Design Q & A: Keiji Takeuchi

The Milan-based, Japanese-born, Paris-trained designer responds to the Eameses’ famous Design Q & A.


Written by: Luke Baker

Artwork by: Ben Anders

Keiji Takeuchi

In Part four of our designer interview series, we put furniture designer Keiji Takeuchi through his paces, asking him the 29 questions that Charles and Ray Eames answered for the 1969 exhibition Qu’est-ce que le design? (What Is Design?) at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

Keiji Takeuchi is an internationalist. He was born in Japan, decamped for New Zealand as a teenager, studied design in Paris, worked alongside legendary minimalist Naoto Fukasawa in Tokyo, and now runs his own studio in Milan. Takeuchi’s global outlook enables him to develop products—like Leeway Seating and the Axon Table, designed with Fukasawa, both for Geiger—that transcend language and culture to address fundamental concerns. His trick is to marry a close observation of human behavior to essential forms. The result is a battery of furniture and lighting designs whose intrinsic functionality make intuitive sense because they deny all superfluous elements.

We were thrilled to ask Takeuchi the same set of questions that Charles and Ray Eames immortalized nearly 50 years ago in their film Design Q & A. We also sent photographer Ben Anders to visit Takeuchi's studio and follow him around Milan for a day. Read on for a glimpse of Keiji Takeuchi's work, life, and how he imagines design can improve lives.

Takeuchi's sketch book

What is your definition of design?
The act of interpreting things and phenomena around us. The ability to notice something that is not quite working well to your eyes and take the opportunity to transform it to something positive. The drive to give an answer or solution.

Is design an expression of art?
For me, art is not a thing—it is a phenomenon that rises in us. That’s not the objective for design, but design has to have a certain artistic sensibility; otherwise, it is not quite alive in a way. That is the value people seek in design.

Is design a craft for industrial purposes?
It can be. Design is a process of making layers and layers of decisions and trying to combine all the decisions you make together into one thing. There are infinite possibilities to the ways we deal with things, and design is about trying to find the right answer for every single constraint and connecting all the optimum decisions together.

What are the boundaries of design?
There aren’t any, because design is not a thing, it’s a phenomenon. Many people think design is about making something physical or visible, but I think it is more about emotional values. Sometimes you don’t need physical things to make you smile.

Is design a discipline that concerns itself with only one part of the environment?
I don’t think so. Design itself is an idea that exists in everyone’s mind, to interpret things positively. It is integrated into the whole environment.

Takeuchi's Milan studio

Keiji Takeuchi (far right) works closely with the other members of his Milan studio in a system that mirrors his own relationship with his mentor and collaborator Naoto Fukasawa.

Is it a method of general expression?
The execution of design needs highly sophisticated skills and beliefs, but what to expose and how to express that depends on the individual, because you are trying to share a point of view.

Is design a creation of an individual?
No, you can never be just “yourself.” One color cannot exist without any other colors. You can’t be “white” if there’s no other colors around.

Is design a creation of a group?
Not necessarily a set group, but common beliefs set our norms and directions. And there are users at the end of the process. So yes, it’s plural, not singular.

Is there a design ethic?
Yes, I think it’s moral. Designers have a huge social responsibility and it is not just about doing what they want to satisfy themselves. I hope that the ideas they introduce are to improve people’s quality of life.

Petanque balls, Milan Italy

In the evenings, Takeuchi heads down to a local park to play petanque with group of Italian gentlemen.

Petanque, Milan Italy

Does design imply the idea of objects that are necessarily useful?
As a starting point it should be, but what is function? Things that make people happy without reason are also very important in our life.

Is it able to cooperate in the creation of works reserved solely for pleasure?
I would be happy if I could create a universal pleasure through my work. I think this is a set goal for designers after all.

Ought form to derive from the analysis of function?
From analyzing things, you can come up with a basic logic to go about the design process, but logic itself does not give life to things.

Can the computer substitute for the designer?
That’s the same as asking, “Can cookware substitute for the chef?” You need them both. In terms of operation, computers are an extremely powerful support to have and there are many things they can do better than us. But they cannot replace intuition and our random imaginations and hunches. We both have to work together.

