Japanese minimalist design and the influence of traditional Zen art
Minimalism is often associated with Japanese traditional Zen-style design. Zen style arts and design focuses on eliminating any unnecessary frills or decors. These arts are often described as aesthetics of subtraction, because they let boundless beauty and abundance emerge from less, rather than from more. Enormous creative power is poured into identifying and removing everything unnecessary, whether it’s element, dimension, shape, size, space, amount, or color. In Zen-style arts, single line or single element can exhibit boundless potential.
If you want to introduce Zen-taste minimalist design, what are the tips? There are several very distinct elements in Zen aesthetics, which are often equal to traditional Japanese aesthetics (read more about Japanese aesthetics including Zen arts). The important point is that ultimately, Japanese aesthetics are also about becoming keenly conscious about our relationship with nature. Such consciousness reveals itself through our behaviors. You may remember that the traditional Japanese minimalist design, or Zen design, is the one that inspires you to concentrate on your behavior and your surroundings. It’s a lot more than the minimalist appearance.
Stationary is one of the product categories you often find excess frills but not desired functions: pens don’t write, erases don’t erase, tapes that don’t glue. But MUJI’s stationary flips such trend: its decidedly simple package is loaded with full functionality, reliability and durability. For example, this ball-point pen comes with different tip sizes and beautiful colors. Applying technology called “gel-ink,” it writes very smoothly with no ink clogging. The finish is just beautiful.
Butterfly Chair by Yanagi Sori
Japanese designer Sori Yanagi designed the iconic “Butterfly Stool” (catalogued both by the MOMA and Le Louvre) in 1954, inspired by the revolutionary plywood sprints invented by the American designer Charles Eames. The Butterfly Stool is made of only two identical plywood pieces with subtle but beautiful curves, which are connected by a single metal bolt. The soft curves make a shape that looks like the letter “天 (sky or heaven)” or the “tori” of Japanese shrines. After half a century since its design, the stools are still produced by Tendo Mokko, the master of plywood engineering.
Noda Horo Enamel Cookware
Enamel case iron has been used as highly functional cookware for long time, but it is pretty heavy and can be expensive. Noda Horo offers relatively light-weighted, no-frill minimalist products that still retain the advantages of the material. People use this small, cute milk pan with the lipped edge for no-spill pouring to warm some soup for two, introduce solid food for babies, make café au lait or hot chocolate, boil eggs and so forth. They also love it because it’s easy to clean.
Why is food in “design” section? It’s because eating is one of our major behaviors that help shape our happiness. Subtracting intense ingredients such as refined sugar as Japanese pudding does from your diet is not only about healthy eating habit. When you remove addictively strong food from your body, you will notice that your senses are much more conscious and fit. It is this consciousness that will help you find new pleasure, which you even didn’t realize that it existed.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but you’d need a “tiny house” to live consciously, comfortably and ultimately, happily. It is primarily because our body is small. We feel truly “home” when we are enveloped by “human-size” house and furniture. MUJI offers a small, empty but editable house supported by highly functional structure. Eliminating design frills that may please some but not the others, MUJI House is a universally applicable platform on which anyone can design his/her own life style.
What do you want to maximize by becoming a minimalist? A lot of people would answer “experiences.” If that’s what you are looking for, you’d want to invest in something like the MUJI Hut. Coming in as small as 9 square meters, you could place this tiny house wherever you want to become deeply involved in the surrounding environment, whether it’s nature or a local community. It is a new lifestyle that is half living and half traveling that opens door for new set of experiences.
We strongly believe that bigger is better. But MUJI’s tiny, minimal toothbrush stand showed that it’s not necessarily true. It revolutionized the aesthetics of a bathroom sink by eliminating the unnecessary mass that was unjustifiably occupying it while giving no additional functional/aesthetic benefits. If you want to go minimalist, stat from reducing the size of your daily item. It will train you to restore keen awareness on your surroundings to determine what’s truly needed and what’s not.
How big is your mouth? If you think it’s not too big, why does your toothbrush head have to be that big? “Oh, mine is not big, it’s just a regular size,” you may say. But concentrate your senses on your mouth and feel the contact. A lot of “regular-sized” brushes are actually too big for you. The beauty of becoming minimalist is not so much about having less stuff, but rediscovering the ability to keenly concentrate on your behaviors by creating distraction-free environment. Believe me, it makes a difference.
Naoto Fukawawa has been designing iconic products for various brands globally, from chairs to cell phones. He believes that the best products are the ones that have eventually become “anonymous,” imagining a scenario where some catastrophe hits the world and our civilization becomes ruined. His product miraculously survives but loses all the signs as to who designed/made it. If, he dreams, people pick it up again and use it, it has become a totally “anonymous” product – a true product.
The Yoshino Cedar House, Airbnb’s first rental listing run by a local community, is located in a small, rural Japanese town. Designed by an architect Go Hasegawa, it is a no-frill, small accommodation that is filled with spontaneous interactions between local people and visitors, instead of luxurious amenities. This place also paved a new social design approach that leverages local people and heritage as community’s assets to attract visitors and financial investments.
Traditional Japanese architecture is defined by exposed pillars and beams that delivers both structural and aesthetic order, decreasing the needs for walls. In the absence of divisive walls, Japanese houses were were ambiguously connected with outside. Fusuma (detachable partition: center), shoji (paper screen door), and engawa (raised sun porch-like narrow hallways that surrounded the house) each played roles to gradually open the house toward outside.
Decay: a reminder that we are the part of the wonder-full natural cycle, which include the process of declining for re-birth.
Noh: The performing art of “yugen” that found unique beauty in old people: the duality of elusiveness and resilience.
Sho sugi ban, usually called “焼杉 (yaki-sugi, or burnt cedar)” in Japanese, is a traditional technique to burn the surface of cedar timber used for housing in order to strengthen its durability. It’s been used by ordinary people’s houses for centuries in the Kansai area. It has become world’s attention lately, and the sho sugi ban in various finishes are available in many parts of the world. Using Zen approach, it’s good to choose products by thinking how they beautiful they would look then they age or get weathered.
Kintsugi is the traditional Japanese technique to repair broken ceramics using gold/silver powered as a finish. It was raised to the form of art because tea masters of wabi-cha (tea ceremony) preferred repairing their tools rather than buying new ones. Since tea ceremony is an art of aesthetics, even a repair was performed with an extremely high standard. Who would have thought broken products or the process of repairing could be an art? It’s fascinating to find that wounds can look beautiful.
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Find out what Zen is, how it has become the mother of the “art of subtraction,” and how it influenced modern minimalist design.
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Find various modern minimalist design that share common aesthetics with Zen, from architecture to everyday products.