Shiro Kuramata portrait by Takayuki Ogawa

Dons of Design

Shiro Kuramata

In a new series created for SCP Contracts, we are looking at designs that have become iconic, whether new or old, functional or decorative. We are going to unearth the stories behind their creation and the personalities and companies responsible for bringing them into existence.

Designing for Cappellini

We begin with a number of products designed by Shiro Kuramata and produced by Italian manufacturer Cappellini, namely the Revolving Cabinet, Bookshelf and Progetti Compiuti storage series. These products, all of which are still in production, are beautiful examples Kuramata’s idiosyncratic approach to design and represent a high-point in the Italian furniture industry that was both outward looking and openly romantic.

Cappellini Milan Store Opening, featuring Shiro Kuramata pieces, 2011

In any field, whether artistic, scholarly or sporting, there are certain personalities that transcend the boundaries of their discipline; Shiro Kuramata is one such figure. In a piece recently published online entitled “In Search of Shiro Kuramata”, Dejan Sudjic, who wrote a monograph about his life and work for Phaidon in 2013, notes how hard it is to grasp his legacy. This is due in part to the fact that many of the interiors he created in the 60’s and 70’s are no longer in existence, but also because his work is “characterised by a kind of graceful immateriality” that is quite hard to pin down. “He was a designer who never expected his work to survive, but always saw it as a fragile, transient firework display, or an elegant soap bubble, beautiful but always temporary and always on the edge of vanishing.”

Kuramata was born in Tokyo in 1934 and is one of a generation of Japanese designers and artists to emerge in the post-war period who defied convention and developed their own modern sensibility, which stood apart from both Eastern and Western traditions. After initially studying architecture, Kuramata took an interest in furniture design while working at the Teikoku Kizai Furniture Factory in 1954 and then went on to train at the Department of Interior Design at the Kuwasawa Design Institute in Tokyo. Much of his early work focused on commercial interiors, and in 1965, at the age of 31, he founded the Kuramata Design Office, which he ran until his death in 1991. It is said that he designed more than 300 bars, restaurants and stores in the course of his career. Fashion designer Issy Miyake, for whom he designed store interiors, says of Kuramata, “He was hero for us in the sixties when I started my career in fashion. His usage of material to furniture in an unprecedented way was magical and had caught the heart of my generation. Had I not met Kuramata, my creation would have been different from what I do now.’

Kuramata was always international in his outlook and took inspiration from many people and places, including artists such as Donald Judd, to whom Club Judd in Tokyo (1969) was something of a homage. His interest in Italian design led to his involvement with the Memphis Group. He created a number of designs, notably the Nara table in terrazzo marble in 1983. His work then caught the attention of Giulio Cappellini, who went on to manufacture designs that had been created in 1970 for a series entitled “Furniture in Irregular Forms”. After originally being manufactured in Japan, these pieces were produced by Cappellini from 1987 onwards, namely the Revolving Cabinet, the Bookshelf and a number of different storage cabinets that are grouped together as Progetti Compiuti.

“What attracted me to Shiro Kuramata’s work was the poetry, irony and lightness found in his projects. These projects were never trivial but always innovative and interesting. Shiro taught me that long silences were often better than many words.”

Giulio Cappellini
Side 2 in the Progetti Compiuti series by Shiro Kuramata, manufactured by Cappellini

What is abundantly clear when reading up on Kuramata is that he touched his contemporaries on both a creative and immensely personal level. The architect John Pawson found himself almost stalking Kuramata when he was in Tokyo early in his career. He explains that after gaining an introduction, he “simply spent as much time as possible in his studio – a cramped studio opening off a modest courtyard in an obscure part of Tokyo – watching Kuramata work, browsing through his books, breathing the same air.” Kuramata, he says, “Taught me the value of discipline and poetry. He was full of both himself. His capacity for hard work seemed boundless; his determination to get things right absolute.” It is perhaps this attitude, that I would describe as “absolute poetry”, that is so persuasive about Kuramata. Not only did he have wonderfully beautiful visions in his head, but he also had the wherewithal to bring those ideas to fruition.

How High The Moon by Shiro Kuramata, manufactured by Vitra (1987)

He is reputed to have insisted that, in an age when man can fly to the moon, nothing is impossible. His “How High The Moon” armchair for Vitra (1986) is testament to that assertion. His desire to create objects and environments that had never existed before continually placed him at the vanguard of his chosen field. His furniture designs are recognisably different from other pieces at the time, but also from each other. His work, although pleasingly hard to pin down, has remained culturally relevant, and original pieces are held in key museums and regularly sell at auction for eye-watering sums. So, for those who like a little poetry and lyricism in their lives and homes, Kuramata is your man. The final words on his approach to design should be his own.

“Function of design should not be just about whether it is practical or not. Enchantment should also be considered as function.”

Shiro Kuramata

Shiro Kuramata at SCP