Realising Design 


Introduction  (p.6 - p.13 of this book)

Reading the Present in Design


Noriko Kawakami



I am interested in the way that narratives are made, for design too is born from a kind of narrative. What action prefigures this narrative? What lies between the thought and the action, or the intention and the result? It was from these questions that I began pursuing contemporary designers’ work, which I soon discovered was a fascinating, though endless, project.

No day now passes without our hearing the word 'design’. This is to be expected, perhaps, given how integral design has become to daily life. But what did the word originally mean? ‘Design’ derives from the Latin designare, ‘to designate’ or ‘indicate’. The French dessein, ‘an intention’, or ‘plan’, and ‘dessin, a drawing’, ‘pattern’ or ‘design’, derive from this. Etymologically speaking, ‘design’ means both to plan to realise something and the expression of that plan. Ideas, formulations, functions and forms designed to enhance life, come into existence through the collaboration these words suggest, between mind and hand.

The activity of vibrant young designers based in Japan is what has most occupied me. Although here is not the place to discuss the new generation of designers in detail, a few remarks are in order. It is clear that many formulate their practice, engage most vigorously in domestic and overseas projects, and take on the most significant challenges, when they are in their 30s.


Designers who are in their 30s today, would have been born in the mid- to late 1960s, which was a period when design theory came into violent collision with social realities. Though in many ways a productive period, problems also began to emerge. Numerous theories, as well as famous design prototypes, had been born in 1920-30s, but even the likes of the Bauhaus, whose members dreamed of mass-production by machinery, never managed to fully achieve their aspirations. In the USA - the country that invented the concept of industrial design--the mainstream was still aiming at the maximisation of profit through manipulations of form and style, and not at fundamentally redesigning the mechanisms and functions of objects.

In the post-War rehabilitation of the 1950-60s, improvements in corporate technology, the revival of the market economy and the maturation of design theory were the background for design’s becoming fully engaged with society. In Italy, this was a Golden Age of Design when Established designers such as Marco Zanuzo ,Ettore Sottsass and young designers in their 30s, such as, Joe Colombo and Enzo Mari released masterpieces. In Japan, the G-Mark System, began in 1957, gradually penetrating society, and the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Organization, the country’s main design-promotion body, was established in 1969, in response to a Draft Report by the Design Council of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. The platform for a Japanese design environment was created in this foundational era, and some outstanding achievements were made, such as by Sori Yanagi, who was acclaimed internationally. It was then that graduates of the Tokyo National University of Fine Art and Music formed a pioneering design group called GK Industrial. Its leader, Kenji Ekukan, designed a soy sauce bottle for Kikkoman that completely changed the family dinner table. These designers too were in their 30s at the time.

After the difficult economic period of the so-called ‘oil shocks’, came the 1980s, with its post-modernism based on ‘anti-Modernism’ and ‘anti-homogenisation’. The market was glutted with objects of widely differing value. Design demanded consideration as an autonomous entity, as is seen, for example, in ALCHIMIA and MEMPHIS, whose avant-garde furniture attracted the attention of the whole design world. In 1990, on the contrary, design was redefined as an aspect of real social issues, with attention paid to ecology and to the notion of ‘universal design’. Individual designers began to look at the relationship between design and people. ‘No Design’, advocated by Philippe Starck, may be a case in point.

Today the picture is even more complicated. The design environment has matured, high technology is available to all, and public scrutinisation of design is increasing, while across the board, change occurs more rapidly than it did. It is no exaggeration to say that the 21 Century has opened with a whirlwind that leaves designers under the perpetual obligation to ask themselves what design actually is. Design is now neither just a theory, a declaration, a mass-produced object backed by technology, nor a creation of special and unusual forms. The times place on designers the requirement to ask fundamental questions, and, in doing so, create something new. 


This is no easy task to respond to. But interestingly young designers have demonstrated their willingness to take up the challenge, in their various ways. Five key words may be used to assess their shared responses: Fusion, or bringing different elements into a whole, expressive of the designer’s personal viewpoint; Metamorphoses, or a continuous and incremental growth from one stage of activity to another, like a plant; Seamless Mind, or grasping reality with a viewpoint that breaches existing boundaries and connecting what were previously separate fields; Perspective, or respecting the viewpoint of the user, as the designer insists on remaining one of the object’s consumers too; Beyond Form, or the challenge of creating beyond the visual. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, but with it, I hope, the points of meeting between design and society can be assessed.

This book will focus on five powerful young designers who each in their own way emblematises the above concepts, and through their engagement with them, establishes a unique personality in the field. The designers taken up here are Tsutomu Kurokawa, Ichiro Iwasaki, Gwenael Nicolas, Shin Nishibori and Tokujin Yoshioka. Some went independent after working on corporate products as in-house designers, others have sought their own voice under the instruction of a teacher; one of them came to Tokyo from aboard after seeing the Japanese way of making things in his home country. All five differ in their reasons for being designers and in the vector that their evolving products have taken, but all lead lives of continuous battle. Through an investigation of their similarities and differences, I hope to offer some insights into what the potential of design is, for after all, all five cling to the fact that they are designers above all else. None have chosen the safe and easy option of staying within the existing definitions, indeed, all are, it seems to me, fighting against them in order to re-define for themselves the meaning of design.

One thing indispensable to design is an ability to understand the borderless and diffuse nature of human life. Those who engage in design must not only be specialists in their line of work, but also live in a way that perpetually crosses boundaries. A refusal to be easily classified under any standard term is a feature of the designers discussed here. Each one is trying to identify the real needs of contemporary life, using just their own five senses and while living in society as every other human being does. Today, value systems are increasingly divided and it is more and more difficult to develop successful products by simply working with existing market norms. But in the work of the five people covered in this book we will find new ways of functioning as a designer. As soon as each of our five figures became interested in design, each one determined that design would be their life-long vocation. What are the paths by which they have arrived at the making of what only they can make?  How have they solved the dilemmas that appeared along their way?  I would like to take this opportunity to consider a range of questions relating to the meaning of contemporary design, and the meaning of its human dimension. To assist in this, I shall also quote plentifully from these five designers in their own words.

Life is likely to accelerate to an even faster pace. Drastic changes await the younger generation, who will have to cope with bigger challenges in the near future. However, recently we can already glimpse this newer generation of designers, born in the 1970s, who are beginning to tackle such matters. But in this book, I shall draw on the remarks of designers of more established international standing, such as Ettore Sottsass, Ron Arad, Jasper Morrison, Karim Rashid and Sam Hecht. They all offer their own views and comparative insights, such as how in US designers must be tougher due to more intense industrialism. I hope listening to the design philosophy of these world-renowned figures will isolate universal elements in the concepts of design and designer.


Designare: ‘design’ derives from a Latin verb. Design is a fluid concept, and we can consider its wide meanings through tracing these designers’ careers. This will not only provide hint for the future of ever-changing design, but will be useful for all of us who wishes to think creatively. To design is to move constantly, that is, it should be synonymous with how to live one’s life. Design is life, and is to be realised. I would like to open this book with this affirmation.




Works by Five Japan-based Designers; 

Tsutomu Kurokawa

Ichiro Iwasaki

Gwenael Nicolas

Shin Nishibori

Tokujin Yoshioka


Views of Five Overseas Designers; 

Jasper Morrison

Ron Arad

Karim Rashid 

Sam Hechet 

Ettore Sottosass





© Noriko Kawakami, 2004