Japanese designer Tokugin Yoshioka (first published in POL Oxygen magazine). HONEY POP: Siobhan O’Brien. The world simply can’t get enough of Japanese design. Especially Japanese designer, Tokujin Yoshioka. It’s a love affair that doesn’t look like cooling. The press are going crazy for him. His work has been dubbed a must-see, iconic and revolutionary. It’s no surprise that even designers love him. According to Fiona Rattray, journalist with The Independent, British design luminary Ross Lovegrove is an avid fan. “Designers are often the fiercest (and fairest) critics of each other’s work, so to hear one being so complimentary is rare.”
Though Yoshioka is not a big name yet, he has worked and collaborated with some household names (Issey Miyake, Ron Arad, Karim Rashid and Jasper Morrison); and he is on permanent display at some of the worlds most revered cultural institutions (The Vitra Museum, Germany; The Centre Pompidou, France; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York). It is his paper Honey-Pop chair that has warmed the cold hearts of some of the choosiest curators in the world.
As Rolf Fehlbaum, chairman of the Vitra chair company, points out: “Conceptually, his work is really extraordinary. He has taken a cheap material (paper) one step further.”
That beloved Honey-Pop chair is a deceptive design. Constructed from wafer thin honeycombed sheets of paper, it opens like an accordion, yet is only inches thick when closed. “This chair is made with 120 sheets of glassine paper stuck together and cut along specific lines so that it magically opens up,” says Yoshioka. But, the best bit is still to come. “The final form of the chair is set when in use, as it responds to the shape of the sitters bottom,” he explains.
As you can imagine making a chair like this is no walk in the park. The paper and machine which produces it, were developed by Yoshioka after rigorous experiments with aluminium, plastic and fabric, all failed. In fact, it could be said, that paper chose this designer, he didn’t choose it. “The main idea of Honey-Pop was to make a 2-dimensional chair turn into 3-dimensional chair,” he says. “I performed about 50 experiments with the paper until I got it right. Light and strong, the naturally created honeycomb is ultimately architecture.”
But working with paper isn’t Yoshioka’s only forté. He had a hand in the metamorphoses currently underway in Tokyo’s vibrant entertainment district, Roppongi. This revamp, known as the Roppongi Hills Project, is the largest urban redevelopment project in Japan’s history. It features a monumental arts, business and residential centre (the Mori Arts Centre); Japan’s largest contemporary art/culture museum (the Mori Arts Museum); and a temporary arts and cultural space, the New Tokyo Life Style Roppongi Think Zone, of which Yoshioka is the mastermind.
The ‘Think Zone’, as it is fortunately abbreviated to, is a part of the pre-opening phase of the Mori Arts Centre (MAC), currently under construction on an adjacent site. ‘Think Zone’, will operate for two years, prior to the expected October 2003 opening of the $US2.5 billion (or 470 billion yen, including land value) MAC.
The MAC complex (underwritten by developer Minoru Mori, uncle of Japanese designer Mariko Mori), will have an eagle’s nest view of Tokyo from the top five floors of a mega 54-story tower block, and will incorporate the Mori Art Museum (MAM). In association with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other leading cultural institutions, the artistic vision of MAM has been nudged along by an A-list of international design talent: American architect, Richard Gluckman; British design guru, Sir Terence Conran; Japanese designer, Fumihiko Maki; corporate architects, Kohn Pederson Fox; and Toronto designer Bruce Mau. The museum’s first director will be the British-born cultural historian and curator David Elliot, formerly of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
Yoshioka’s contribution, the ‘Think Zone’, is what he describes as, “a new type of experimental art project. Here, I projected image works onto the whole floor, which would seem to float when seen from the street though specially made optical glass. Stepping inside the Zone, where a gallery café and bookstore are also to be found, should amaze one with the fact that the future is here already.”
But, even though the ‘Think Zone’ is temporary, Yoshioka has left a permanent mark on the Roppongi Hills Project. An outdoor fixture, launched in May this year, is The Streetscape Project, exhibited in front of Roppongi’s ASAHI Broadcasting building. This collaborative endeavour displays furniture designs by eleven pre-eminent designers from around the globe, including: Ron Arad, Ettore Sottsass, Gijs Bakker, Jasper Morrison, Andrea Branzi, Thomas Sandell, Karim Rashid, Toyo Ito, Katsuhiko Hibino, Shigeru Uchida and Tokujin Yoshioka, of course. Yoshioka’s contribution to the project is Chair Disappears in Rainy Days, an installation inspired by the thought “What would Japanese designer Isamu Noguchi have created if he lived in 100 years time?” Chair Disappears in Rainy Days is a trompe l’oeil chair, constructed with a massive (one-metre in diameter) block of glass; the same reflective material used in astronomical telescopes. The result is a transparent, elegant and timeless design. “When it rains, I wanted the chair to look as if it disappears,” says Yoshioka.
