up IDEO’s Tokyo branch. Fukasawa’s concepts were evolving into the abstract and the eloquent. “That’s why it was important for him to go back to Japan,” Brown says. “One of the things that released him was the ability to work and tell the story of his work in his own language. Naoto has gone from somebody who crafts objects to somebody who crafts relationships with objects.”
Fukasawa shows a picture on his MacBook Pro of an umbrella propped against a wall with its tip stuck between two floor tiles, which hold it in place perfectly. It’s his interpretation of a makeshift umbrella stand: the image has become a guiding metaphor. “Naoto always takes care to explain where his ideas come from, as if telling the story of how he came to design something were part of understanding it,” Jasper Morrison writes in Naoto Fukasawa, a new monograph published last month by Phaidon. In 1998 Fukasawa showed the umbrella image to IDEO founder Bill Moggridge and interactive-design pioneer Bill Verplank, and asked them what words describe this unconscious idea. Both replied, “Without thought.” Unlike hari, this was a very Western concept. “That is a really great way to look at objects,” Fukasawa says. When you drink water, for example, you don’t think about the glass. You drink from it. He clicks through a series of images to illustrate his point—a bicycle basket turned wastebasket and a handrail used as a makeshift ashtray. These are Fukasawa objects that are used naturally and spontaneously: without thought.
The phrase soon became a mantra. One day the designer was watching a CD spin, and it reminded him of a fan. He then created a disc player that looked like a kitchen fan, with the speakers embedded in it. A single cord dangles from the player, beckoning the user to pull it and unleash the music. The operational instructions are intrinsic; a natural relationship exists between object and user. “It was so mysterious,” Museum of Modern Art architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli says. “It was a fan—but no, it was a CD player.” The piece became part of MoMA’s permanent collection.
In the past, the rap on Fukasawa was: nice ideas, beautiful designs, but not available in stores. His largely conceptual products had not hit the retail world. “All of his ideas were being absorbed by the design community, but nothing was available to be purchased or experienced,” Hecht says. “When he started his own office, he was absolutely determined to make his ideas real and not leave them in concept.” By 2002, with IDEO’s Tokyo office fully functional, Fukasawa decided to move on. He was in his mid-forties—by Western standards, too old to be setting out on his own. In Japan, however, the designer suddenly found corporations willing to support his endeavors and give him freedom. “His leaving IDEO was inevitable,” Brown says. “It was just a matter of how long we could keep him here.”
Fukasawa’s previous experience gave him the tools he needed to go independent. “I had worked as a corporate designer and as a consultant,” he says. “I had learned how to work with clients from outside the company, learned the professional process, business communication, teamwork.” The designer dove into a flurry of projects, including the bar-shaped cell phone dubbed Infobar, which stood out in a market saturated with folding clamshells. The Japanese retailer Muji saw the CD player on display at MoMA and put it into production. The Tokyo-based company—known for its simple, well-designed, inexpensive products—proved a perfect fit. In just four years Fukasawa went from design consultant to Muji’s board of directors. The retailer is scheduled to open its first U.S. store in the New York Times Building later this year.
By 2001 Fukasawa was a hot industrial designer in Tokyo, a city teeming with gadgetry. So when Keita Satoh, CEO of the toy company Takara, wanted to create a new brand of consumer electronics, he turned to Fukasawa. Two years later the designer helped start Plus Minus Zero, a brand that breathes new life into mundane objects such as doormats, calculators, and umbrellas. Fukasawa, whose playful nods to his native culture help products transcend bland sterility, is responsible for the entire line. The bottom of Sole Bag is made from the same rubber as uwabakis, the sneakers worn by Japanese students; the top of the Cordless Phone is angled so that it appears to bow to the user. Currently, the products are available only in Japan, but the brand has assumed near-cult status among design aficionados.
Earlier this year Fukasawa was invited, along with the architect Zaha Hadid, to create an “Ideal House” installation at the IMM Cologne, a clear indication of his growing international renown. The austere arrangement of domestic products confused some visitors: Blank walls vaulting skyward? Sleek open spaces punctuated by pristine Fukasawa objects? What exactly were they looking at? But the installation was also a refreshing dose of clarity—a lean, spare, almost philosophical rumination on technology, the twenty-first-century home, and the future of interior space. “I think objects or things are shifting toward the surrounding walls for integration or otherwise into our body for integration,” Fukasawa told the design blog Dezeen. “Maybe only things that are necessary to physically exist will stay, and all others will be integrated as functional elements.”
Fukasawa’s cell phone rings. He apologizes, takes the mobile phone (which he designed) out of his pocket, and turns it off. This spring he is busy preparing for the Milan Salone Internazionale del Mobile and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, in New York. Here in Tokyo, “21_21 Design Sight” recently opened inside a new Tadao Ando building. Organized by the fashion designer Issey Miyake, the graphic designer Taku Satoh, and Fukasawa, it will combine rotating exhibitions with performance pieces and act as a kind of design laboratory for the city. Fukasawa says “21_21” refers to human vision, 20/20 being perfect and 21/21 being better than perfect. He is overseeing the first exhibit, Chocolate, which traces the various linguistic, cultural, and visual associations surrounding that guilty pleasure. With his range of projects expanding beyond objects, he’s asked, What’s next, buildings? “I’m not an architect. If I can, I want to,” Fukasawa says, pausing to think. “But I’m more interested in objects that are close to the body.”