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A good message of design should be emptiness, says Kenya Hara

The Japanese designer, author and creative director of Muji discusses the fleeting nature of trends, the role of AI and importance of ‘emptiness’ in design

Muji's creative head Kenya Hara
Muji's creative head Kenya Hara

Everything around us is shaped in some version of a square or a circle. Whether it’s the newspaper or the mobile phone screen on which you are reading this article, or the cup in which your morning coffee is cooling, fixed design language has become a big part of daily life.

It doesn’t have to be.

Kenya Hara, one of the global leaders in contemporary design, believes the creation process requires fluidity, making the known unknown. A spoon, for instance, can also be a bowl. A chair can be large or long enough to fit a human and their furry friend. “You have to ask better questions, instead of looking for better solutions. That should be the future of design,” says Hara, known for his minimalist design aesthetic that maximises use of clean lines, white space and natural materials. He is the art director of Muji, the famous non-brand brand that sells everything, from furniture and clothes to stationery—all products that focus on functionality rather than style.

In his decades-long career, the 65-year-old has written bestsellers on design such as White and Designing Design; founded a design think-tank; created the opening and closing ceremony programmes of the Nagano Winter Olympic Games (1998); and curated and participated in large-scale design exhibitions, including “Re-Design: Daily Products Of The 21st Century” and “Architects’ Macaroni”, which featured several interpretations by architects of the humble macaroni.

Hara was recently in Mumbai for the launch of Muji’s flagship store and café, the first such outlet in the world outside Japan, as part of its partnership with Reliance Brands Ltd, at the Jio World Plaza mall.

The Muji’s café inside Mumbai's Jio World Plaza mall.
The Muji’s café inside Mumbai's Jio World Plaza mall.

Also read: The seductive power of Rahul Mishra designs

In an interview, Hara, a professor at Japan’s Musashino Art University, discusses the importance of emptiness in design, the fleeting nature of trends, and the role of artificial intelligence in human life.

Edited excerpts:

When it comes to Japanese aesthetics, tradition and innovation live together. How do you continue to marry the two to address the fast-changing demands of today’s client?

This is a difficult question (smiles). My design language doesn’t completely depend on the traditional Japanese design (bright motifs based on flora and fauna, geometric patterns). In fact, you won’t find it much in my design. When I was young, I actually did not like the traditional design very much because I thought it was way too much. I am more influenced and inspired by the Japanese philosophy of seeking emptiness or minimalism in design. We get scared of emptiness, but we forget that emptiness is how light enters... it allows you to be free of clutter and have new thoughts every day. Being empty gives an opportunity to be filled. For example, a Western-style knife has a well-crafted grip to ensure easy hold. The Japanese counterpoint, yanagi ba, however, doesn’t come with a fixed grip, allowing the user to hold it at any angle they want.) I think a good message of design should be emptiness because then you constantly think of utility and functionality, and not get caught with the superficial aspects.

But what about the constant change of trends?

Of course, trends are changing. Customers are seeking new trends, things, every day. But I keep my distance from trends. I don’t move with them, because while trends may be interesting, they are diminishing. If you start following trends, you get too caught up with what will work and what will not and start compromising on design. A good design should have a long life. That’s what makes a simple, logo-less design so attractive.

Having said that, I do have a responsibility towards serving the customers of today. There are two types of customers—one who is actively invested in trends and one who doesn’t care much about them. I am interested in the second one. It’s not about being a snob. It’s about creating products that serve people for a long time. Trends have a short life; human life is long.

Everything in front of us, whether it’s a table, a cup, mobile… it’s already designed. The most fantastic design, however, is one that is becoming (like how a shallow plate, as it goes deeper, turns into a bowl and then a cup). Design, according to me, is about making daily objects interesting; they need to be useful but shouldn’t lose their intrigue.

Real design is about finding out the essence of the world around us. That’s how you stay innovative while being simple and minimalist.

The Muji flagship store at the Jio World Plaza
The Muji flagship store at the Jio World Plaza

In your book ‘Wa: The Essence of Japanese Design’, there’s a mention of how around 15th century Japan, much like other powers at the time, was high on ornamentation. When did Japan became synonymous with minimalism?

Japan is influenced by many cultures. The Japanese archipelago is on the eastern tip of Eurasia. If you tilt the Eurasia plate 90 degrees, the Japanese archipelago would be at the bottom of Eurasia, turning into a saucer collecting traditions from Rome, India, China. So when Eurasia was flamboyant with embellishments and decorations so was Japan. But in the 15th century, there was a war that continued for 10 years in Kyoto. Everything was destroyed, temples, statues.

Yoshimasa Ashikaga, the shogun (military ruler) during that period, then gave his position to his son, and created a new Japanese style which was about minimalism. It followed the idea that “nothing” is more important than “everything”. The Japanese are the ones who created the minimal garden. They believe people will enjoy an empty garden more because it’s empty and allows them to create their own story in the space. Emptiness should not be equated with simplicity.

What’s your creative process like?

Nothing specific as such. I travel a lot and do photography. I am always looking for ways to bring out the essence of a product or project and visualising it. AI (artificial intelligence) helps in such instances.

An exhibition of some of the iconic Muji products at the Jio World Plaza
An exhibition of some of the iconic Muji products at the Jio World Plaza


Do you think AI will dictate design in the coming years?

AI can definitely be helpful in basic tasks, but I think that’s it. When humans think of design, there’s always the “if” factor... at every step, we are asking ourselves “if” and finding ways to innovate. If machines start doing that, the “if” will never happen. The possibility factor will vanish if we start depending too much on machines. Our human creativity will sink.

A piece of architecture that continues to fascinate you?

Isamu Noguchi’s animal sculpture (a pair of heavy welded metal abstract sculptures). It’s minimalist, complex and each time you look at it, you interpret it differently, depending on where you are in life at the point.

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