yanagi sori: beauty, utility, community

Sori Yanagi, son of Soetsu Yanagi (founder of Japan's Folk Crafts Movement), was a leading industrial designer of the XXth century. 

 

Famous for his 1956 butterfly stool, in which he managed to marry ideas of western modernism with traditional Japanese aesthetics, he designed a wide variety of products  – from children's toys and kitchen utensils, through furniture, lamps, radios and cars, ending with bridges and underground stations. He was also responsible for the stadium seats and the torch used during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

 

What all of his products shared in common was  functional beauty or principle of „Yo-no-Bi” – consistent commitment to simple, yet attractive appearance, sensitivity to materials,  respect for tradition and above all, concern for usefulness and practicality.

 
 

Born in 1915, Yanagi graduated from the the Tokyo Arts School (today Tokyo University of Arts) and came of age as Japan was transitioning from manual labor to mechanical industry and as hand-crafting was becoming a relic of the past.

Even though he grew up surrounded by crafts and considered himself an adherent of the Mingeikan movement, he viewed changes that modernity brought about quite soberly.

 
Work on this curvy, aluminum kettle -- one of his most memorable designs --  took Yanagi more than two years. The wide bottom conducts heat well, while the molded handle makes it easy to pour water. The kettle is still being sold today.  

Work on this curvy, aluminum kettle -- one of his most memorable designs --  took Yanagi more than two years. The wide bottom conducts heat well, while the molded handle makes it easy to pour water. The kettle is still being sold today.  

 

Yanagi believed that it must be possible – or even necessary – to reconcile modernity with tradition.

„Because it is the machine age, it is necessary to make handicraft works and adopt them, at least partially, in human life – he wrote shortly after World War II ended.

„Nowadays, at a time when humanity is lost, the people should sympathize profoundly with the warm humanity in folk craft and its profound purity.”

 

Yanagi strongly believed that beauty cannot exist without utility, and often used to quote William Morris: „Art is man’s expression of his joy in labor”

Having come under the influence of Bauhaus and LeCorbusier, he also maintained strong Japanese sensitivity. 

„Making use of tradition is not the act of faithfully imitating it. It means creating something new, according to its principles, using techniques and materials.”

It manifested itself in a firmly held belief that beauty can only be be born in  a strong, close-knit community system. 

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In this, Yanagi again echoes his favorite William Morris, who also harbored deep admiration for medieval times when craftsmen  and users existed in close proximity to each other. 

Yanagi speaks of Gemeinschaft ideals, which he believes, make it possible. 

"Design depends on society. … Unless the social problems of today are resolved we cannot expect good design to be born." 

 

"Design that is selfishly infatuated with economic growth, the acceleration of high stock turnover, and extravagant consumption is on the verge of being cracked down on. 

Machine manufacturing must switch from quantity to quality. Design must switch from cheap, flashy coquetry to quality design with an honest purpose to truly serve mankind. 

As resources on this earth diminish, it will be impossible to maintain desire for mass production any longer."

 

 

Photographs were taken at Sori Yanagi Memorial in Kanazawa. Quotes come from the exhibit there and from "The Philosophy of Design" by Sori Yanagi, published by Yanagi Design Office.