roots diverted: contemporary design practices meet asian traditions
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DESCRIPTIONThe creative mix of old and new can positively impact the shaping of local culture, the development of the tourism industry, and generate possibilities for environmental sustainability in many countries. In the Asian context, this approach seems particularly fit: the region is infused with traditional aesthetics, has a deep interest in its own cultural heritage, and is also driven by technology and innovation. By strategically merging local traditions and design, a number of positive transformations have already been taking place. This paper will reflect this current movement through recent examples taken from South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and China.
Roots DivertedContemporary Design Practices Merge with Asian Traditions
Sali SasakiVolume 1 - China, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea
Like many other notions that evolve through contrasts and layers, the concept of “new” becomes more relevant when it is juxtaposed with the concept of “old”. In some Asian countries, the juxtaposition is increasingly visible in the field of contemporary design, and this phenomenon can be explained by several factors. On the one hand, the effects of globalization have paradoxically strengthened the notion of local cultural identity and widened designers’ interests to follow traditional practices. On the other hand, the spread of mass-produced goods has pushed consumers to seek objects and places that are undoubtedly unique. This dual shift led to an increase in “old-new” combinations such as craftsmanship with design, traditional skills with technology, traditional iconography with cutting-edge art, modern architecture with handcrafted pieces of furniture, etc.
The creative mix of old and new can positively impact the shaping
of local culture, the development of the tourism industry, and generate possibilities for environmental sustainability in many countries. In the Asian context, this approach seems particularly fit: the region is infused with traditional aesthetics, has a deep interest in its own cultural heritage, and is also driven by technology and innovation. By strategically merging local traditions and design, a number of positive transformations are already taking place.
This paper will reflect this current movement through examples taken from South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and China. Within this context, contemporary objects and places are showcased as tangible outcomes of a synthesis between old and new practices. They will also raise questions on the possible difficulties related to the processes of transformation that seek to seamlessly bind past and present times in an effort to define local culture.
Ceramics studio in Aichi Prefecture, Japan
Products work as reminders of times past and places seen when they embody local customs and traditions. They can express cultures and lifestyles through their shapes and aesthetics, and they can translate knowledge and skills into commercial currency.
The impact of the global marketplace on designed products has decreased the diversity and availability of unique objects, yet it also has heightened the value of crafted items on the marketplace.
The creation of a new product can bring social and economic sustainability in rural communities, while traditional skills can trigger opportunities to collaborate in a world with fading borders.
1.1. Magno Radio
Following his design studies, Singgih Kartono wondered whether he should start his career in the city or return to Kandangan in Central Java to launch his own business. He was attracted by the safety of the first option yet settled for the latter. This decision opened up the beginning of Magno Radio’s success story.
Hit by a declining agricultural industry, Kandangan struggled to employ its local inhabitants. Aware of the problems, Kartono studied and worked to implement a sustainable solution that would help local communities to develop a better livelihood based on existing knowledge and craftsmanship skills. He introduced the concept of New Craft, which consists of using traditional craftsmanship by combining it with modern management methodologies. The basic system of New Craft is to ensure that every step of the production process contains standard procedures of manufacturing quality standards as well as output and material usage standards. Every new product or design is analyzed first for the purpose of creating a production manual.
The benefits of New Craft methodologies make it easy to implement new manufacturing
centres in villages. The manufacturing of the Magno Radio has revitalized local crafts that were in decline and the high quality of the Magno products makes it competitive on a global market. Earnings from international exports make the business sustainable and have so far helped the village grow its own local economy. Today the company employs thirty craftsmen.
1. Magno radio2. Worker in Kandangan
1.2. Kwangho Lee
A hundred years ago, Seoul was a rural environment harmoniously surrounded by mountains. The traditional Korean lifestyle, as illustrated in traditional paintings, used to drift at a slower pace, in harmony with nature and via the consistent search for minimal beauty. Although the external appearance of the city has changed drastically since the past fifty years, it seems that beyond the surface, core cultural traits are being preserved. It is undeniable that Seoul deeply cares about its cultural identity and many designers work to reflect that.
Kwangho Lee is a South Korean designer who finds his inspiration in nature and the memories he holds of his grandparents who used to work as farmers. His latest project is a reflection on the mass-produced objects that surround us, and the fragile values attached to things that are handmade. As a child, he used to watch and appreciate his grandfather’s manual work of cutting, tying and carving objects. These observations led him to focus on the relationship between simplicity and complexity. For instance, the simple task of tying a rope can lead to a variety of complex shapes. Lee’s stools, sofas and chairs are the results of repetitive movements that are carefully studied to reach the right shape. This intricate exercise results in contemporary pieces of
1. Sketch by Kwangho Lee2. Stool3. Korean farming landscape
furniture that are suited to modern lifestyles.
Farming landscapes and local materials from the Korean countryside are the starting point of original pieces such as a stool made of rice straws. The contrast formed by the organic texture of the straw and the minimal – more urban, aesthetic of the object is compelling. Other works like enamel-coated copper chairs provide a more industrial feel blended with the occasional accidental textures.
