We live in fortunate times. Design and style have never been more accessible to the general public. Product designers these days are turning commonplace items into objetsd’art. A case in point is my current favourite designer: Naotu Fukasawa, who has designed everything from the Muji CD player to Swarovski crystal chandeliers to everyday objects such as toasters and plates for his own company, Plusminuszero (www.plusminuszero.jp).
Unlike Philippe Starck, Maarten Baas and other brash European designers, Fukasawa is almost painfully shy. He hates talking about himself, believing that his products ought to speak for themselves. And they do. In every object he creates, be it a bathtub or a table lamp, Fukasawa follows American architectural giant Louis Sullivan’s dictum of “form follows function”. His objects don’t simply take up space; they don’t shout or scream for attention. They simply recline in soft repose and wait for you to discover them. Most are playful and surprising, but in ways that are blindingly obvious, i.e., their intent is not self-conscious.
Take his sole bag (http://blog.thisnext.com/blog/the-sole-bag.html). It is a large bag with a canvas shoe-sole bottom that makes it perfect for resting flat on the ground. I am pretty sure that just about everyone I know will love this bag—be they world-weary socialites who have seen it all; or uber-rich corporate titans who can have it all; or just the school kid next door. It is the kind of thing that is a joy to behold, hold, and yet begs the question: Why didn’t I think of that?
Fukasawa’s (above) designs are playful, yet don’t shout for attention. (inset, from top) A toaster; and a cordless phone
Similarly, the nice thing about a Fukasawa plate is that even people who own heirloom china and sterling silver will appreciate it for its refined looks. Unlike art, it has the added bonus of being useful. Fukasawa doesn’t deviate much from the traditional Japanese aesthetic which, unlike its Western counterpart, always places an object in the context of its environment. The point of an Eastern object is to blend in seamlessly with its surroundings and make functionality the focus.
Contemporary Western design in contrast aims to startle and surprise. Both have their merits, but in my view, the East is gaining ground. Fukasawa is today’s ‘it’ designer and so is his country, Japan. Designers all over the world are attempting to copy Japan’s intrinsic minimalism and respect for clean lines and silhouette. The fact that every global design brand worth its name is begging to work with Fukasawa makes his success all the more startling and inspiring: He has done it on his own terms.
Indian designers are no slouches either. Neil Foley in Bangalore creates whimsical pieces such as his jellyfish light; Lokus Design in Pune has designed a collection of sleek furniture for Jindal Steel. Also in Pune is Design Directions, which has won a slew of awards for the medical equipment they design. My favourite, however, is their eco-friendly biodegradable sandals, aptly titled “Solemates”.
Sadly, Indian automotive design is a parched desert that could use a flash of design innovation: witness the clunky Scorpio, the mouse-shaped Innova, the functional, but unimaginative Maruti series and yes, the Ambassador. Much as I love this relic, it looks like a crumpled sari. The exception among cars—and I admit that as an ardent environmentalist, I am biased—is the Reva Electric car which, in my mind, is great product design. It is stylish, colourful and reminds me of the iconic Volkswagen Bug of yore. Scooters too, or scooties as they are now called, offer an oasis in the desert of Indian automotive design. Bajaj’s Wave, for instance, is sleek and sexy, one that I would love to own and ride.
Product design is incredibly difficult because it fuses the free-fall creativity of the fine arts with the commercial constraints of market economics. Unlike a painting or sculpture, a product, however well designed, doesn’t exist in isolation. It has to fulfil the function that it is designed for. It has to work. One of the reasons people love Titan watches even though they aren’t particularly great pieces of design is because they are supremely functional. Bottom line: They are good watches. The other constraint for product designers is the client. Most of these products are created for a specific client who has to be satisfied. It is a rare designer who manages to marry her own principles and design aesthetic with the demands of clients and customers.
A spectacular example of this is Kerala’s Kumbham range initiated by designer K.B. Jinan (www.kumbham.in). Social activist and designer, Jinan decided to revive the traditional terracotta craft that was in danger of dying out in northern Kerala.
He asked artisans to affiliate with him and create products that Kumbham would market. Wanting to stay true to his principles, he decided that he would not “teach” or mould these traditional potters into creating objects that were not true to their aesthetic sense. Instead, he allowed the markets to play their role, and that they did with Kumbham murals. Rather than the typical terracotta vases and pots, Jinan expanded their use into landscaping and architecture. They were flooded with orders, and thus began a happy marriage between design principles, social activism and market economics.
Shoba Narayan doffs her hat to Jinan and Kumbham. Write to her at email@example.com.