Like many of his peers in Japanese design, Baku Sakashita received his education abroad—at the prestigious Swiss design school ECAL. Shortly after graduating, he debuted his first pieces in Milan at SaloneSatellite—the annual design fair’s showcase for young designers. Yet, when it came to putting down his roots, returning to Japan was a must.
“For me, it’s very important to work in Japan because there are a lot of craftsman who are making things by hand like ceramics and glass,” the 33-year-old designer, who also crafted his lighting collection, told Curbed. Consisting of handmade paper connected to thin stainless-steel frames, the “Suki” lighting collection is a contemporary take on traditional Japanese lanterns, inspired by the artwork of Isamu Noguchi.
Sakashita is one of many young Japanese designers presenting work in the second-annual Designart festival, a citywide celebration of Japanese product and furniture design, architecture and art, held in 110 locations throughout Tokyo.
Unlike Milan’s Salone del Mobile or Paris’s Maison et Objet, the festival is not centered on a trade fair. Instead, the majority of the works are placed in stores and boutiques around the avenue Omotesando, a hub for design and architecture in bustling Shibuya, on the border of the hip Tokyo neighborhood of Harajuku. Some were grouped together shopping centers, making it easy to browse everything from contemporary artwork to limited-edition furniture.
In addition to attracting talent from Europe and the U.S. to Tokyo, the festival was largely intended to raise awareness within Japan—a country that lacks a strong market for contemporary design.
Astrid Klein, an architect who moved from London to Tokyo over 30 years ago, explained that with the fair, she and her six-person team of festival organizers wanted to make “design and art much more accessible to everybody, and not just those in the design and art worlds.”
While Japanese architects like Kengo Kumo and Toyo Ito receive international acclaim, Klein explained that there is a lack of support for local Japanese art, architecture, and design, particularly that of the younger generation. “There’s still a little bit of this mentality where the grass is greener in Europe. But there’s so much talent here,” said Klein.
The inaugural Designart took place last year, featured 72 exhibitions, and was attended by 40,000 visitors, say organizers. This year, the scope was broader and included a more diverse selection of participants. Understandably, the festival doesn’t yet have the buzz of Salone or London Design Week. In fact, in many ways it appears to still be in the process of carving its niche and deciding what it will become.
Many of the projects were relatively small in scale, and some of the artworks on display were underwhelming, occasionally overshadowed by the bold clothing designs in the boutiques in which they displayed. As in Milan, some commercial projects fell flat, like the art installation by architect Sou Fujimoto for winter-wear brand Canada Goose that consisted of down placed in a grid-like pattern in the store window.
Yet, considering Japan’s rich culture and centuries of tradition, perhaps some of the disconnect felt by those who frequent the European design fairs can be chalked up to cultural difference. In Japan, “it’s a different kind of talent; it’s much more ambiguous, sensitive, ephemeral and a little bit hard to grasp” says Klein. “Japanese design is not exactly bold and shouting, it’s a little bit more humble, I think.”
For some designers in Japan, using Designart as an opportunity to educate the public is crucial. “Japanese Interiors can be quite beautiful using good wood and traditional materials, but in terms of furniture, I think Japanese people—not all, but almost all—don’t care about furniture,” argued Hakuto Ando, a London-trained Japanese designer who had prepared a simple outdoor installation for the event. Ando’s studio, we+, which he runs with partner Toshiya Hayashi, produces, for example, limited-edition conceptual chairs available at the influential Milan design gallery Rossana Orlandi and Gallery S. Bensimon in Paris.
“I still need to go to European countries like France or Italy to show the kind of pieces I do,” says Ando, adding that he hopes events like Designart will help to grow the Japanese market. All artworks and products exhibited were available for the public to purchase, which organizers hope will also help to encourage young designers.
Yuri Himuro, another familiar face from this year’s SaloneSatellite in Milan, displayed her colorful Bloom blankets in the courtyard of Tokyo’s Axis building. One floor up, architecture firm Yoy exhibited sleek, tech-infused designs like the Cotodama Lyric Speaker, a flat, square speaker inspired by a vinyl record, which projects song lyrics.
Collaborations with established design brands were also a major element of the festival. Hiroto Yoshizoe, who took home a Lexus Design Award in 2017, presented a modified version of his work, Pixel, for B&B Italia. The projection system transforms light and shadow whilst passing through paper inspired by traditional Japanese shoji screens. For the Tokyo store, Yoshizoe created a larger version, which could be used as a room divider or decoration.
An emphasis on traditional Japanese craftsmanship was also apparent in Designart collaborations, like in the glass speaker designed for Fritz Hansen by Keita Suzuki, who has worked on everything from electric trains to soy sauce containers. Placed around the showroom to create a sound installation, the simple glass vases provide natural amplification for music played on a cell phone, expanding the sound “the same way gramophone [does],” Suzuki explained.
Designart also teamed up with the Swedish Society of Crafts to present a showcase of works by young Swedish designers. The exhibition highlighted the blurred boundaries between art, architecture, craftsmanship, and design in honor of 150 years of diplomatic relations between the countries.
Some offered critical commentary on global issues; the kind of critical design thinking largely missing from the rest of Designart (a notable difference between festivals in Europe). A chair by Amanda Borgfors Meszaros made of recycled wool and old tapestries highlighted the use of sustainable materials, while the project “Mayday” by Emelie Kasholm consisted of a bag of supplies needed if a baby were to be delivered unexpectedly in a public place, shedding light on job cuts in labor and delivery care.
Yet, despite the lack of critical works, one large-scale artwork offered commentary on the city’s biggest upcoming event: the 2020 Olympics. Artist Akira Fujimoto and architect Yuko Nagayama created a large orb that filled the entryway of an office building in central Tokyo. The piece held a place for a zero in the numbers 2021—the title of the work—which is meant to reflect on a post-Olympic Tokyo.
“Many cities see a downward spiral after hosting the Olympics,” said Fujimoto, mentioning Tokyo after hosting the 1964 olympics, as well as Beijing and Rio. Yet, when Tokyo won the 2020 bid, the overarching emotion amongst the population was excitement. “To me, it seemed like how it was the last times: too much advertisement, big architecture firms changing the city—it’s just showing off,” says Fujimoto.
“Everything seems to be focused on 2020 and we are particularly concerned that life goes on afterwards, especially design and art.”