Chairs, mindfulness and exploring the deftness of Japanese design

Rose Martin looks at a number of new books dealing with design and architecture and in particular, the re-emergence of a new style of Japanese architecture.

Chairs, mindfulness and exploring the deftness of Japanese design

IMAGINE, if you will, a Trumping, swashbuckling, gold-plated Tower — a phallic monument to narcissism with all the garish finishes of a seven-star, Gulf State bordello.

Now envisage it’s exact opposite — imagine simple, pure, low-slung, mouth-puckeringly exquisite emptiness and you have the Japanese aesthetic, with a whoosh of calm on the side. Not hard to pick a favourite, is it?

In comparison to the rather Neanderthal showmanship of modern, twentieth-century architecture — now moving its focus to China where a whole slew of Starchitects are lined up to design improbably curvaceous, enormous forms for some company or other — the ancient Kingdoms of Japan haven’t moved far in centuries.

As a schoolchild, you learned that the islanders lived in paper houses, to much giggling, but with good reason, even today.

Earthquakes are a perennial danger in its geography and Japan is at the forefront of natural disaster design. Today, it also explains the lightness and deftness of its buildings.

Tokyo may have one of the highest densities of any major city, built on high rise towers, but that’s to mislead, because the Japanese, like we islanders, prefer single, one-off houses outside of the cities.

In latter years, Japan’s architects are creating some stunning domestic examples in a return to a tradition that pre-dated modernism, but has its principles at its core.

The Japanese House Reinvented by Philip Jodidio is an architectural book, but it’s not for buffs, rather it’s a compilation of the best and finest dwelling designed by outstanding international architects from the land of the rising sun.

Jodidio says that 60% of Japanese houses are single-family homes and that the majority use a modern vernacular style with upturned tiled roofs that he mildly disparage but welcomes the return to a simpler style.

With an ancient culture, an ingenuity and obsessive relationship with the beauty of simplicity and form, the examples in this book live up to the expectations of a clean, spare, Zen-like dwellings, where every need is catered for - but nothing is shown. Or better still, showy.

Wood, steel, concrete, fire, earth, and water all combine in different combinations by different designers as the examples used in the illustration here indicate.

“A clear trend has emerged in recent years to open interior spaces of Japanese house, much as sliding shoji screens allowed a high degree of flexibility in the past,” Jodido says, adding: “This openness, obviously, is one way of addressing the small spaces that even relatively wealthy Japanese must make do with, especially in cities like Tokyo and Osaka.”

The deeper expression of culture here, is in the nature of the architecture, he says, in the perception of space and nature.

And while that is now re-emerging, the economics of building fast and building on a large scale over successive disasters, not least the second World War, led to a loss of cultural heritage amidst the urgency of re-housing.

This ‘explosion of bad architecture’ is, he says, the second man-made disaster that has marked Tokyo’s recent history, sweeping away the beauty of centuries-old tradition.

The legal necessity to create buildings of a certain structural mass also created problems, but has allowed architects to play with the sculptural possibilities of concrete, Jodido contends.

The twin driving forces of a creating a home, but one that is safe and secure has allowed designers to return to an older approach, where buildings float upon the landscape, rather than become brute concrete structures, pitting themselves against nature.

The newer architects trace this approach back to the buildings at Katsura, a 17th-century Imperial residence which was ‘re-discovered’ in the thirties, mis-appropriated by fascism in the ’40s and then reconnected to the post-War modernist movement by its elegant simplicity.

It’s from this past that contemporary Japanese architects are evolving a wholly modern style, but one in which elements of culture, of history, and tradition are merged for the 21st century, re-invented, Japanese house.

Pritzker-prize winner, Shigeru Ban uses paper tubes and plywood in his work, (again, a response to geographical conditions in Japan).
Pritzker-prize winner, Shigeru Ban uses paper tubes and plywood in his work, (again, a response to geographical conditions in Japan).

The average reader, with even a little interest in form and function will find much to please here — many of these unpretentious, (but no doubt, unearthly expensive) houses will convert rapidly to our rural environment.

The designer and architect, too, will find inspiration from a fistful of Pritzker Prize-winners and a host of emerging practices producing inspiring work.

The Japanese House Reinvented by Philip Jodidio, €29.94/£24.95 hardback, is published by Thames &Hudson

Chairs by Architects by Agata Toromanoff is published by Thames & Hudson

CONSIDERING Ireland has been considered a safe haven by the manufacturers of, to put it bluntly, knock-off designs in the last couple of years, the news thatwe are about to adopt intellectual copyright rules, should cast a pall on this latest, Irish-based wheeze.

What it will also mean is a decided decrease in the number of mid-century modern chairs in domestic use, as the cheapness and availability of ‘inspired by’ furniture allowed the sort of democratisation of design envisaged by the very same, visionary post-War designers whose names are well known now because they live in the kitchen or living room as part of the home’s tools.

Toromanoff’s book is a veritable encyclopaedia of design notables, from the ubiquitous to the rare, and gives an inciation of how many variations on a theme there are out there — with more to come, it seems.

This recent century’s festishising of the humble seat has a lot to do with an increased appreciation of good design — not just for how it looks, but for how it feels and the items that top the knock-off lists are there because they work — not just because they’re stylish. But fashion is fickle and in 10 year’s time, there could be a swing back to the ornate and the overstuffed — let’s hope not.

Up close, and in alphabetical order, there’s much to admire in these chairs, from Gio Ponti’s sugán, to the clunky (and to this reviewer, revolting) style of Gerrit Reitveld, to the sublime curves of Saarinen’s womb chair, to the sleek, Wall Street essence of Knoll’s Generation office chair, to Renzo Piano’s pure, Piano Design Chair.

There’s lots to see and each chair comes with an image of the place or venue for which it was designed, placing the element in its context and in its time. This book is one for the buff, (there’s a collector’s advice page) and the dinner party bore, perhaps?

William Morris: An Arts & Crafts Colouring Book, €15 approx/£12.95 paperback, is published by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with the V&A

MORRIS meets Mindfullness is the short story with this Christmas market publication from Thames and Husdon with the Victoria and Albert Museum — and it’s shooting fish in a barrel when it comes to hitting market demand.

A paperback volume, it’s has pages of William Morris’ iconic prints, with full colour reproduction on the right hand side and blanks for colouring-in on the left. Simples.

There are 45 patterns to colour, in four sections under ‘Nature’, ‘Colour’, ‘Pattern’, and ‘Craft’ and anyone who undertakes the task of finishing this book will have a very detailed appreciation of the creative skills of this master of the Arts and Crafts movement.

And for those of you who are Gogglebox fans, and have often wondered about the pattern in Giles and Mary’s living room — straight William Morris.

On the walls, on the loose coverings — pure country house style and timeless. As are Morris’ prints. A good gift for someone who appreciates craft and design — and is a mindfulness fan.

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