Kyoto round table (1983)
Shiro Kuramata (Japan) / Memphis Milano
Round end table in metal and colored-glass-infused "Star Piece" terrazzo
Dimensions: Ø 23.75", height: 28.5"
The Japanese so often just seem to get it right. Until the late 20th century, the distinctions between painting, sculpture, craft & decorative art were all part of a single continuum (it was only in the West that painting and sculpture were distinguished as purer & more important than the decorative arts). In Japan, craft & hermetical skills were considered the apex on the aesthetic scale of notability. Functionality (however abstract the method of presenting it) was paramount.
No where in recent times has this become more evident than in the design oeuvre of Shiro Kuramata. Japan’s leading 20th century designer of furniture and interiors, he was born in Tokyo between the wars. Coming of age during the post-WWII American Occupation of Japan, he graduated in 1957 from the special polytechnic Kuwazawa Design Institute, where he studied Western Design, Japanese woodcraft & the plastic arts. Included in this curriculum was the study of furniture such as chairs – ironical, since most of the Japanese public still maintained traditional homes where they sat on the floor on tatami mats.
In 1957 Kuramata was hired by the San-Ai department store, where he made his mark as a designer of virtuoso showcase vignettes as well as floor & window displays. Thereafter, he opened his own Design office in Tokyo in 1965.
This coming of age for the artist occurred during a particularly fervent period of Japanese technical ingenuity and dramatic economic growth that fueled the development of VCR’s, the Sony Walk-Man, subcompact cars, portable TV’s, video games et al. It was the time of the emergence of such contemporaries as Arata Isozaki, Tadao Ando and fashion designers Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcons), Issey Miyake (his biggest client) and Yohji Yamamoto.
Kuramata’s greatest gift to design at that time was his combination of Western Pop, Minimalist & Conceptual Art influences (Flavin, Judd, Duchamp, Buren) comingled with the Japanese notion of the “oneness” of arts & crafts, both high and low. He was especially moved & influenced by the works & theories of the Italian furniture designer Ettore Sottsass and his playful usage of bright, intense colours & gawky, purposely awkward forms.
Kuramata was soon asked to join the experimental design group MEMPHIS, incepted by Sottsass & based in Milan, at its founding in 1981.
In his pared-down & fantastic forms, Kuramata turned the viewers’ expectations inside-out & upside-down, conjuring up objects & physical spaces that were radical & yet extremely functional. His ability to transform industrial materials (perforated stainless steel, chains, terrazzo, Lucite, glass) into shimmering objects of desire still provokes endless dialogue amongst critics and supporters alike.
Specifically, Kuramata was once commissioned in the 1980’s by his stalwart patron Issey Miyake to design his in-store boutique at Bergdorf Goodman in NYC. Simple L-shaped 20 ft. x 6 ft. shelves of thin stainless steel (cut from single sheets, so as to avoid weld joints) hovered above a poured-in-place terrazzo floor of creamy yellow cement & tiny shards of emerald-colored glass. This writer, visiting NYC with a group of friends at the time, dropped to his knees on the floor during a very busy Saturday retail hour to investigate Kuramata’s solitary usage of green glass (typically terrazzo is made up of multi-coloured marble chips as the aggregate).
Within seconds, I discovered the reason for the enigma.
Calling over to my friends as well as the store’s dumbfounded customers -- “Look! I can see it! The broken glass pieces, they have words on them! C – o – c – a C – o – l – a !!! My God --- it’s Kuramata’s homage to America!”
Obsession has its rewards!