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Kita Toshiyuki: Designs for a Better Japan
A Plan to Kick-start Recovery Through Beautiful Design

Kita Toshiyuki is an award-winning product designer whose work fuses Japanese traditions with a contemporary, cosmopolitan sensibility. We talked to him about the characteristics of Japanese design and its potential to restore an ailing economy.

Kita Toshiyuki

Kita ToshiyukiEnvironmental and industrial designer. Born in Osaka in 1942. Since starting as a designer in Milan and Japan in 1969, has worked on everything from furniture, electric appliances, and robots to household necessities. His work has been acquired by some of the world’s leading museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Pompidou Center. Recently he has worked as a government advisor on design issues in Singapore, Thailand, and China. Throughout his career, he has worked closely with Japan’s own craft traditions. In 2011, he received a Compasso d’Oro career award from the Italian Association of Industrial Design.

INTERVIEWER You have worked in a number of countries around the world. Do approaches to design differ from country to country?

KITA TOSHIYUKI There’s a design boom underway in Asia at the moment. Countries are taking design seriously as a project of national importance. China in particular has announced its intention to develop design as a “new resource.” The government has set up specialist design departments in more than a thousand universities. Over 600,000 students are currently enrolled in design courses in China.

Aquos C1 / 2001
Sharp (Japan)
Photo: Luigi Sciuccati

Chinese companies that used to focus on contract-basis production are now working hard to build their own brands. Design is a big thing right now. The huge Chinese market is bringing a new energy to design. A similar kind of design fever can be seen in Korea, where major design centers have been built. Seoul has ambitions to become a hub city for design in the Far East. Throughout the region, the three elements of design, market, and the economy are coming together as one. There is a real sense of vibrancy and energy in the design movement across the booming economies of Asia.

Actually, even in Asia, concepts of what design involves can be quite different. In Chinese, for example, the word for “design” is sheji [設計]. This incorporates a much wider range of nuances than the loan word dezain in Japanese. It takes in all stages of the production process, including planning and engineering. The Italian term disegno has a similarly wide range of connotations. In Japan, though, dezain tends to be thought of much more narrowly. It’s often limited to the superficial, purely aesthetic aspects of a product. As a result, design departments in Japanese companies have a low profile and often lack clout. This is particularly true of the big companies.

INTERVIEWER Would you say that design in Japan faces a challenging environment today?

KITA I would. One of the purposes of design is to improve the places in which people live, work, and carry out their daily activities. Design should make these places more pleasant and more convenient. But the Japanese lifestyle has not improved in this respect for a long time. The fact that people’s homes tend to be so small is a major factor. People live in confined spaces that are so crammed with domestic appliances and furniture that they end up looking like storerooms. They don’t have the space to invite friends over for dinner, and therefore don’t have any incentive to collect or display beautiful objects. As a result, Japanese interior design and the furniture industry in particular are at death’s door. It’s certainly true that Japanese people have large savings, but in terms of everyday life, the sense of affluence is being whittled away at an astonishing rate. This is a warning signal for Japan.

Design is something that grows naturally out of everyday life. The Japanese economy depends on exports. That means that we need to produce good things and export them to people in other countries. But I worry that with our current level of lifestyle, we may lose sight of what quality means.

Traditional Crafts: Revered Abroad, Neglected at Home

INTERVIEWER Italy has managed to maintain its position as a major center of design, despite its financial difficulties.

KITA Until recently, Italy didn’t even have a major design school. You could say that all Italian design in recent years emerged naturally from the patterns of daily life. In Italy, people’s homes are like salons: a place to welcome friends and entertain. They are places of exchange, where people come together. And this makes people want to decorate their homes with fine objects and beautiful things. People have a motivation for turning their homes into a stage for an attractive lifestyle. This is the soil that produces great design.

But in fact Japan used to have a similar culture of attractive lifestyles of its own. In the past, almost everything made in Japan was painstakingly designed. Traditional houses, for example, or lacquer bowls—design was an essential part of the objects that people used in their everyday lives. This sensibility reflected the natural environment to a wonderful extent too. Japan was remarkably successful in incorporating an environmental approach into all parts of the culture—including design.

Wajima / 1986
Ōmukai Kōshūdō (Japan)
Photo: Nob Fukuda

Japan’s traditional craft industries enjoy a high reputation all over the world, but in Japan itself they are on the brink of extinction. The decline in living standards, brought about by the cramped living quarters, is to blame.

About forty years ago, desperate to do whatever I could to halt the decline of the traditional industries, I started approaching craftsmen in different regions around Japan, proposing that we collaborate on a project. But it didn’t pan out the way I hoped. We tried making things, but the market didn’t materialize. There were simply not enough people looking to incorporate good-quality, traditionally made objects into their lives. I racked my brains trying to figure out why the traditional industries were in decline, but in the end I realized the answer was simple: no market. Basically, I think we need to start enjoying life more. That’s the first step to reinvigorating Japanese design and the traditional industries that support it.

  • [2012.02.17]
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