My strongest desire is to be free of gravity, free of bondage. I want to float. (Shiro Kuramata)

Japan has always maintained its unwavering mark of excellence in art, craft, and design. Particularly in the postwar era, the Japanese were profusely driven to reestablish their ground to succeed in all endeavors in defiance of the ravages of time that had befallen them. Shiro Kuramata was one such “serene revolutionary” (as quoted from designer Eiko Ishioka) who had witnessed World War II, postwar Japan, and the country’s gradual societal transformation, remolded by acceptance of Western ideas. Yet, the proud Japanese culture has remained distinct and in a class by itself, consistently focused on the ultimate apogee of quality. Kuramata belonged to the generation of geniuses Issey Miyake, Tadanori Yokoo, Arata Isozaki, and Tadao Ando, who all strived to rebuild a new Japan for the modern age.

Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo presents “The Work of Shiro KURAMATA: A Microcosmos of Memory,” running until January 28, 2024. Kuramata is considered not only one of Japan’s but also the world’s most significant designers of the 20th century. His unique sense of creativity, material innovation, lightness, and fragility, which he called “freedom from gravity,” has resulted in a wide range of iconic furniture and product designs that propelled international status. This first solo exhibition of Kuramata in over twenty years rekindles a reacquaintance with the designer’s career and valuable influence in both Japanese and global design and the arts. Selected quotes by the designer accompany some of the works, echoing his voice among the lines, textures, colors, and finish of his masterpieces.

The introductory room brings together emblematic pieces that combine Kuramata’s use of multiplex materials: concrete, glass, steel pipe, fabric, and steel mesh in chrome finish, such as his symbolic furniture How High the Moon (1986). The two versions exhibited in silver and copper-plate mesh were originally made from expanded metal tips, connected by a “brazing” technique. They have utilized surrounding plating with a nickel satin finish, and are completely handmade. The lightness and transient feel of the traditional armchair design are typical of Kuramata’s style, emoting both artistry and functionality.

We learn about Kuramata’s early background, having first learned drawing techniques at the Tokyo Metropolitan Kogei High School and the Design Department of Teikoku Kizai Furniture Factory. Later, he enrolled at the Kuwasawa Design School to become a designer. Although his education was rooted in Bauhaus methodology in terms of material functionality, he was greatly encouraged by art, particularly Surrealism and contemporary art. For this reason, his designs were often marked by free-flowing, transparent, and eclectic qualities. He remarked, “…only when we are freed from conventions, established concepts and ideas, and all kinds of constructs that have long been attached to this earth, will we be able to gain freedom in the true sense of the word…my desire for weightlessness, consciously or subconsciously, may be the underpinning of my creations…” (“A Chair that Aspires for Weightlessness,” Katei Gaho, Vol. 30, No. 3, March 1987).

Kuramata joined San-ai Dream Center in 1957. Here, he dwelled intensely on the design of window displays, visuals, flow plans of retail floors, stockyard layouts, furnishings, and other minute details down to shelves, bracket supports, and even the price tags. In 1965, he established his firm, Kuramata Design Office. He was initially recognized for retail stores, restaurants, and boutique designs, such as Issey Miyake shops in the 1970s and 80s. His projects linked him to prominent artists, such as Akira Uno, Tadanori Yokoo, Jiro Takamatsu, and Shintaro Tanaka.

In the section of cabinets and furniture with drawers, we see many inspirational pieces sealed with Kuramata’s unparalleled trademark. Furniture with Drawers (1967, Production: 1990s) in Japanese oak veneered panel, blue cotton, polyurethane foam, and steel-ball casters, illustrates the master’s craft in incorporating pull-out drawers around the body chair. Also, stunning pieces are the Pyramid Furniture (1968) in transparent acrylic board and black acrylic shelves; Checked Drawers #1 (1975, Production: 2011) in black lacquer finish, resembling a checkerboard; and the curvilinear Furniture in Irregular Forms Side 1 (1970, Production: c.2000), in black-stained ash, polyurethane coating, and drawers lacquered in matt white.

The flowing form resonates with the Memphis Italian design movement of the 1980s, which enticed Kuramata to participate in its Milan exhibition in 1981. He was invited by renowned architect, furniture, and product designer Ettore Sottsass who became his longtime friend. Their special friendship had paved the road to Kuramata’s vigorous international success. The designer explains his passion for designing furniture with drawers. “…I feel that one of the elements that drew me to drawers was the sense that I was always trying to find something else inside…drawers, including this kind of psychological aspect, are a piece of furniture that has the strongest communicative relationship with human beings. Drawers are a piece of furniture that facilitates a dialogue, or rather, harbors many such elements. In addition, drawers also harbor secrets…” (“An Unparalleled Designer,” Shitsunai, No.205, January 1972).

Kuramata is also predominantly admired for his glass furniture. For him, the delicate sensations imbibed in the beautiful light and shade reflections through the glass, though fragile by nature, enforces an “inescapable gravitational pull and the weightlessness of being free.” He states, “…glass as a material, has neither smell nor taste. Nevertheless, it is also emotional, and is an expression of modernity…” (“Glass, or Clues to Levitation-Speaking with Shiro Kuramata,“ Space Modulator, No. 58, February 1981.) The light blue Glass Chair (1976, Production: 1996) stands as one of Kuramata’s favorite classics, inspired by De Stijl style. The opaque look emitted by the translucent glass allows the furniture to seemingly float in an ethereal space.

Sottsass was highly impressed by the invisible joinery technique, merely glued by a hardening adhesive. Together with this glass collection are Tabletop at Bar Lucchino (1987), Acrylic Side Table #1 (1989), Acrylic Stool (with feathers) (1990), the colorful Cabinet de Curiosité (1989) and Model of OBLOMOV (1990), and the irresistible Miss Blanche (1988) encased in artificial red roses. The emblematic chair serves as a homage to Miss Blanche DuBois, the heroine in Tennessee Williams' “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The flowers are said to mirror the floral printed dresses or corsages worn by the film’s heroine. At the same time, they add an emotional tone to the figurative and abstract structure, as though suspended in mid-air, and once again, defying the laws of gravity. The piece was first showcased at the KAGU Tokyo Designers Week '88, Axis Gallery Annex in 1988, and at Galerie Yves Gastou in Paris. Kuramata wished that his works, often marked by the fusion of art and design, would generate communication between humans and objects.

Other works on display are the lighting design Lamp (Oba-Q) series (1972), which takes the form of a draped handkerchief. Clock with Five Hands (1986, Production: c.1999) is a very interesting timepiece with dried sardine, butterfly, and ladybug replicas as the minute and hour hand. We can also find handbags, and perfume bottles designed for Issey Miyake. Video clips demonstrate the designer’s immense range of achievements in retail store and interior design.

Kuramata was a man of all trades who also manifested deep interests in film, literature, and music. His enigmatic world is recorded in a dream journal he had kept from the 1980s. The pages surmise his subconscious thoughts that formulate sketches in his mind. His enormous presence in modern design in Japan and the world will always be etched in the evolving trends of today and tomorrow.