Q&A with Kenya Hara

On a recent trip to Tokyo, Design Anthology sat down for an insightful conversation with venerable design theorist, author and art director of Japanese lifestyle brand MUJI, Kenya Hara

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Exformation — unlearning or unknowing — is the subject of your book. What can we gain from this?

As a graphic designer, I am always creating information. These days there is too much information floating around in the media, but a lot of information is not enough. But these days, people always say “I know, I know," and I don't know why people always say that, because how much do you really know about something? They don't get enough information to really know something, but they always say "I know." We should be worried, we’re being consumed by saying "I know.” We should make people aware how little they really know about a subject. How do you really know about things? If I can make people aware of how little they know about something, they might wake up with more of an interest in something, and I am aware of that. We don’t have to only inform, we can highlight how little is known. We can make things unknown. Making things unknown is a fantastic way to communicate, and it’s a fantastic way to create interest about things. How you create exformation is a lesson in making things uknown. If we can see something as if we were seeing it for the first time, suddenly it becomes new and fresh. That is a type of exformation, and I created this concept with my students at Musashino Art University. I graduated from Musashino, from the Department of Science and Design and then 15 years ago I was asked to teach there. From 2003-2015 we researched the concept of exformation with the graduate-level students. The brain of the student is very soft and flexible, and students always surprised me with their ideas. Every year, together with the students, we would decide on one thing that we would exform. The themes could have been nakedness, or pear, or Tokyo, or air, they were always very different but every year we tried to make a new approach to a subject. I think the experience was fantastic. Then Lars Müller, a Swiss publisher who is a friend of mine, was interested in this project, and he asked me to publish our research in a small book, which I titled Ex-formation. I think that this is a kind of hidden message in my communication design: making people aware of how little we know. This ‘awakening’ plays a very important role in designing.

You speak a lot in the book about people saying “I know, I know,” and collecting facts but not really understanding the subject. How do you feel about technology — is it making the situation worse? Are we just collecting more facts; have we stopped thinking?

Yes, I think so. Too much information stops us from thinking. It’s terrible. AI is terrible I think, although of course AI has great possibilities. I curated a special exhibition at Salone del Mobile with Andrea Brandi in Milan in 2016, ‘Neo-Prehistory: 100 Verbs.’ It was a huge exhibition, and in it we charted a kind of history. History is connected with many aspects such as politics, religion, technology, but I tried to plot history by showing the history of human desire by showing artefacts created by man. Starting at the Stone Age, I combined the artefacts and certain verbs, it became a kind of metaphor for human desire… destroy… kill. And when man created a new tool, a new desire was created, new desire created new artefacts, and new artefacts created a new desire. An artefact of desire combines it all together. And so the Stone Age progressed to the Bronze age, and then the Iron Age — there was progress. The exhibition was a great collaboration between Italy and Japan. We selected important artefacts and verbs, 100 artefacts and 100 verbs. The exhibition revealed a new aspect of human desire, in fact a new situation: we are in the new Stone Age. The Age of Hunt. The hunt creates something, and this period proves that art can change humans. Historically, man created tools and the tools changed the world, but in this new age, tools created by man will change man. We, the humans, will be changed by artificial intelligence. I don't know if it’s right or wrong, but we will change. A new era is coming.

We don’t have to only inform, we can highlight how little is known. We can make things unknown. Making things unknown is a fantastic way to communicate, and it’s a fantastic way to create interest about things.

Do you think globalisation and immigration are changing our intelligence? Are we losing our cultural intelligence by becomingly increasingly homogenous?

I sometimes use the concept of ‘glocal’ — global and local are not opposite concepts, I think. Today is a new age, I call it the ‘new Nomadic Age’. People like you and I are always moving, moving is a new daily thing, it’s not special or unusual anymore. The people who have great influence are always moving. They only stay in one place for a few weeks, and they’re always moving. When they move so much, they can understand the value of locality more and more, and culture is only dependent on locality — there's no global culture. Culture is dependent on locality, so we polish the locality and it contributes to the richness of the global. Global is a context that locality contributes to, and the more the locality is polished and flourishing, the more value it contributes, and so the broader context becomes richer. l think, the age that we live in, in fantastic houses, collecting many fantastic goods, this  rules us. If I want to have good spaghetti, I should go to Milan, but then when I am satisfied with the pasta in Milan, that is when I realise how fantastic Japanese food is. It’s is an important situation, and in this situation, locality should have mean meaning. I think China has created a new situation for the world, there are many possibilities for China, and it’s in a very good position, but it’s not always good. The centre of the world is moving to Asia — to China — I think.

