Lessons from Naoto Fukasawa

- 9 minutes -

Famed industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa is interviewed by Japanese design and lifestyle firm and longtime partner, Muji. He demonstrates exactly why he’s among my absolute favourite designers.

Walls, bodies, and beyond


"The environment in which we live has gradually changed as homes and household appliances have evolved and information technology has developed. Fukasawa evaluates these changes in terms of “walls and bodies.” He says that most of the tools we use every day without thinking tend to evolve into extensions of either our walls or our own bodies.

He explains: “The clearest example of this is the television. Old TVs were cathode-ray sets, which took up a great deal of space. This evolved to liquid crystal displays with very thin screens, and TVs can now be embedded in walls or hung on them. On the other hand, we can also watch video now on palm-sized smart phones and tablets. The latter are examples of objects that have evolved into extensions of our bodies.”

Looking at our living spaces today in these terms is enlightening for just how many objects fit his description — air conditioning and lighting fixtures embedded in ceilings, kitchen appliances housed in wall cabinets."


In a post about technology journalism, I suggested that technology’s “perfect storms” have been exhausted, and that the milestones of the information age will be more difficult to pinpoint from now on.

Fukasawa somewhat confirms this with his categorisation of modern technology into “walls and bodies”. Eventually, technology will transcend these two categories, if not already - cloud technology and internet services like Uber and Airbnb come to mind.

Fukasawa elaborates:


“We are gradually moving toward a world in which form will disappear and only function will remain. Things will continue to move in this direction. As a result, it should be possible in the future to live without material objects at all… And at that point, we find objects whose presence cannot be contained as extensions of a wall or of our bodies.”


Ambient design

In a world where form disappears - in other words, a world where material objects are valued less and less - I think traditional applications of product design will have to be questioned. I think it’s too early to really tell how that will be the case, but I think it will necessitate a continued, if not greater, emphasis on experience.

Fukasawa seems to call this “ambient design” (emphasis mine):


"Fukasawa says that when he designed products for European and North American manufacturers in the past, he appreciated their approach to design in which every detail — not only the design of the specific piece of furniture — was thoroughly discussed. If it were a table, what would sit on it? If it were shelves, what kind of books would they hold and how would they be arranged? This focus seems to view product design as one aspect of ambient design — designing furniture as part of the process of designing the space as a whole...

A well-designed life is not simply a matter of fewer possessions, or of organizing things and storing them well. What is important is to identify for oneself those objects whose presence cannot be contained as extensions of a wall or of our bodies and to bring these objects into the workings of our daily lives."


I think one of the intangible and lesser talked-about qualities of Apple’s industrial design is the aura it creates - Apple devices radiate sophistication that permeates their environment. Mentioned in the article is the Japanese term for this property, “tatazumai”, the integration of an object within its environment. Sounds simple and obvious, yet it’s often overlooked.

I think it’ll be increasingly important to consider ambient design, especially as new fields of design emerge and increase in importance like software design and even the design of online services (which I don’t think we have a name for yet). Its tatazumai will be more difficult to determine as more products occur in the digital realm, but the least that can be done now is consider the context in which these products will be used.

I could sit here all day and analyse further, as if it were poetry. And in a way, Fukasawa isn’t just a designer, but a poet, conveying his messages through the conscious and subconscious effects of his designs and insights.

I’ll leave with the article’s closing remarks:


"Calling attention to the beautiful emptiness of a particular space on a shelf by placing a rock found while traveling or a piece created by a master craftsperson there...

“Objects that are totally ordinary, but that age in just the right way, captivate us. This happens, doesn’t it? These objects have a richness that is the polar opposite from material wealth, and perhaps that is why they are so captivating…” "