Kenya Hara, Japanese “emptiness” aesthetics guru, on decluttering
As the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has been attracting millions of viewers, it seems like the society is increasingly intrigued by the idea of decluttering, owning less belongings, going minimalist, and even living in a tiny house. If people are seeing these approaches as remedies/therapies from stress, it must mean that the material overload has become a modern syndrome, as much as pleasure. It just took us long time to realize it.
But why did it take so long? It’s because humans are instinctive animals that always seek prey, as much as they are logical/rational beings. And as far as the economy is concerned, the latter is at the mercy of the first – to our surprise. As Scott Galloway, distinguished Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern School of Business wrote that: “instinct is a powerful chaperone, always watching and whispering in your ear, telling what you must do to survive…Instinct, coupled with a profit motive, makes for excess. And the worst economic system, except for all the rest – capitalism – is specifically designed to maximize the equation,” (From his best-selling book The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google.)
Ever since the Industrial Revolution start giving us effective tools, our instinct, coupled with the profit motive, kept “maximizing the equation” under increasingly free markets. In reaction, we kept buying products, listening to the whispers of our inner hunter instincts: “it’s now or never. Go get it!” In doing so, we totally miscalculated or ignored our capacity to manage them. Things kept piling up, and bills kept piling up. When things got out of hand, we felt desperate and ran for KonMari methodTM.
What will happen if we allow logical/rational thinking to guide instinctive desire in our economy? Instead of caving into the sweet whisper to “go get it” whenever prey is in front of us, is it possible to let our sensitivity overcome the urge? Is it possible to make decisions to only make and buy things that make our lives better, happier and more beautiful?
Let’s ask designers, because they are the experts at finding and creating beauty in our everyday life. Japanese graphic designer Kenya Hara, who has been behind Japanese brand MUJI’s simple (he rather calls it “empty”) aesthetics, observed in this book “Japanese design”: “It’s better to reduce the number of your belongings in order to keep your living environment neat, clean and agreeable. It was common sense, but we somehow forgot over the course as we busied ourselves buying more and more things.” He continues: “Imagine if traditional Japanese rooms that boast uniquely simple beauty were full of clutter?”
Keeping the place neat is not a novel idea at all, but it’s getting increasingly difficult as we are surrounded by more products. Hara continues: “Each and every product has its own process to finally arrive at consumers’ hands, starting from material extraction, manufacturing to marketing. But what if the majority of those products, after people invested so many resources, energy and efforts, were trivial and inconsequential that they didn’t make any difference to your life?” “It’s pathetic if the only change they ended up delivering is distraction and degrades the quality of your life.”
“The ultimate goal of mass production/consumption should be to make our world a comfortable and pleasant place to live. We have to remember to stick to the goal. Keep acquiring irrelevant things doesn’t help us achieve our goal.”
Then what does a life without material overload look like? In the book, Hara gives some examples of how an environment that is devoid of irrelevant things activates your senses, excites your aesthetic curiosity and makes you feel good. Take a hotel that is simple but well taken care of, he suggests. Since it focuses on essentials, it won’t bombard you with excessive visuals, sounds or commercial stimuli. Instead they will make sure that all important (relevant) details are nailed and maintained perfectly. If it was a Japanese-style hotel (ryokan), you would sit on neatly cleaned tatami mattress. Since there’s nothing to distract your attention, you will fully appreciate its feeling under your bare feet, while noticing seasonal flowers arranged in a traditional vase, or calligraphy displayed in tokono-ma, a small recessed area (You can see it in the below picture (left)).
If it was a Western-style hotel, you would probably be reminded of how good high-quality bed linens and bathrobes feel on your skin. It’s the kind of bliss you can only feel when you fully concentrate on and unleash the potential of your five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.