words Alex Wiltshire
Naoto Fukasawa is showing me some pictures that he has taken around Tokyo. There is one of a man using a window as a mirror, then there’s a bent rail next to a bus stop and a carton of milk on top of a post. They’re very nice, but it’s not obvious what they have to do with his product and furniture design.
Perching neatly on the edge of a sofa in the Europop-filled lobby of a Milan hotel, Fukasawa patiently flicks to another image on his laptop. It shows a Braille-covered metal plate on a handrail – someone has stubbed a cigarette out on it. “A very bad person used this as an ashtray because it’s recessed and bumpy,” he says. “It’s pretty bad, right? But it’s pretty functional.” He chuckles quickly. “He’s finding an immediate tool to use as an ashtray.”
Despite the laugh, Fukasawa seems rather tired and detached. He is about to catch a flight back to Japan and his pictorial explanation feels well worn, as if he performs it often. But it’s still hard to see the connection with his work. Fukasawa, the former head of product design agency IDEO’s Tokyo office, is best known for his electronic products.
He designed Muji’s wall-mounted CD player, and established Plusminuszero in 2003, a collection of beautifully minimal home appliances and products that, while still only available in Japan, has gained international recognition for its anti-technical aesthetic. His mobile phone for Japanese company Au has generated similar interest, and the pristine curves and planes of his furniture and lighting seemed to be everywhere at Milan this year, with new designs for companies including Driade, Murani and Yamagiwa.
What Fukasawa is explaining is “affordance”, the philosophical essence behind his design. We return to the bus stop picture and he points at the bent rail. “This is just the right spot for where they can sit instead of the bench – do you see? Everyone chose it; this is affordance – the fence affords sitting.”
We go back again to the picture of the milk carton on the post. “The person hasn’t thought about matching one to the other but they fit exactly,” he says. “We think that we decide to put the carton on the post, but actually the post allowed you to put it on it. It’s an opposite way of thinking.” So affordance says that instead of us consciously deciding to use objects around our environments, they actually “afford” us certain behaviours, behaviours that are subconscious and common to most people. Affordance is a term that was first introduced in 1966 by American psychologist JJ Gibson.
So how does this apply to his work? “I think about what is “iconic” for a sofa or a watch. I am not thinking to expose myself, I am thinking more about the common view of products. If I make something iconic then people say, ‘Oh, I know this one!’ – but I ask them, ‘Why do you know, because you haven’t seen it before!’ It means I am interested to describe how people already share something. Does that make sense?”
Fukasawa was born in 1956 and graduated in product design from Tama Art University in 1980. His first job was designing watches for Seiko. “It helped me learn about designing very tiny things, very minimal details,” he says. He went on to work at product design agency IDEO in the USA for eight years before returning to Japan to found and head IDEO’s Tokyo office with industrial designer Sam Hecht. Fukasawa left and founded his own office, Naoto Fukasawa Design in 2003, the same year he launched his first collection for Plusminuszero.
He finds an image of the product he’s perhaps best known for in the UK, the Muji CD player. A tug on its pull string causes the exposed CD to turn and music plays through its integrated speaker. Fukasawa purposefully based it on a kitchen fan to give it an identity that people naturally recognise. “It’s totally synchronised with your image of the kitchen fan turning round,” he says. “You already have some memory of the fan, so it overlaps the two images and your body already knows how to turn on the fan by pulling on the switch.”
Like much of Fukasawa’s work, the CD player is restrained in function and appearance. It doesn’t demand attention, a characteristic that Fukasawa deems important. “Designs don’t always have to give a first wow – this CD player is more giving you the curiosity of ‘what is this?’. Then you touch it and you say, ‘Wow, oh yes’. So it’s quite a delay, but it’s richer than an immediate wow.”
The CD player also questions traditional electronic product design. “Appliance products we are using every day, particularly in Japan, are usually quite ugly,” he says, reserving especial dislike for black stacking hi-fi units. Plusminuszero, which is owned by toy manufacturer Takara, is his attempt to develop a range of goods that has an alternative sensibility. He describes it as being similar to Muji’s collection: simple products that can be applied to many people and environments.
But Plusminuszero is distinct because its collection is informed by the ideas of affordance. He brings up a picture of the LCD TV that was developed for Plusminuszero’s first range. Though its flat screen does not require it, the casing protrudes at the back like that of a traditional cathode ray tube TV to act as a stand. “LCD technology is getting thinner and thinner, but on the other hand people have lost the friendly shape from older TVs,” he says. “This makes the friendly TV shape from high technology. People think that high technology is expressed by looking like high technology but this is totally the opposite way – unnatural.”
Fukasawa’s search for the “iconic” product, the product that communicates its function and identity so efficiently that people recognise it automatically, means that his work cannot be overtly radical. “If I wanted to design a completely new nice telephone I can’t remove the image of the ugly old telephone because people’s image of the telephone is of the ugly old one,” he says. “I gently show new things and mix them together.”
This is why his mobile phone for Au has been so popular. There were no other phones on the market like it when it was designed (especially as it flouted the then trend for folding models), but it looks absolutely like a mobile phone and its large buttons make it look easy to use. “It’s a very fashionable design – he has it,” he says, gesturing towards a member of his studio that has accompanied him on the trip. “And my mother uses it and my daughter. It doesn’t have borders.”
But despite all the theorising and careful exposition of his ideas and philosophies, Fukasawa says that he thinks his best skill is in shape-making. “People say I’m a good creator of ideas, but I’m more a good shape-maker. Really, you need a good form-making designer who can make good ideas. But I’m on the other side. Give me an ugly object and I can make it better like magic.”
His taxi arrives to take him and his assistant to the airport but I squeeze a final question in – apparently every morning the first thing he does is to wipe his desk down with his special personal cloth. I wonder whether this is the mark of an obsessive perfectionist. “No no no no no!” he exclaims amusedly, the most animated he has been throughout our talk. “In a product design office you need to clean up because there’s so much mess – it’s endless work otherwise! So we made a rule to be fresh. It’s important, but we’re not like Zen monks or anything!”