Lee re-introduces forgotten traditions into contemporary lives. His interest in slower processes is unusual in this fast-paced world. But his message is strong and clear. Sometimes it is good to slow down, step back, and take the time to absorb our surrounding environment and make sense of the culture that stems from it.
1.3. Javin Mo
In contemporary China, young designers are taking their country to a new creative era, while government officials and businesses see increasing opportunities rising from the “designed in China” concept. Hong Kong based designer Javin Mo is the editor of “New Graphic Design in China”, a publication that features 30 designers from mainland China and which reveals the creative outburst triggered by the rapid economic development and recent social transformations in the country. Through the work of its designers, China has become involved in a global conversation that invests heavily in contemporary culture and creativity. The blend of traditions, ideologies and pop culture that characterize Chinese visual expression of the 21st century could soon turn design into the nation’s biggest export.
1. Jewellery by Kwangho Lee2. Detail from “New Graphic Design in China”
1. Textile products by NOMA2. Indonesian craftsman3. NOMA Council accessories made in
1.4. NOMA Council
The quest for originality pushes a growing number of international designers to stimulate their concepts through the works of artisans from overseas. The possibility of a new product can stem from an ancient printing technique found in rural India, or originate through the perfectionist skills of a weaver in Bangladesh. This collaborative process can, in return, rescue disappearing craftsmanship and help local crafts people to better understand the demands of the modern consumer.
NOMA t.d. is a young fashion label launched in 2005 in Tokyo. The firm self-produces textile fabrics with handcrafted graphic patterns that are used for their garment designs. Since the past couple of years, they launched NOMA Council, a sister brand that develops accessories in collaboration with craft workers from Indonesia. A range of products was launched in Japan including carved brooches, bracelets, hairpins, chiffon dolls and purses, and other small items in the shape of exotic animals.
The most renowned and distinctive of Japanese achievements urushi (Japanese lacquerware) is, like many other crafts, under threat. The technique was at the height of its popularity in the 17th century and later suffered a strong decline triggered by cheaper alternatives.
Lacquer is an expensive and time-consuming medium that demands care and attention. Made through a process of repeatedly applying layers and drying, a lacquer product can commonly take a year to make. Today, a few lacquer workers remain and their population is diminishing. To pay tribute to this precious craft, the cultural centre of the Embassy of Japan in London invited five young designers living in Great Britain to collaborate with 5 craftsmen from Ishikawa prefecture for an exhbition entitled “Collacqueration: Designed in the UK, Lacquered in Japan”. The results offered new interpretations of the traditional technique and outlined new possibilities for the medium in the design industry.
1. Lacquer craftsman Hidetaka Wakashima2. Lacquered stool designed by Max Lamb
3. Max Lamb carving stool
1.6. Japan Brand
The survival of many small and medium businesses depends on the originality and attractiveness of their products and services. In Japan, the presence of local skills and niche industries are seen as potential resources to boost local economies in unconventional ways. It is within the Japan Chamber of Commerce’s programme that the Japan Brand initiative was set up to boost cultural and economic development in the country. Its mission is to “create new traditions” within a support programme for small and medium enterprises that is build around three requirements: artisan quality, practical beauty, and regional spirit.
By following this structure SME’s find guidance to grow their business and offer innovative products and services that cater for the local and global market. In parallel, regions are given new opportunities to brand themselves as dynamic places that are capable of using their local resources to build sustainable environments and communities.
So far, Japan Brand projects have sustained and generated a range of products and collaborations with renowned designers like Naoto Fukasawa in Kofu (jewellery town) and the Bouroullec brothers in the Noto peninsula (Hokuriku region).
1. Cast iron factory in Kawaguchi 2. Manhole covers3. Casserole lid by Kawaguchi I-Mono
Tea house in
While products are movable objects that can be taken from one country to another and collected through the course of a lifetime, places and spaces have a permanent quality that affect both the local resident and the traveler’s mind. The built environment is not only architecture. It is also street furniture, information signage, window displays, retail interiors, interactive technology, and much more.
The integration of traditional qualities, aesthetic and otherwise, can be witnessed today in a wide range of modern places that includes airports, hotels, cultural spaces, and even city streets. From a merely visible architectural detail to an entire retail concept, traditional forms and contents embody the kind of local essence craved by individuals in search for meaning and originality.
2.1. Haneda Airport
Airports are international territories that lack local cultural identity. Their architectural features can impress, yet their retail and food offerings are often predictable and disappointing. What could an efficient alternative to generic duty free retail stores and fast food chains be?
The recently opened international terminal at Haneda airport (Tokyo) brings a new model for other cities to follow. The contemporary and minimal building has a surprising passage for the wandering travelers’ delight. The Edo Koji Alley is a modern reproduction of Japan’s Edo Period that showcases the country’s past architectural styles and cultural elements. Themed around the concept “Made in Japan” the marketplace offers local products, such as clothing and delicacies, as well as a number of restaurants serving Japanese cuisine in traditional settings. The traps of a pastiche-like environment have been smartly avoided, thanks to a strong design that focuses on modern lines and precious materials such as wooden walls and black tiles. Elegant details that include lanterns, signage, and low rooflines, add to this beautifully crafted environment that is a travel experience of its own. 1. Edo Kouji Alley Marketplace.
