By David Hepburn
This week, guest author David Hepburn weighs in on cross-cultural design collaborations between Japan and Europe. He is a brand ambassador and consultant on Japanese design and culture, and advises food & drink brands in the UK.
Why Japan-Europe design collaboration?
While the world has been plunged into lockdown measures that have shuttered shops and left brands scrabbling to make sure their e-commerce operations are up to scratch, the pandemic has been a time for many people to consider their consumption habits.
Although it’s too early to tell if these reassessments will have a meaningful effect on long term habits, as someone who works closely with brands that create products that are built to last, I for one, hope there’ll be a move towards buying less and buying better.
Japan is rightly famous for the quality of its products. Design and product aficionados the world over seek out cult Japanese products for their relentless focus on quality, whether it’s the world’s best denim, made on old looms in Okayama, sweatshirts by Loopwheeler or hardwearing and trusty canvas bags by Ichizawa Shinzaburo Hanpu. In recent years there’s been a blossoming of design collaborations between European designers and Japanese producers.
Here, I’ll introduce you to three highlights of Japan-Europe design collaborations in recent years.
Arita, in Kyushu, in the far southwest of Japan is synonymous with world-class ceramics. The area is known as the place where porcelain was first produced in Japan over 400 years ago in 1616. 2016 Arita is a brand that was set up to revitalise and support the immense depth of local porcelain production skills with international design talent.
Steered by its team of Creative Directors, Teruhiro Yanagihara and Scholten & Baijings, 2016 Arita teamed up with designers based all over Europe including Kirstie van Noort (the Netherlands), Pauline Deltour (France), TAF and Ingegerd Råman (Sweden), BIG GAME, Kueng Caputo (Switzerland) and Tomás Alonso (UK).
The result is a stunning collection of pieces that blends the unique techniques and skills of Arita’s craftspeople with shapes, silhouettes and functions that are familiar to both European and Japanese people.
These look incredible – very inspiring work.– Dezeen
Love the idea of combining such a traditional local artistry with international design talents: each collection is very different from the other, but with the same approach towards history and tradition.– Italian Bark
Next up is a collection of products designed in London by renowned design studio Sebastian Conran Associates.
Celebrating Gifu’s rich and diverse craft heritage that dates back 1,300 years, the collection combines traditional Japanese techniques with a contemporary international design ethos. The collection is ambitious in its scope, including hand-glazed ceramics, finger-jointed woods, washi paper, sharpened steel, lighting, furniture and textiles.
Each item in the Gifu collection evidences a striking mix of old and new, East and West, orthodox and unconventional. The traditional methods of Gifu’s craftsmen, combined with Conran’s contemporary edge, have created a remarkable new collection that is sure to please with its timeless look, and satisfy with its everyday utility.”-Wallpaper Magazine
Finally, the Hirata Gen Collection by Lars Vejen and Taijiro Ishiko (studioA27). Lars Vejen is a Danish designer who has been working with Japan since completing an internship in Kyoto with a traditional building company called Kohseki in 1995. He now runs a design studio based in Aarhus and Kyoto, where he spends 2-3 months a year.
While interning in Kyoto as a student, Lars was struck by the “total and uncompromising approach to design, craftsmanship and quality” that he saw. In the interiors projects he worked on, “not only form and function, but also feeling, emotion, spirit, dedication and respect” all played their part in the design decisions that clients were guided through.
With the Hirata Gen Collection Lars says he wanted “to merge my Danish background with the Japanese approach to design and craftsmanship”. Collaborating with designer Tajiro Ishiko allowed “for a constructive dialogue on concept, form and function, along with a mutual cultural understanding to make the collection appeal to a wide international audience.”
How do these design collaboration examples foster connections between Japan and Europe?
What all these collaborations share is a deep respect for the skills and techniques of Japanese manufacturers coupled with an understanding of the types of products that will appeal to both European and Japanese buyers. This experience is the result of years of product design experience, market research, cultural insight and testing across all the markets involved.
As economies begin to slowly open up again, it’s my hope that these types of design collaborations, and all that they do to foster cross-cultural understanding, support quality manufacturing and sustain skills over generations, will have a bright future.
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