Takeuchi design team meal
Sicilian restaurant, Milan
Sicilian restaurant, Milan
Sicilian restaurant, Milan

If instilling a sense of happiness is part of Takeuchi's design ethos, he lives it over lunch at a local Sicilian restaurant with his team.

Does design imply industrial manufacture?
Yes and no, because sometimes we ask simple questions that push the boundaries of industry.

Is design used to modify an old object through new techniques?
It is about improving and adjusting things to fit with our fast-changing world. It’s refining, and that’s called culture.

Is design used to fix up an existing model so that it is more attractive?
What is attractive? Fixing things does not necessarily make things more attractive. Sometimes it can make them less charming.

Is design an element of industrial policy?
I think someone designed the policy.

Does the creation of design admit constraint?
Yes, but constraints are not necessarily negative. We just need to learn how to transform them to a positive factor.

Takeuchi's Leeway Chair for Geiger

The Leeway chair that Takeuchi designed for Geiger, shown here in a black urethane, walnut, and ash seat and back combinations, comes with either a wood or metal frame.

What constraints?
All sorts of constraints. There’s physical constraints, moral constraints, emotional constraints, financial constraints—it’s the ecosystem of the whole world. But as I said above, we just need to find a way to be friends with them.

Does design obey laws?
If the law is about improving the quality of living, like social welfare, social support, and so on, then yes. It comes back to morals (if law is based on morals), because the purpose of design is to improve our life quality and make people happy.

Are there tendencies and schools in design?
Yes, very much, and especially today. The cycle is getting faster and faster as we are so connected. You see one school is trying to be original, other people just keep repeating, and typically, the school that has the principle does not really get affected by the tendency—they remain strongly themselves.

Is design ephemeral?
Yes and no. Good designs live long but are not necessarily appreciated in the same way throughout their life cycle; their value transforms throughout time. That’s not only because the design is good or bad, but technology is changing, and our lives are changing.

Ought design tend toward ephemeral or toward permanence?
I think there is a difference between permanence and timelessness. To me timelessness is something that is alive throughout time. If so, it is a wonderful goal for design, I imagine. But at the same time, ephemerality has its own quality expressing the volatility of life. Without that, timelessness can be meaningless.

Leeway craftsmanship detail

This walnut Leeway chair for Geiger shows off the company's commitment to woodcraft, particularly in the finger joint of the gently arcing chair back.

How would you define yourself in respect to a decorator? An interior architect? A stylist?
None of them. I am much more interested in thinking about how I can purposefully do things to improve our quality of life. I would like to answer a question of principle, whatever it is. I don’t want to just do things without questioning the purpose.

To whom does design address itself: To the greatest number? To the specialists or the enlightened amateur? To a privileged social class?
To the human soul, not to any class of people. It has to be for everyone but definitely not only for the high end. I am against design that is more expensive than people can afford; that’s not the right way for me.

After having answered all these questions, do you feel you have been able to practice the profession of “design” under satisfactory conditions, or even optimum conditions?
No. I think I am happily not satisfied with the conditions and this curiosity generates energy to continue my life as a designer. It’s a never-ending story I guess.

Takeuchi, Milan Italy

Have you been forced to accept compromises?
Yes, but I always try to come up with a positive interpretation of every situation. That’s creativity, and it’s how designers survive: we need to adapt to things with positive thinking. A designer has to be a bit of a freak to go out and find problems. Once you solve that problem, you find the next one. It’s happy never ending. Problems are a living thing, and because we are living and changing the way we live, our problems change at the same time.

What do you feel is the primary condition for the practice of design and for its propagation?
Curiosity and optimistic thinking. Understanding what makes people feel good.

What is the future of design?
The distance between design and the general public is closing. People are realizing that design is not necessarily about objects, but about improving our thinking process and values in order to come to the right execution. That’s why we often hear the term “design thinking.”

In terms of traditional design and craftsmanship, execution is changing from hardware to software or integrating between the two, but the mindset is always the same. The thinking exists, but the canvas is different.

Keiji Takeuchi, 2018, Milan Italy

Takeuchi spent seven years working in Naoto Fukasawa's Tokyo studio before his interest in furniture design took him to Italy to open Fukasawa's Milan office. Today, he runs (and hangs out on the landing of) his own Milan studio.