Simplified Beauty | Visiting Japan by Reiko Kaneko

We follow SCP founder Sheridan Coakley and designer Reiko Kaneko on a trip to the Ishinomaki Laboratory

We commissioned Reiko Kaneko, SCP designer and co-curator of the Simplified Beauty exhibition, to write an essay to accompany the show. Here we are proud to publish it alongside some images from the trip she and Sheridan Coakley took to Japan earlier in 2014.

“Take heed of the humble; be what you are by birthright; there is no room for arrogance.” Soetsu Yanagi (The Unknown Craftsman, p97)

This show, Simplified Beauty, is based on a single design value embodied in humble, simply made, mass hand-crafted products. It puts forward the idea that a lack of personality is something that makes objects beautiful. SCP has chosen three companies to showcase at the London Design Festival that embody this idea: Ishinomaki Laboratory, Shotoku Glass and the Mashiko potteries. Here I hope to provide an introduction to this philosophy; explain how SCP developed the focus for the show; and describe how I see this value relating both to design work today and to our notions of beauty.

SCP founder Sheridan Coakley first came across Ishinomaki Laboratory, a furniture maker in Japan, at a Paris trade show. The solid construction of their furniture combined with an unusual lightness of touch intrigued Sheridan, and prompted him to visit Japan to find out more. In June this year we visited Ishinomaki Laboratory, Shotoku Glass, and the Mashiko potteries and during the trip the idea for this show came together. We wanted to discover more about their design principles and in our discussions with them we began to understand that their design ethos was influenced by, and is in many ways part of, an older and larger movement known as the Mingei (民芸) movement.

Designs without personality


Mingei was developed by the thinker and critic, Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), who in 1926 formally defined and named the movement which roughly translates as ‘Art of the People’. He travelled extensively, often with potter Shoji Hamada, collecting examples of Mingei crafts and created a purpose-built museum that still stands in Tokyo today. They put forward the idea that objects often regarded as plain, everyday, utilitarian – such as pots, textiles, and other artefacts – are just as beautiful as artworks that hang in galleries. Yanagi was particularly fond of Korean pottery, which was mass-produced for everyday use by unknown craftspeople. These objects had no pretence; modesty was their virtue. He admired the artisans that made them because they didn’t force their personality or character onto the product, but instead were highly skilled at making large quantities, bringing costs down so their products could be bought cheaply and used widely.

Bernard Leach, the renowned British potter, was a good friend of Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada and shared their ideas of Mingei crafts and beauty creating a cross pollination of cultural ideas. While Yanagi and Hamada admired old Asian folk crafts, they were also aware of William Morris. As Leach says, “Morris and his followers felt that there was no genuine heartbeat left in work and so they set out to print and weave and decorate with their own hands.”[2] Yanagi and Hamada were inspired too by Charles Eames, who they realised was a man who delighted in the development process within industrial design. As Leach recollects, “Hamada said that he had met one man in America, Charles Eames, who had shown a way forward. He described the first meeting, together with Yanagi and myself, at his home near Los Angeles in 1954. He laid stress upon Eames’ open acceptance both of the contemporary scientific and industrial world as well as the traditions of the past; upon his playful refusal to be chained by fear, and his constant inventiveness and domination of the mechanical by a new freedom of intuition and joy in making.” (The unknown craftsman, p95. Bernard Leach)

Invisible designers today


A hundred years down the line, I think we can draw a parallel today. Naoto Fukusawa and Jasper Morrison are two like-minded industrial designers working together (Fukusawa is director of the Mingei-kan, handed down from Soetsu Yanagi’s son, Sori – himself a respected industrial designer). Enthusiastically sharing ideas, they have developed the concept of Super Normal, in which the subtle qualities of objects are discovered through use rather than design. What’s interesting to me is their contemporary interpretation of parts of the Mingei philosophy. Just as Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada used to talk about the ‘completeness’ of a pot, Fukusawa and Morrison talk of the ‘completeness’ of industrially produced objects where the design or the designer is invisible. Products are complete only when used, and the ultimate test of a product is “how we age with it” [3]

The philosophies of Mingei, Supernormal, Bauhaus and Modernism advocate something that is elemental and stripped down. But far from taking anything away, their user-centric approach creates only what is necessary, without waste, as can be seen in the pared back designs of the Ishinomaki Laboratory. Sheridan was first excited by the Bauhaus and Modernist tradition and has created products that have become design classics; today he continues to showcase designs that excite him. In an industry that is swayed by names, reputation and the nature of trends and fashion, SCP is testament to his anchored taste and aesthetics over the last 29 years.


Beauty in the moment


Those five short days in Japan, meeting with people genuinely passionate about their craft stimulated my interest in what it is to be a designer and my quest for true beauty. If I think back to what I’ve found most beautiful so far, I think of moments, not objects. I practice Kyudo, Japanese archery, and am familiar with the idea of zanshin, remaining spirit. It’s the moment just after the arrow is released, the moment that reveals all. A shot without desire, no personality, but with energy and life. The most beautiful shooting is by archers who show no desire to hit the target, but have the right intentions and are full of vitality. I think the idea of ‘remaining spirit’ works with physical objects, both mass produced and crafted. I can see that same energy in Hamada’s description of Eames, and the energy Eames puts into designing each product.

The dynamism of people and the energy they create were very clear during our visit to Japan. At Ishinomaki Laboratory, chance meetings in the extraordinary circumstances of the tsunami had produced a special energy and DIY spirit which permeates their work. Sheridan was excited too by Shotoku Glass, still producing in Tokyo with extremely skilled craftsmen, and the continuing Mingei tradition at the Mashiko potteries. He was able to make meaningful connections with people in Japan who are passionate about similar things. Sheridan’s love and passion for design brought everyone together without any clear end game. But that’s Simplified Beauty: with the right intention, without desire, things should slot into place.

Reiko Kaneko
Designer and Co-Curator of Simplified Beauty

[1] Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman, p97
[2] Bernard Leach, The Unknown Craftsman, p90
[3] Jasper Morrison, Super Normal, Sensations of the Ordinary, p111

The view from here.