Q&A: Naoto Fukasawa Talks Muji, Minimalism, and Jasper Morrison

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By Tim McKeough
We sat down with the veteran Japanese product designer.

With an eye for divining the essence of objects, Naoto Fukasawa has emerged as one of Japan’s most influential designers. The typical Fukasawa product is not strictly minimalist. It’s what it needs to be and nothing more: intuitive, approachable, a delight to use. Fukasawa, 61, spent a formative period of his career in California, joining the brainy design firm IDEO in 1989. In 1996, he returned to Japan as head of its Tokyo office before founding his own studio in 2003. In addition to creating for companies from Boffi to Samsung, he is on the board of Muji and art director of Maruni Wood Industry. His work has garnered him numerous awards, most recently the Isamu Noguchi Award from the Noguchi Museum.

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In 2008, Naoto Fukasawa designed a line of slippers, bags, and other accessories for Japanese paper manufacturer Onao. Called Siwa, which means "wrinkle," they’re made of crumpled Naoron, a soft but tear-resistant paper. "It reminded me of rolling up the opening of the brown bags I carried my sandwiches in when I lived in America," writes Fukasawa in his new book, Embodiment.

In 2008, Naoto Fukasawa designed a line of slippers, bags, and other accessories for Japanese paper manufacturer Onao. Called Siwa, which means "wrinkle," they’re made of crumpled Naoron, a soft but tear-resistant paper. "It reminded me of rolling up the opening of the brown bags I carried my sandwiches in when I lived in America," writes Fukasawa in his new book, Embodiment.

In your new book, Embodiment, you write about how you hope people will have an "Oh!" moment of surprise when they encounter your products, because you’ve revealed something they already know on a fundamental level. Can you explain? 

We have particular shared images in our minds because we have experienced the same situations or environments. Normally, you are not focused on these things. You don’t really care. But I can describe something that we both want to have, I can visualize it, and then I can show it to you. When you see it, you might say, "How do you know what I was thinking? How do you understand?" On a basic level, we know each other already. Otherwise, we would have no shared way to judge design that is good from design that is not good. 

Nomu Thermo Insulated Jug (Alessi, 2017).

Nomu Thermo Insulated Jug (Alessi, 2017).

You have described your process as a broth that relies on ingredients from others to become good soup. 

Yes, you make the taste; I just make the broth. For example, B&B Italia will always be good quality and work with certain typologies. For them, I just make a simple broth. They add some ingredients, and we make it tasty, but it might be with very subtle flavors. For Plank, they want something quite radical, because they are a small company and need to express something. So earlier this year for Salone del Mobile in Milan, we created the Land chair to offer a much stronger taste. 

Rice Cooker (Muji, 2014).

Rice Cooker (Muji, 2014).

You’ve worked with Muji for many years. What is it about that company that’s a good fit for you? 

I think there are two different sides to design. Sometimes, we want to have radical, exciting, passionate things. But at other times, you need quieter, simple things. You need to have both. Muji is in charge of this quieter side. Muji is like a white wall, or a background, which says: This is a good fit for your life. 

Umbrella for Life (Ombrelli Maglia, 2013), which becomes a walking stick when it wears out.

Umbrella for Life (Ombrelli Maglia, 2013), which becomes a walking stick when it wears out.

In addition to designing products for them, you also conceived Found Muji, the division of the company that sells non-Muji products discovered in countries around the world. Why? 

If you see objects through the Muji philosophy, you can find things everywhere. A simple water glass, for instance, might not be made by Muji, but it may look like Muji. What is a Muji product like? It has to be casual, not precious. It has to be friendly and easy to use, without too much care about design. The object shouldn’t express itself too much. 

"Let’s say you eat ice cream every night. You will always choose the spoon that is right for you. Without thinking, you know what is best. It is not about making a statement." Naoto Fukasawa

In 2006, you coined the term "super normal" with Jasper Morrison, and partnered on an exhibition celebrating the design of everyday things. Do you feel a sense of kinship with him? 

I met Jasper almost 15 years ago, at a time when people began to understand his way of designing. Before, there was postmodernism and emotional design, but Jasper didn’t like those things at all. He tried to make very simple, quiet products that were less expensive, but friendly and cute, for lots of people to use. One day he visited Tokyo to do an exhibition. He knew my work already, because he had selected it for some design books he had edited, and we became friends, which is good, because he’s a very difficult guy—he’s really, really focused on design.

In 2005, I designed a very simple stool for Magis called Déjà-vu. It was the first project I presented during Salone del Mobile. I went to the Magis stand to see it, but it was not under the spotlight. It was just in the corner and people were resting on it. This made me very disappointed, and I called Jasper to tell him. He said, "No, no, no. People are just using it because it’s normal—in fact, it’s super normal." He saw it as a good thing.

Déjà-Vu Stool (Magis, 2005).

Déjà-Vu Stool (Magis, 2005).

What’s the idea behind your annual Without Thought design workshops? 

I used to think design was about making things special for the human mind. Later, I discovered something about people’s natural behaviors, and how they find harmony without thinking about it. For example, let’s say you eat ice cream every night. You will always choose the spoon that is right for you. Without thinking, you know what is best. It is not about making a statement. Once a year, we have 15 people come together, designers from big companies, for a three-day workshop, and we have a multi-month design challenge that results in an exhibition. My CD player for Muji, which was my first product for the company, came out of that workshop. 

The Noto pen (Lamy, 2007), of which more than four million units have been sold. "It’s not a bad thing that this has become a special kind of normal," writes Fukasawa in his latest book.

The Noto pen (Lamy, 2007), of which more than four million units have been sold. "It’s not a bad thing that this has become a special kind of normal," writes Fukasawa in his latest book.

What does winning the Isamu Noguchi Award mean to you? 

I know Noguchi’s work very well. When I started working in the United States in 1989, I was interested in learning about Japanese culture from an American perspective. Noguchi was one of the people who gave me hope, through the beauty of his sculptures. He’s one of my heroes. Thirty years later, I get this award—maybe it was inevitable.

See 16 Products Designed by Naoto Fukasawa That We Love