WA: The Essence of Japanese Design by Rossella Menegazzo and Stefania Piotti (phaidon.com) is a a gorgeous object in its own right, which happens to be about gorgeous Japanese objects. This oversized book, published in 2014, is stab-bound with red threads, uses special red coatings on the front and rear covers to give the reds depth and texture. Pages give the appearance of being fan-folded, with prominent red blocks denoting sections on the folded outer edge. Additional details have been added to protect the cut edges of the pages around the binding, and all of these touches make the presentation of this book quite striking.
The theme of the book is "Japanese-ness" in design, and the characteristics that make something appear to be specifically "Japanese." To that end, the book opens with an essay on both design and a traditional, Shinto-based worldview in which deities exist everywhere, and of how this creates the complexity of making a sacred space where everything is infused naturally with religious mystery. There is a good introduction to traditional (Polynesian-based) temple styles, and the materials and approaches which we now associate with the best elements of traditional Japanese design.
There are also very thoughtful remarks on the differences between minimalism and "emptiness," and regarding the pressures of tradition which can prevent individual expression within traditional craft and design contexts.
Traditional objects, unattributed and historical, set the tone for 20th and 21st century objects, which are organized by material. I'm a big fan of Japanese traditional design, especially in the use of clearly displayed materials in architecture, one of my past professions. I think the book is quite lovely, and is organized quite clearly.
The scope of objects also manages to stretch beyond the obvious. The connections between old and new are clearest when the object is a modern update of an older design, such as when a teapot once made of iron is updated to a clean ceramic with a bamboo-wrapped handle, or to an unadorned, smooth stainless steel profile. The jump from traditional, cylindical paper lantern forms to a block of methacrylate with frosted edges and an aluminum fixture embedded into it is huge, however, and the connection is much harder to see.
One unexpected aspect of the book is the representation of men in the design of nearly everything. Even the fashion section is dominated by male names, and the early essay attributes many innovations and the increasing awareness of Japanese design as a worthy topic to the efforts of men such as Issey Miyake. This is a byproduct of the most traditional elements of the culture, certainly, but since the book covers work up through at least 2012, it feels peculiar. Internationally, design has given the impression in recent years of relative gender equity, and even more so in design schools. As a result, male dominance of this book is unexpected, and suggests that the evolution of contemporary design from traditional arts has brought along some historical limitations. While it is great that so many objects are managed by generation after generation of skilled families, it is a shame if father-to-son transmission is the primary form being encouraged in the present day.
Overall, this book is a thoughtful, and aesthetically pleasing examination of the elements that make an object feel aesthetically Japanese, and I am glad I was unable to resist it when I spotted it at my local independent bookstore.
images and text Copyright © 2016 A. E. Graves, book cover images are the copyright of their respective owners
(posted August 14, 2016 refreshed February 2019)
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