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Japan's Exquisite Meld of Form, Function

Living * Two new books showcase timeless Japanese aesthetic values that continue to inform contemporary design.

March 21, 2000|From Washington Post

One of the key words that captures the essence of Japanese aesthetics is wabi, a quality that embodies simplicity and austerity, that evokes a feeling of melancholy and solitude. It is the direct opposite of the loud and the garish, such as the current Japanese craze, Pokemon.

Wabi is what the tea master Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591) and his successors have endeavored to create with the carefully shaped garden, the rustic teahouse, the bowls of muted colors that best reflect the bright green of frothed tea, the single flower immaculately arranged in the dark alcove.

Mono no aware is another essential term in describing Japanese aesthetics. The phrase is derived from Buddhism and Shintoism (the indigenous religion of nature worship), and it denotes a feeling of empathy and a deep appreciation of beauty that is impermanent and fragile. The stirrings of love and passion, the flutter of falling cherry blossoms and the fleeting colors of a maiden's blush all evoke this quality. Lady Murasaki Shikibu's masterpiece "The Tale of Genji" (about 1000) is perhaps the best example of literature that reflects this sentiment. Since her time, it has been the challenge of the artist or the designer to create a setting or vessel that would make beauty happen.

Japanese industrial designer Kenji Ekuan shows a link between the traditional Japanese aesthetics of the tea masters and the objectives of modern Japanese design in a book titled "The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox" (MIT Press, $30 hardcover), written with David P. Stewart. What does a foot-square lacquered box containing a variety of delicacies teach us about design? Plenty.

These dainty bento boxes, by the way, are often taken to cherry-blossom picnics to celebrate the ephemeral splendor of spring.

The makunouchi bento originated from the Japanese theater more than two centuries ago, when boxed lunches began to be served between maku, or curtains. (A Kabuki drama, for example, takes much longer than a Broadway show even today, requiring a break for lunch.)

There are other types of bento--from the common ones sold at train stations all over Japan to the multi-tiered jubako in precious lacquerware served at picnics and tea parties. But the objectives are the same: They aim to please the consumer with convenient portable packaging, delicious nourishment and a visual experience, something akin to viewing a manicured bonsai garden.

In the words of William Blake, who captures the Zen spirit: "To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour." Ah, an exquisite lunch box should provide all that and more.

The creator of the lunch box aims to please the palate of many while maintaining a high aesthetic standard following a form developed over many centuries. Ekuan sees the makunouchi lunch box as a metaphor for successful design, from computer laptops to Sony Walkmans, from cellular phones to portable sewing kits.

A wider window on Japanese design is made possible by another book, "Katachi: Classic Japanese Design" (Chronicle Books, $29.95). Published last year in a softcover original, it contains a series of black-and-white photographs of traditional Japanese objects such as the shoji (sliding panels of paper on wooden frames serving as doors and windows), wooden clogs, combs, masks, baskets and knives. Katachi is Japanese for "form." The photographs were taken by Takeji Iwamiya under the art direction of Kazuya Takaoka.

In the book's brief introduction, poet Mutsuo Takahashi writes of "a quest for forms that achieve a true balance between function, the potentials of materials, the context within which an object is used, and beauty."

Divided into seven parts (paper, wood, bamboo, fiber, clay, metal and stone), Iwamiya's detail photographs of tools, toys, utensils, ceremonial wrappings and architectural elements become clues to the Japanese sense of design and a way of living.

Sadly, the artisans who created these objects and the style of living in which they were appreciated are becoming extinct. But designers with imagination who leaf through this book may find inspiration, just as Richard Sapper, the designer of the IBM laptop, achieved satori--epiphany--when he gazed upon a Japanese lunch box.

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