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I'm always talking to the G-Mark people, and of course it’s good to focus on the product design, but a new situation is coming and we should change our concept of, and what we recognise as, good design. The very special words ‘Made in China’ used to be the symbol of fake or poor quality, but now China is striving to transform ‘Made in China' into a symbol of high quality and progress, at least by 2025. I agree with them, it could and should be. Huge numbers of students are going abroad, and they’re learning a lot about today’s world, they get good academic results and work for top companies for three or four years and then go back to China. Students will create new opportunities, new jobs, new services, and join new industries with the help of IT. In China people always use electronic money, they don't use paper money these days, so if you think about the population of China, you can imagine the situation, and how much time it will take them to progress. So that is a very important thing for Japanese people to think about, but the Japanese archipelago is a great very unique landscape, most of the archipelago is mountainous surrounded by the sea, and sea is very delicate and changing. There are hot springs everywhere, and we have very special traditional culture that has existed for more than a thousand years, so we as a country don’t have a very simple situation.

The Chinese have a four-thousand-year history, but the country is divided into smaller regions, and there’s a vast history of conquests and defeats. But Japan is only one country, and its accumulation of culture is expansive, so if we combine technology, aesthetics and historical heritage into a new situation, not only to produce a product but also to create a bind, Japanese people can see a new vision of Japan, besides just China. Speaking about the G-Mark a little more Kazafumi Nagai, the Chairman of the Good Design Awards, created the new concept of a focus issue and the aim of creating this focus issue is to move from productive design to value-making design in a social situation; it is very important. I’m very interested in the areas where new technology, historical heritage and aesthetics combine.

The role of design is to visualise the hidden possibilities of industry.

I noticed on your website that you post some of the topics that you’re thinking about, whether it's travel, or other topics, I thought it was an interesting idea to show people what you are thinking about, and I wondered what is it that you are thinking about now? Is there something on your mind that is important to you?

I'm very interested in new tourism trends. In the next year I will be taking a break from University to explore Japan. On my website I like to share fantastic places or things from around the Japanese archipelago. By using my own words and photos, I can share my small, personal view on the world. This small and personal view is very important.

I am also the general producer of Japan House, run by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which  showcases Japanese culture to people around the world. There is a Japan House in London, São Paulo, and Los Angeles. As I said, Japanese culture is difficult to explain. Most of the time, Japanese people use certain methods to communicate their culture instantly, like Ikebana, wearing a kimono, origami, sushi, and so on. Of course, this is a very brief understanding of Japan, it’s exoticism. But if people can touch the essence, they’ll understand better. Even Japanese people don't know the essence of their culture. When I learned Japanese Ikebana, I was deeply moved. I think in that aspect, most of people have never thought about Japan, only a small group of people know about Japan and have some interest, most people, even us, never think about Japan, but by using the facilities and different experiences in Japan House, I awaken the people to how little they know about Japan. In these spaces, there are also shops selling Japanese items that I selected with a special buyer. We have a 250-square-meter gallery and we select three exhibitions from Japan, and these exhibitions move to São Paulo, Los Angeles, and London. They last two months, and then another two exhibitions are created in each place independently, and the exhibition, as well as individuals from supporting organisations, come from Japan, and in this facility they have a dedicated spaces to host shows and talks, as well as a fine-dining Japanese restaurant. Not just Kaiseki or Sushi, also Teishoku.  Locals in London can have lunch in this restaurant, and the quality very good. In London, there was no Japanese food on Kensington’s High Street. This area is very interesting, there’s a great design culture, and the Design Museum, so we opened our space there in May. The architect of this project was Masamichi Katayama of Wonderwall. In São Paulo, the architect was Kengo Kuma, and in Los Angeles the architect was Kohei Nawa.

