Breaking Boundaries

Naoto Fukasawa Uncouples Kogei and Design

In “The Boundary between Kogei and Design,” an exhibition at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, curated by famed Japanese product designer Naoto Fukasawa he considers the question of where kogei is located in a contemporary design context. To describe design, Fukasawa likes to quote the Italian brand Alessi’s tagline, “the useful art,” meaning design is an aesthetically pleasing object with a purpose. 

In contrast, he suggests that kogei implies a way of life or a learned practice passed from one generation to the next. Kogei also refers to the quality hand-formed objects created through this way of life or practice. Where these two ideas meet is at utility. Both objects are used for the same things, such as drinking tea. Fukasawa creates a space where kogei and design objects are compared and leaves the viewer to decide which is which.

  • Tabi: traditional Japanese outdoor shoes modeled after tabi, which are socks with split toes.
  • Kogei: pronounced “ko-gay,” the term has no literal English translation and refers to handcrafted art or craft objects from Japan with connections to specific locales and cultural heritage.

The perfect candidate for curating this exhibition, Fukasawa possesses a rich history in design. Most notably, he derives his creative process from his own design theory called “Without Thought,” in which an object is designed as an extension of the user’s subconscious. In other words, his objects are so well designed that the user doesn’t realize that he or she is using them. Fukasawa says:

“I think the unconsciousness is more real. More honest. More natural. The human mind overcomplicates the real, the honest, the natural. That is why designers have to focus on a person’s unconscious behavior to discover how it connects and interacts with the product.”

For the exhibition, which ran from late 2016 until early 2017, Fukasawa delineated—very literally—a line between kogei and design to visually contemplate their tenuous relationship. He divided each room into two sides with a sharp, thick black line down the middle of the gallery walls and exhibition tables, designating one side for kogei and the other for design. Based on this floor plan, he arranged objects closer to and further from the line depending on how kogei– or design-like they were.

Furthermore, he broke the show into five themes differentiating kogei from design: Process and Material, Hand and Machine, Form, Change over the Years, and The Boundary between Kogei and Design. First, a kogei artist derives inspiration from local material, whereas a designer may look outside his or her backyard. Second, industrial design comes from machine and mimics handmade kogei objects. Third, he explores borrowed aesthetic principles between the two, such as usefulness and uniqueness. Fourth, kogei appears to have a lasting quality that is not always present in design. Fifth, handmade objects contain nuances, while machine-made objects reflect inhuman precision. Alas, these are generalizations, and for every object that fits these criteria, there is another that doesn’t.

The curatorial style immediately elicits a conversation with the audience, placing them in a seat of judgment. Because each item has been removed from its context, the viewer meditates on the qualities of the object, such as shape, size, material, and traces of process. This informs the viewer’s interpretation of kogei and design but also allows for a personal deliberation. Does the viewer agree with the curator or does he or she disagree with the curator’s choices? In turn, many people do question the curator’s choice, which is what made this exhibition so interesting.

“The iPhone. The Macbook. Are these objects kogei or are they design? That’s a good question. I wanted to explore concepts like these,” says Fukasawa. Therefore he plays with the commonalities of objects, such as utility, material, and modernity, while juxtaposing them with tradition and process. He doesn’t always treat these criteria equally, and that is what disrupts the boundary between kogei and design, which people cling to so dearly. He hopes that the exhibition provoked these feelings, which is why he made sure the Mac laptop straddled the line.

He would be remiss if he were to omit that some pairs puzzle him as well. For example, he compares traditional Japanese footwear known as tabi with Nikes. To him, tabi inherently belonged to the kogei side of the exhibition, but he has trouble determining the difference between them and Nikes. Fukasawa says, “Both are well-made products meant to fit on your foot, but tabi have a history. How can we distinguish them?”

Fukusawa tries to answer his own question, saying, 

Kogei is used daily. It is not just beautiful; it must complete its task well. Maybe design is just an object from which to drink tea. That’s why the edge has to be comfortable against my lips, so I may drink from it without thought.”