introduction to my senior honors thesis
TIMELESSNESS IN THE ORDINARY
the fundamental value of human function in Japanese & Danish modern design
I grew up in Los Angeles, California, where I was exposed to spacious homes filled with big and superfluous furniture. I was always interested in 'design' but I assumed it revolved around decoration and embellishment rather than functionality. There is a certain aesthetic particular to L.A. that is on one hand modernist and minimalist while on the other hand extravagant and ostentatious. The contradictions inherent in this aesthetic planted a seed of unease within me.
It was my annual summer trips to Japan that put my assumptions of design into perspective. I was intrigued by clever designs and routines that solved difficulties of the lack of space in both traditional and modern Japanese lifestyles, such as the custom of using futons for beds, which are folded away during the daytime to maximize space. As I became increasingly aware of a certain simplicity and sensibility inherent in Japanese lifestyle and designs, I started to dissect the interpretation of 'design' I had developed growing up.
After spending a semester studying design in Copenhagen, Denmark, I became able to articulate my observations about how the most basic and simple details can impact design. There, I was exposed to several design pieces that appeared modern on one hand, yet on the other hand, were so warm, inviting, human scale, and comfortable that they seemed to transcend modern design altogether. I noticed that it was often the simplest details that were the most striking, and that there was an extraordinary beauty in designs that were familiar, yet had been slightly altered. Designs that were modest and subtle—not loud and proud—caught my attention, and they taught me that design is not a practice of embellishing or adding features but a holistic process in which each step must complement the others. I learned the importance of creating things that would not add to the world’s clutter, but fit into a larger picture, like an organism having its place as a member of a larger ecosystem. The furniture, buildings, and city streets of Denmark exuded an energy that I had never felt in Los Angeles. I felt that this energy, together with the appreciation for modest details and craftsmanship commonly associated with Japanese designers, amounted to an important resistance against modernity’s reverence for the machine.
In the mid-twentieth century, rapidly growing industrialist and consumerist values deluded designers into creating unnecessary objects that clutter our lives today. We have reached the point where we cannot continue building, living, or consuming the way we do and must change our lifestyles and choices drastically. While modern designers in most countries lost touch with human needs for the sake of manufacturing processes, many designers in Japan and Denmark kept human needs at the fundamental starting point and have resisted the urge to design industrial and consumerist clutter or overly mechanical spaces with oversized furniture. This can be partially attributed to the limitations of land size and access to resources; apartments in cities in Japan and Denmark must be small and designed space-efficiently because there is no space to do otherwise. Regardless of the reason, however, by designing for human beings and not for the sake of colorful industrial thrill, many Japanese and Danish designers have been able to maintain a very cozy, modest, and sensual quality in their work. I believe that this quality of human-scale elegance, or "timelessness in the ordinary," is a key element in contributing to a sustainable world.
MUJI & Piet Hein, examples of the pursuit of timeless and ordinary design
MUJI, known in Japan as Mujirushi Ryohin, translates to “No-brand Quality Goods.” The basic principle of Japanese chain store's merchandise development is to produce fundamental and practical objects necessary for daily life and to ensure efficient and minimal manufacturing processes. In order to achieve this, the businesses constantly review their materials and designs, streamline time and labor in the manufacturing process, and simplify the packaging. Unlike other modern stores, brands, or manufacturers who use simplicity as a major selling point, MUJI dives deeper into what it means to be "simple." MUJI's carefully selected products are simple not just because of the way they were designed, but because they serve a basic purpose to people. MUJI takes these items that are useful to us and designs them in a way that accentuates their basic nature instead of masking it.
PIET HEIN (1905-1996) was a Danish designer whose mathematical background led him to create the perfect compromise between a rectangle and a circle, which he named the "super-ellipse." It began in 1959 when an urban planning team consulted Piet Hein to help them solve a problem in Stockholm, Sweden. The planners were trying to direct traffic smoothly around a rectangular square in the center of the city: a rectangular shape disrupted the circulation, but an elliptical shape did not work either because its pointed ends were too sharp for the flow of traffic. Piet Hein’s super-ellipse was a simple yet extraordinary solution to this urban design, and it was stimulating enough to be used in various other subjects, from buildings to tables, tableware, or placemats. Unlike the geometric shapes that modern designers aimed to achieve, Piet Hein used geometry to soften these shapes, in order to make them more desirable and comfortable to humans. His super-ellipse bolstered the idea that if a product facilitates a person’s lifestyle and adds pleasure, then it succeeds. One of the most unique elements of the super-ellipse is that it is geometrically very simple, yet aesthetically pleasing enough to apply to a wide range of objects. The super-ellipse is a testament to Piet Hein's resistance of the modern temptation to grab consumers' attention with novel shapes and colors. He stuck to the ordinary.
Below are selected photos from MUJI products (top) & Piet Hein's Super-ellipse series (bottom). I captured these designs amidst the framework of everyday life to highlight the versitality and universality of these products. Whether they are among grass, cats, or concrete, these products reflect light and blend into their surroundings humbly and uniquely.