Playful and experimental, the work of Tokyo-based designer Tokujin Yoshioka is all about connecting with our emotions. JO: This April you presented both an installation and the Pane chair for Lexus at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan. Tell me about this project that has been described as evolving fibre technology.
TY: In architecture they used to choose solid and strong materials in order to make buildings solid and strong. But I think the focus is shifting to structure that disperses the weight effectively so it can be strong without using the hardest materials. I applied this idea to chairs. I looked into the history of chairs and didn’t find many made with soft materials. The only ones I found were inflatable or covered by fluffy cushions, so I started experimenting with various industrial materials, such as a fibre used to support expressways. I was going through this trial and error process when Lexus asked me to work on their exhibition. I told them about the idea I was exploring and suggested creating the whole space using fibre. For the Lexus installation I created two rooms. One was filled with transparent fibre layers so that the space looked like a giant lens, the other room featured movies projected onto fibre. This was born out of the Star Dust installation for the Swarovski Crystal Palace. When I was setting up that piece, I played around a little bit with the projector and projected the movies onto the fibre part of the chandelier and it looked like a 3-D movie!
JO: For the Pane chair you used medical-use fibre and ‘baked’ it like bread. You seem to pick materials that are rarely used by other designers.
TY: That’s true, but most materials I use are not new in a technological sense. They look like high-tech, but in fact most of the time they are not. It’s the way I process or present them that makes them look completely new – you can create that impression without stretching technological boundaries. I don’t choose materials because of their novelty; I choose what the project really needs. My interest has a lot to do with my preference for simple shapes; when you seek simplicity in shape, the choice of materials becomes very important. When asked to design light, most people design lighting equipment, a lampshade or something. But what I’m really interested in is the light itself. If a light can exist without any lighting equipment, that would be the ideal for me. So my idea of the future of design is to pursue that track leading to the origin, the simple basic form.
JO: Some of the photos from the Lexus project show children sitting on the Pane chair. It’s obviously important for your work to appeal to a wide audience across all ages.
TY: Very important. In fact, all of my successful projects so far have been the ones that aroused strong reactions among children. Kids are honest about what they find interesting. If they are not into it, they just walk away. All my successful pieces are the ones that can establish good communication with kids. And this is mostly about the accessibility of the work. I think the kind of work that appeals to kids can be understood without language, without explanation. In the case of the Pane chair, there was a strong image of baking bread, something everyone can relate to.
JO: When you work on large-scale projects, what tends to be the more difficult to satisfy – the audience, the client or your own demands?
TY: My own satisfaction is closely related to how the work is received by the people who come to see it. One of my goals is to move and touch people. In a way my design is not complete until it is received by other people. My work cannot exist independently, so every element of the space, including the lighting and sound in the entrance leading to the room, becomes important.
JO: While working on a particular idea do you get an inspiration for another project, like you did with the Swarovski and Lexus installations?
TY: Certainly. They often inspire each other. Some people think working on many projects simultaneously will exhaust your ideas. But that’s not really true for me. I’m always looking for hints. When I work on several very different projects, I often pick up ideas for one from the other. There is an exchange of information and they really feed into each other, helping me decide what to do and what not to.
JO: Your work often transports the audience to an unusual, surprising and almost surreal space. Is this qualitysomething intuitive, or do you look for it in each project?
TY: If our everyday life is this square space [he draws a square], I want to portray the area just outside of it, the surrounding space. And because we usually stay inside this square, the area just outside the border looks strange and dreamlike. I tend to look for something that almost doesn’t look man-made, something that makes people ask the question, ‘How in the world was this made?’. I don’t like the kind of work that needs explanation. The work should explain itself. I wouldn’t stand next to my chair and tell people what it’s about. I leave it up to the viewers’ imagination and interpretation. For some, my installation may bring back childhood memories. Some may find it scary. Some may think of a rainy and misty landscape. That’s the way I want my work to be.
JO: You have worked on temporary projects like event spaces and installations as well as more permanent ones like chairs and product design. How does your approach differ?
TY: Temporary and permanent pieces are different. Some require newness in a more radical sense, while others require something new in an everyday context. An example of the latter is the mobile phone I designed for Japan’s KDDI. Each project has a context you operate in. I usually prefer installations to shop design because installations can carry strong messages.
JO: You have said before that you knew you wanted to be a designer from the age of six.
TY: As a child I liked to draw. One day, my parents told me, “You know, there is a profession called design that might be even more interesting than drawing. You can design door knobs and stuff like that.” My first design experiences were in arts and crafts classes in primary school. I liked doing something other kids weren’t doing. I liked being a bit different. I remember when we were making things with clay, I went outside and collected some gravel and mixed it into clay. That surprised and entertained other kids.
JO: If you had the opportunity, what is something you would like to design that you haven’t designed before?
TY: I would like to work on a more comprehensive project, such as a hotel or a restaurant. Not just the building or a room but everything. When I only design the rooms, the plates they serve the food on may not match the space and ruin the design concept. So I would like to design every aspect, and really push it to the extreme to offer a complete experience.