Intricacies of ‘Super Normal’, Crafting Emotion through User Experience, and the Pursuit of True Sustainability: A Deep Dive into the Mind of Legendary Designer Naoto Fukasawa
From the bustling heart of Tokyo to the hallowed halls of MoMA in New York, the impact of industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa reverberates globally. His name is synonymous with a philosophy that is as profound as it is powerful, a philosophy that fuses the principles of Japanese design with a deeply intuitive understanding of human needs. In our upcoming interview, we sit down with the man who has given the world designs that are not just products but a seamless extension of our lives.
Fukasawa‘s design ethos, much like the ‘Super Normal’ philosophy he shares with fellow designer Jasper Morrison, centers on the idea that good design should dissolve into our everyday lives, becoming almost invisible in its functionality. This ethos is manifest in his iconic designs – from the sleek ‘wall-mounted CD player’ for MUJI that turned heads and set trends back in the day to the captivating furniture design for B&B Italia and Herman Miller.
Born and bred in Tokyo, Naoto Fukasawa brings a distinctly Japanese sensibility to his works. His designs, a testament to his ‘Without Thought’ philosophy, echo the effortless elegance and simplicity typical of Japanese product design. This design aesthetic, perhaps best exemplified by his work with Maruni Wood Industry, combines the subtlest elements of nature and human behavior into forms of understated beauty.
With an illustrious career spanning several decades, Naoto Fukasawa’s collaborations are as diverse as they are impressive. From the whimsical designs for Magis, to the minimalist creations for Alessi, his work with furniture brand Hay, and his lighting masterpieces for Artemide. He has also worked closely with Sam Hecht, another proponent of the ‘Super Normal’ philosophy, and Jasper Morrison, showcasing a unique ability to merge artistic vision with industrial practicality.
Naoto Fukasawa’s exceptional contributions to the design industry have earned him numerous accolades, including the title of ‘Royal Designer for Industry’ and multiple Good Design Awards. His designs form a part of the permanent collection at the MoMA in New York and the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo, marking his indelible imprint on the world of design.
In the world of fashion, Naoto Fukasawa’s work with Issey Miyake stands out, merging design with wearability in an innovative blend. His role as a professor at the Musashino Art University underlines his commitment to nurturing the next generation of designers.
His monograph, ‘Naoto Fukasawa: Embodiment’, published by Phaidon Press, provides insight into his design journey, showcasing how his work blends into the rhythm of our lives, as natural and essential as the air we breathe.
As we prepare to delve into the mind of the master, we invite you to join us in exploring the world of Naoto Fukasawa, the industrial designer who continues to redefine our understanding of design, one product at a time.
Over the course of your career, has your understanding or definition of “good design” evolved or transformed in any way? If so, could you share what factors or experiences have influenced this evolution?
When I first became a designer, I thought that design was a medium of self-expression, but at some point I came to believe that design is something that people are involved in unconsciously, and that people have the ability to perceive unconsciously the beauty that is present in it. Later, I deepened this belief by conducting an experimental workshop called “without thought” once a year for 15 years. I believe that design is an act of deriving the contours between people and their environment, which people perceive in an unconscious state.
You’ve had the unique opportunity to both live in and travel to various countries throughout your career, exposing you to a multitude of design cultures. How have these experiences influenced your design philosophy and practice? Are there specific elements or principles from certain cultures that you’ve incorporated into your work? Could you share some examples of how interacting with diverse design cultures has enriched your perspective and approach to design?
Although there are many times when a design is influence by a different country or culture, and the result reflected in the design, I rather focusing on the universal element of the human body in my designs. The scale of the human body is not so different, regardless of nationality or race. On the other hand, people act differently in different cultures and situations. For example, designing for a European company will naturally differ from designing for an Asian company. I feel that the myriad of experiences I have accumulated in my knowledge and body, which I constantly refer to in my mind, enables me to immediately respond to the challenges I am asked to address.
In your view, how does an object’s user experience win the heart of its consumers? Could you elaborate on the role of user experience in establishing an emotional connection between the consumer and the object?
I believe that the user experience is something experienced without being aware of it, in the relationship between people and things, between things and the environment, and between the environment and people. We understand that only in a state of harmony between people, things, and the environment the user experience can become something that create a good emotional connection.
