In the West, from the Renaissance onwards, the “fine arts” have traditionally been distinguished from the “decorative arts.” Painting and sculpture have been deemed “purer” and ranked higher on a scale of aesthetic value than functional objects such as furniture and ceramics. Until recently, however, this distinction did not exist in Japan. Indeed, in the Japanese language, “art” is a foreign word that was only introduced in the late-nineteenth century. Before then, the words “craft” and “skill” denoted paintings and sculptures as well as decorative arts and design.
The concept that all the arts are part of a single continuum is essential to understanding Japanese culture. For Shiro Kuramata, Japan’s leading twentieth-century designer of furniture and interiors, it was crucial. Born in Tokyo between the wars, the son of an administrator who became vice-director of a scientific institute, Kuramata came of age during World War II and the American Occupation of Japan. In 1953 he graduated from Tokyo polytechnic high school, where he studied woodcraft, and went to work for a furniture company. Soon afterwards he enrolled in a Tokyo institute that taught Western concepts of interior design. Included in the curriculum was the study of furniture such as chairsironically with teachers who still maintained traditional Japanese homes where they sat on the floor on tatami mats. In 1957 Kuramata was hired by the small department store San-Ai as a designer of showcases as well as floor and window displays. Then, after a brief stint as a freelance designer for the retail giant Matsuy he opened his own office in Tokyo in 1965.
Kuramata’s revolutionary approach to the design of furniture and interiors reflects the tremendous dynamism and flowering of creativity in postwar Japan. He came of age during a period of groundbreaking technical ingenuity and explosive economic growth that fueled the development of such now-omnipresent consumer commodities as the subcompact car, the portable radio/cassette player, the videocassette recorder, and the video game. His colleagues and contemporaries included architects Tadao Ando, Arata Isozaki, and Yoshio Taniguchi; graphic artists Ikko Tanaka and Tadanori Yokoo; and fashion designers Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto.
Kuramata combined the Japanese concept of the unity of the arts with fascination with contemporary Western culture, both high and low. He delighted in the mischievous dislocations of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades; in the Minimalist sculptures of Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, with their geometrical repetitions and incorporation of light; and in furniture designer Ettore Sottsass’s playful spirit and love of bright color. He joined Sottssass’s collective, the design group Memphis, based in Milan, at its founding in 1981 and considered the Italian designer to be his “maestro.”
In his stripped-down yet fantastic forms, Kuramata turns our expectations upside-down and inside-out, creating objects that are at once radical and functional. Like an alchemist, he transforms common industrial materials into shimmering apparitions.
On the leading edge of design in Japan since the mid-1960s, he became internationally known in the 1980s; his furniture and interiors have been enormously influential both in his native country and abroad.