Yoshioka knew he wanted to be a designer when he was seven years old, but did he know he’d be in world-class company by the age of 36? “I’ve just done what I always wanted to do, designing is my hobby. The reason why I design is to create something new, which has not existed before. I do not have any specific designers who inspire me, but I identify myself with many famous or infamous designers who are challenging new things,” he says.
Yoshioka does, however, admit a deep respect for the late designer Shiro Kuramata and the much applauded Issey Miyake. “I learned a lot from them for an attitude to designing. I was influenced a lot by the people who established the value of design,” he says. A stint working in the office of Kuramata in the late eighties; designing Miyake’s Tokyo shop “A-POC” (or “A Piece of Cloth”) in 1988; and working on Miyake’s PLEATS PLEASE exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1990, all helped give Yoshioka the tools and confidence to launch out as a freelancer in the early nineties, before establishing the Tokyo based Tokujin Yoshioka Design in 2000.
But, his biggest coup on the world stage so far, is exhibiting at the 2002 and 2003 Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan. Last year, saw the launch of his Tokyo-Pop Collection inspired by Pop images, Japanese paper lanterns and the mundane task of putting on a T-shirt. Each piece of furniture from the range is made from single-block plastic, using rotational production techniques. Yoshioka equates this method, which allows complex hollow forms to be produced, with “making popcorn”. To help you get an idea: once the raw material is loaded into the mould it expands and “pops!” – hence the name, Tokyo-Pop. Manufactured by Driade, this quirky indoor/outdoor collection includes an armchair, sofa, chaise lounge and small
tables/stools. These come in a gentle ivory and a grey-green colour, through to a sunburst orange, red and a vibrant blue. There is also a wool/cotton upholstered version. On prominent display alongside these plastic marvels at the Salone, were Yoshioka’s intricate paper prototypes; the same ones Linda Hales of The Washington Post christened icons.
The 2003 Salone Internazionale del Mobile saw this Tokyo-Pop series grow, with the addition of Tokyo-Pop 2, and three new products quaintly entitled En, Nami, and Sen. Tokyo Pop 2 includes a range of new, updated pastel colours, and a host of new items including a cylindrical table and stool, which also apply the rotational plastic method. The concept for these pieces of furniture, which look manually squashed, was to accommodate the sitter’s legs.
As Yoshioka points out: “Tokyo-Pop 2 was born from naturally created forms. Like when you hold a sponge, or the pressure of people sitting on a sofa. Natural forms that people make unconsciously in daily life.”
Continuing this precocious game with organic forms and materials, En is an experiment that turns tradition up side down. This dining table has a circular or oval top made from white lacquered MDF, set upon a transparent cylinder base fixed to the floor on a steel plate. Here, the idea of the traditional glass-top table is reverted: the top appears to float in the air above an invisible base. Similarly, the deceptive light grey Nami tables appear, at first glance, to be constructed with a single material. But, they are in fact, a combination of a cast-iron base, a stainless steel column, and a top (available in three different sizes, in a square or circular shape), made of polyurethane and supported by a cast-iron bell. And to complete this innovative clutch of designs, Sen is a low living room table, with an oval transparent crystal top based on a slender steel rod.
To complete the experience, Yoshioka created a large-scale cloud installation that cloaked the Driade space in a fluffy mist. ”I expressed the whole space with artificial clouds that come from a production machine. This huge installation shows products of successive designers such as Philip Starck, Ron Arad and Antonia Astori, which appear one after another as if the viewer recalls their memories from clouds,” he explains.
Part of the love affair with Yoshioka is due to his ability to transform the mundane into the glorious. He regards putting on a t-shirt as an expression of the times. He values imprints made by bums on sofas. He celebrates nature, the weather, turns paper into icons, and makes glass disappear. With such material and imagination at his disposal, one can only wonder what he will come up with next.