In his Statement of Intent for this year's Japan Creative Projects exhibition at the Palazzo Litta, Director Hiroshi Naito notes that a central tenet of Japanese culture is "to make a point of treating things with great care and affection." Indeed, Japanese companies and designers alike made a strong showing throughout Milan during design week, celebrating both traditional craft and technological prowess, often in tandem.
Case in point, Panasonic's "Electronics Meets Crafts" presentation at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts. While it is easy to be skeptical of any event that is described as "experiential," the three-part exhibition offered a passable version of a corporate soft power play. A collaboration with GO ON, a Kyoto-based contemporary craft guild, "Electronics Meets Crafts" showcased a series of techno-artifacts inspired by traditional Japanese culture, namely lighting and heating elements embedded in contemporary heirlooms (i.e. a portable speaker in a classic Kaikado tea caddy). The subterranean setting, a corridor underneath the storied academy, duly enhanced the sensory aspect of the products on view.
If Panasonic offered to be a surprisingly thoughtful approach to a "branded experience," a Korean electronics brand took a different take, tapping Tokujin Yoshioka to create a much-hyped (and Instagrammed) installation in Zona Tortona. S.F _ Sense of the Future did not disappoint, as the Japanese designer paid homage to his late mentor Shiro Kuramata with a series of glass chairs that incorporated 15mm-thick "bifacial" OLED flatscreens in various permutations. If these vitrine-like pieces also channeled the likes of Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt, then the luminous "mural" of the far wall was a nod to James Turrell and Douglas Wheeler. The "Wall of the Sun" spanned a full 16 meters by five meters, a dot-matrix of 30,000 solar-spectrum OLEDs that are meant to approximate natural light.
However, it was Nendo's exhibition at the Jil Sander showroom that was the unanimous hit of design week, attracting an hour-long queue that wrapped around the piazza between Castello and Cairoli. Invisible Outlines included a mix of furniture, product, and process—not to mention the fashion collaboration with Jil Sander—as well as a large-scale installation of "mountains," all unified by Oki Sato's understated visual language.
Of course, brands and brand-name designers weren't the only representatives from the Far East. In Ventura Lambrate, a contingent of Japanese designers joined forces for Experimental Creations, a showcase of half a dozen investigations into materials. While the theme itself is familiar territory for designers, it was nice to see this kind of research from a Japanese perspective.
Meanwhile, at the Triennale di Milano, Japanese upstart Hiroto Yoshizoe took home the 2017 Lexus Design Award with "Pixel," a chevron-shaped modular device which exploits internal reflection to achieve subtle optical effects. In fact, the Lexus exhibition was perhaps the strongest design week show at the museum, which was rather disappointing on the whole. Upstairs, the sprawling Japan Design Week exhibition came off as a rather lackluster jumble of projects from different disciplines and regions (Lexus's theme of "Yet" may have been overly broad, but the Japan Design Week exhibition was altogether incoherent).
Thankfully, the Japan Creative Projects presentation more than made up for the misstep at Triennale, presenting the latest edition of the ongoing initiative to showcase Japanese manufacturers by inviting internationally established designers to develop projects with them. Facile though the concept may be, the quality of the results—designed by the likes of Jasper Morrison, Industrial Facility, etc.—is undeniable, striking a nice balance between contemporary design and production heritage.
As part of this year's "Linking Minds" exhibition at Palazzo Litta, Japan Creative Projects returned to Milan for the first time since its debut at Museo Minguzzi in 2012, having traveled to various other design festivals in the interim. The organization has not yet announced where the next exhibition will take place, but suffice it to say that Japanese design is well worth seeking, wherever it may be found.
See more images from these exhibitions below.
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