2. Haneda Airport’s International Terminal.
3. Low rooflines and signage inspired from the Edo era are combined with moern lines.
2.2. Hotel Kanra and Claska
While many hotels purely stick to their functional roles, others are in a permanent quest for (r)evolution. With only nine rooms, the Claska in Tokyo is not the usual business or tourist hotel. It is rather a place where contemporary Japanese culture is showcased and waiting to be experienced in a playful way. Each room is decorated to reflect the various aspects of Japanese aesthetics that are shaped by traditional craftsmanship and the minds of cutting-edge designers.
Claska’s overall intention is to create a chemical reaction by mixing creative activities like architecture, film, literature, fashion, comic books, products, and stimulate the minds passing through. In addition to a bar-restaurant, two retail stores operate, within the hotel premises, as promoters of this magical chemistry: “DO” and Mix. From high quality tea to furniture and souvenir objects, Mix and “DO” are curated retail spaces that put Japanese culture on a pedestal for the world to see. Much more than a hotel, Claska has become a place for cultural learning and appreciation.
Quite similarly, further South in Kyoto, is Hotel Kanra, an unusual travel experience that offers an educational twist. This beautiful site designed by Urban Design System (the team behind Claska) and Kokuyo Furniture was a former cramming school turned into a 29-room hotel.
1. DO gift shop.2. Mixroom advertising.3. Room at Hotel Claska.
The building layout is inspired by the traditional Machiya town houses, and its interior boasts a harmonious display of volcanic stone floors, tatami mats, hiba wood bathtubs, and some modern touches. The architects collaborated with artists and creators who developed bespoke lamps, ikebana flower arrangements and ceramic objects for the site. The hotel’s most high-tech feature is an interactive panel system, designed by Alexander Reeder and which is programmed to respond to light, sound, and temperature according to people’s movements and passing of the seasons.
With its educational raison d’être, Hotel Kanra is used as a setting to showcase contemporary Japanese design and also as a place to learn about Kyoto traditional culture. Individual classes are organized to teach people about local crafts such as chopsticks making from Kitayama-Sugi cedar wood, and DIY educational kits are also available for people interested in learning about Kyoto’s dialect or Furoshiki cloth wrapping. In the future Hotel Kanra aims to attract school groups that would take part in Kyoto-based culture classes while simultaneously enjoying an overnight stay there.
By mixing education, tourism and crafts with design, Hotel Kanra is a place that successfully translates traditional culture into new experiences that fit within our time.
1. Interactive piece by Alexander Reeder.
2. View of Hotel Kanra.3. Ceramic objects in the hotel follow
2.3. Seoul Colour Palette
A Seoul colour palette that can be used to visually reflect the city’s past and present identity was created following a research process involving 9800 photographs. The colours were “extracted” from historic monuments, natural sites, symbols, and even citizens opinion surveys. Seoul orange was taken from the traditional flower hall of the Jaggyeongjeon Hall in Gyeongbokgung, while the Seoul blue is an approximate match to the autumn/winter skyhue perceived at a 30º angle to the sun. In total, 10 different local designers created 10 colours that visually and symbolically represent their city. Woofer Design chose the light and dark grey hues from the palette for the city’s latest street signage.
1. 10 10 Colors Exhibition.2. Extracting colours from historic
monuments.3. Woofer Design signage in Seoul.
The Dongdaemun History and Culture Park is a complex that is symbolically situated at the intersection of Seoul’s past, present and future. The area holds physical relics of the city’s heritage that dates back from the Joseon Dynasty. The relics were discovered following the Dongdaemun sport stadium demolition in 2008, and at the beginning of the excavation process of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza development scheduled for completion in 2011.
At present, the cultural park comprises several buildings including an open-air theatre, a history museum, a design gallery, and an event hall. It was designed to blend seamlessly with the physical ruins of the past, reflecting the passage of time and articulating the contrasts existing between Seoul’s traditions and its promising future.
1. Dongdaemun historic wall.2. Dongdaemun History and Culture
Park.3. Dongdaemun Plaza’s onstruction site.
The future of Asia partially lies within the tangible interpretations of its own traditions and heritage. The diversity of the region is often captured through its products, images and spaces.
As shown in the previous examples, contemporary design affects cultural identities, communities, social and economic development, as well as environmental sustainability. Thanks to their flexible nature, new practices are also compatible with traditional forms of culture and can be adapted to fit within various social contexts.
Let’s hope that more creative partnerships will see the light of day across Asia. To that end, enabling platforms and policies need to be encouraged and implemented. Such structures will be useful to further cultural development through design and help creative people work together hand in hand, to enhance their mutual skills and generate meaningful contents for others to enjoy.
© Sali Sasaki 2010