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These hubs are very significant, I think, to share information about Japan and Japanese culture. This is the age of the nomad, more and more people are moving around the world, more and more people are coming to Japan, and this is a special time to create a new industry in Japan. Not only to share information, but to consider the more overlooked places in Japan. Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo, those first-tier cities are places of the past now, the second and third tier places are more important, I think. The Kumano Kodō is an old, very special place, the people who visit there have great knowledge about it, even more than the Japanese people who live there now. We have a vast heritage, and we should take better care of it. We should create new systems to cater for more people, of course we need more hotels, more restaurants, but the image of tourism in Japan is cheap, I think. We should ask 'Why?’ Why is Bourdeaux so expensive? In Japan there is a special industry to deal with the language of tourists, but there is no industry to deal with the dynamics of this situation. Most of the Japanese sake is seen as lower value when compared with the quality of Bourdeaux wine. Value is subjective and always changing; it’s not decided, and there is no measurement of these things.

I'm very interested in this, and that is why I created my small website to share and highlight these special aspects of Japan. I'm not a Nationalist, but when I became the art director of MUJI, I made a point to look for Japanese Culture. I avoided using Japanese icons in my design, I don't use Japanese symbols, I cut out everything. My designs are always very minimal, but in that situation, some essence that is inside of myself is a continuation of the Japanese essence. But I like Italian design, I like Chinese design, and their heritage also, and I learned about American technology and the American mindset, but to think about the global situation, actually we should focus on the local situation. As I said, the global and the local is a sense.

What role does design play in society? Do you think the purpose of design has changed in recent history?

The role of design is to visualise the hidden possibilities of industry, and in that context it’s always getting better. The role of the designer is to find a way to identify an organisation or company, or some fantastic shape and forms for functional products or architectural projects. That is the very important role of design, as is branding and product designing, but the world is changing. In this situation, the role of the designer is to visualise the essence of things. As I said, Japanese industry faces a new situation, and in this sitatution creating a fantastic product is of course very important, but it’s not only about creating fantastic products or shapes, but also to visualise more and more possibilities, the hidden possibilities, of the industry. As you know, I created an exhibition called ‘House Vision’ and it’s a very special exhibition. Most people recognise it as an exhibition of new house, so most of the people who visit are very interested in architecture. Of course I am too, but the house is a very important crossing point of many industries like electric, mobile, information and circulation, and to take care of the elder generation. The house is very important. I'm very interested in the important position of industry. I think the house is an important corner stone, because a human cannot diminish its physical body, a human is only a body, the human senses are very important to industry. Japanese people take off their shoes when they enter their houses, the human body in that sense is a very good touch point already. You can learn a lot from that, and to create energy, and to keep energy in the house is very important. How about mobility? Personal mobility, auto-mobility, it all has a deep relationship with houses too, and if we can influence personal spaces the house becomes very important. If we imagine a new house, we can visualise the new situation of industry clearly.

As a designer, people sometimes tell me ‘you are not a designer, you are a producer.’ No, I don’t think so. That is designing.

Today, every possibility has already been imagined and that when a living company and the design combine together, and create one house. It is very influential, I think. I selected a building company and an architect and combined them together, to create the exhibition house. I am only the producer of this exhibition, so I borrowed a very huge space in Odaiba, the same scale as a baseball stadium,  and selected 12 companies to create 12 exhibit houses. I was very excited. The first exhibition was in 2013, the second was in 2016, and the next will be in Beijing this year. I think House Vision can visualise new, hidden possibilities of the industry. This kind of activity is a very important role of the designer, but in today's context it’s very difficult to understand but I'm really interested in that situation. Also, one reason why I’m taking this exhibition to China, the company that is joining this project is a very young company, the age of real estate in China is just concluding, and the new companies that are working in the AI or mobile industry, some co-working offices, many companies in China will join this project. It’s not only the possibilities, but also China is creating many social programmes, the possibility and the programme are from resources of new innovations. Next year, China will be the host. That situation is good for House Vision, I think.

As a designer, people sometimes tell me "you are not a designer, you are a producer." No, I don't think so. That is designing.

As told to / Suzy Annetta
Image / P: Akihito Ito
©️ Hara Design Institute. Nippon Design Center, Inc.