Happy as a clam
Tokyo-based designer Naoto Fukasawa on making happiness by way of design's unconscious relationship between the object, the human and the environment.
Written by: Molly Singleterry
Photos by: Alex Witmer
Film directed by: Nobu Arakawa
Naoto Fukasawa sits with a bemused expression in a glass-walled conference room. An array of chairs of his own design are neatly arranged around a long wooden conference table. He's in Chicago for a short visit to debut Asari Chair by Herman Miller to the masses. His presence is quiet, yet captivating. He smiles easily, thanks everyone for visiting, is a gregarious salesman on the floor. Visitors sit in the chair, lean back comfortably to check out the tilt, do a little spin. There's a song and dance to these kinds of visits and Fukasawa performs it naturally – almost joyfully – in a way that fills the whole room. At one point, he mimes hugging Asari, an expression he's often used to describe his feelings about it. “I really want to hold the chair,” he says.
When he talks at length about his design process for Asari, it's prescriptive of the passion he feels for the chair, which is like a character at this point in our story. Fukasawa personifies them as friendly creatures that delight you. The chair is, after all, inspired by its namesake: "clam" in Japanese ("short neck clam" to be precise, an ingredient often used in dashi, the clear soup stock that's a basic building block for umami in Japanese cooking. In essence, the very essence of flavour).
If you're imagining these chairs in a fantastical story from the likes of Gabriel García Márquez or Haruki Murakami, well, then, he's done his job. He sets the scene for these playful relationships and gives you the agency to make the chair work for you – wherever you want it to, not the other way around. It's a simple relationship between the human, the object and the environment, and Fukasawa is just here to provide a comfortable seat.
Read on for the full interview with Fukasawa-san at his home and studio in Tokyo.
“The main goal is to make people happy.”
– Naoto Fukasawa
Fukasawa designed his studio in a quiet residential neighbourhood of Tokyo.
What is your definition of design?
If you have some relationship with an object, like a chair, for example – you should not really be conscious about it. You can forget about your chair. Unconsciousness is very important. You don't care about the chair; you already love your chair. After you use it, you don't need to think about it. Design is sometimes too much talking and should be quiet.
I always think about the relationship between the object and the human and the environment. Design is making a good relationship between them.
Asari Chairs line the central workstation at Fukasawa’s studio.
Tell us more about the philosophy “Super Normal”.
In general, people think about design that is special. Therefore, when we are designing, we try to be particularly special. And, of course, the person who asks us to design, they really want to get something new or radical or fresh. But sometimes we present very normal things, which they love and are already in their environment to use. They might say, "Oh, is this your proposal?" And it's super normal. So we say, do you like it or not? Then quietly, "I like it."
We love to spend a life with normal things because normal is not so much about happening every day, it's calmer, about spending a nice life. So that is a very key factor of the super normal. Super is important, not just normal.
Various ephemera collected in his studio.
What is the relationship between form and function in your design?
Form is function. No distinction from each other. Visually, beauty is one of the functions too. So don't think about just the form, think about function first. But it has to be beautiful.
I believe all humans have this function to catch up the beauty or comfort [of a product]. Otherwise, we cannot really say, "This is good design. This is bad design." Everybody says good designs, good design… bad designs, bad design, right? This is very basic: everybody can feel the good – not just particular, special people. Everybody has to feel it.
Fukasawa has compared the chair to a character living in your home, like a stuffed toy or teddy bear.
Fukasawa was inspired by several shapes when designing the shape of the chair’s back, including the scalloped lines on a clam, the tiers of a macaron and even a stack of river stones.
Meet Naoto Fukasawa, designer of Asari Chair by Herman Miller
Visit designer Naoto Fukasawa's home and studio in Tokyo and hear about the joyful design process behind the Asari Chair by Herman Miller.