Your designs have consistently shown a deep respect for craftsmanship and materiality. Given your extensive work with a variety of materials, from the wood used in your ‘Hiroshima’ chairs to the minimalist aesthetics of your electronic devices, could you share which materials you find most satisfying to work with? How do these materials resonate with your design philosophy, and how do they contribute to the user experience you aim to create with your designs?
For example, the HIROSHIMA chair, a representative of craftsmanship, changes its materials in a tasteful way as it is used over time. As it ages, the emotional connection with its owner deepens, and it becomes more valuable to that person. On the other hand, the materials used in electronic devices also change with changes in technology, so it is difficult to say what materials are best in general. However, there is a Japanese saying, “the right material for the right job,” and just as there is no good or bad for all colors, it is not easy to say which materials are good and which are bad. Rather, I believe that both the product and the materials used in the product increase in value depending on where they are used and how they are used. I believe that all users understand this, even if unconsciously.
As a designer, you’ve often spoken about the importance of the ‘unconscious’ in design and how well-designed objects seamlessly integrate into our daily lives. Can you share how broader cultural and societal trends influence your work? In what ways do everyday experiences and interactions shape your design philosophy and the decisions you make when creating new objects?
The unconscious behavior of humans is also described in Japanese as “behave naturally”. It can be said that the act is in a state of harmony where it blends seamlessly with everyday life. On the other hand, to be conscious means that the relationship is not harmonious. Cultural and social factors often appear in the design as a result, but we do not start designing based on them from the beginning. The scale of the human body is almost the same, despite differences in nationality and race, so we always try to derive lines of relationship based on the human body that harmonize people, things, and the environment in which they are placed.
The term ‘sustainability’ has indeed become a prominent concept in the design world, and some argue that its widespread use may sometimes dilute its intended significance. From your perspective, how do you navigate the discourse around sustainability in design? Do you feel that it is sometimes used as a buzzword without substantial commitment, and how do you ensure genuine sustainability in your own work? What does true sustainability in design mean to you?
It is something that can continue to be used, not become garbage, and not be discarded.The word “recycle” means to crush a material and make it into a new material, but I feel that this is far from sustainability in the true sense of the word, since it involves the act of using and then discarding the material. We believe that true sustainability is simply to be able to continue to use something.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that “Design should not be only about objects themselves but it should be for the entire existence of things within space.” Could you expand on this idea? How does this philosophy influence your design approach and the way you think about the relationship between objects and their environment? Could you provide examples of your work where this principle is particularly evident?
My design approach is to create a state of harmony between people and things, things and the environment (space), and the environment and things, and to concretely derive the outlines of the relationships that are certain to exist but are invisible. In addition, objects, like people, have personalities. I think a chair is an example that illustrates this. It is important to see the relationship between their personalities and harmonize them. I designed a shelf called Alexis, made of extruded aluminum, which I think serves as a platform in a space and harmonizes the objects placed on it.
Throughout your extensive career, you’ve designed a vast array of objects, from everyday household items to high-end furniture. However, is there still a specific item or type of product that you have yet to tackle but would like to design in the future? What draws you to this particular design challenge?
I am currently working on a commission for a cruiser, but I am just beginning to work on the design. The cruiser is a sort of ocean-going mobile home, so to speak, that can live on board for months at a time, and the price is astounding. Therefore, I anticipate that designing a cruiser will be a difficult task since I will not have the opportunity to experience one on a daily basis, but I hope to work with the client to incorporate them into my experience so that I can generate good ideas.
Based on your statement, “You should be happy, or it is difficult to design,” can you elaborate on the relationship between personal happiness and the creative design process? How does your own sense of happiness influence your work, and what advice would you give to other designers about cultivating a sense of happiness that can positively impact their design outcomes?
When your heart is aching, you cannot feel the singing of birds, the rustling of the wind, or the beautiful sunlight. Therefore, happiness is a stable mental state in daily life. Therefore, it seems natural for designers to design in this state of mind. I believe that good design cannot be done without experiencing it in one’s own mind, and therefore, good design can only be done through experiencing the happiness that comes from honestly feeling it.
When are you most happy and content?
I will never forget the sense of fulfillment I feel when my design materializes and appears before my eyes.
What are you most proud of?
Having the sense of always being aware.