The Intuitionist

Designer Naoto Fukasawa may aspire to normality, but his work is anything but boring.

Written by: Sam Grawe

WHY Magazine - The Intuitionist

In 2005, when Magis debuted the Déjà-vu Stool at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, designer Naoto Fukasawa was "a bit offended" when it was displayed off to the corner of the booth where people could use it to rest, as opposed to being shown on a spot-lit plinth like the other new objects. When he discussed his apprehension with friend and fellow designer Jasper Morrison that evening, he got a reaction he wasn't expecting. Morrison praised the stools for their "super-normal" quality. Fukasawa had wondered if the stool was "too normal," but now he understood it differently.

In 2006, the pair galvanized around the concept of "Super Normal," and organized an exhibition of the same name in Tokyo, culling some two hundred designs which they believed shared this ultra-ordinary quality—from their own portfolios, design classics like Dieter Rams' 606 Universal Shelving, icons like the paper clip, and like-minded contemporary designs such as Konstantin Grcic's May Day lamp.

As the contemporary design world bloated toward superficiality and sensationalism, and limited edition art design fetched record prices and filled endless editorial spreads, Super Normal (both the exhibit and philosophy), was a lucid reminder of the real value of design: to create meaning through use.

WHY recently sat down with Fukasawa to discuss the enduring power of the exhibit, his work, and his approach to design.

WHY Magazine - The Intuitionist

Naoto Fukasawa in his Tokyo studio.

Can you tell us what "Super Normal" means to you as a designer?

If something is in our lives for a long time, and people already know it and understand it, it becomes normal. As a designer, we are not often asked to design normal things—companies want something more radical. That's why we talk about Super Normal. You already know it, but it’s also something new—something more.

If a design is Super Normal, you don't have to think about how to use it, or how it fits into your life. Right now you're talking to me but you're also putting your hand on top of the back of the chair next to yours. I'm talking with you, but as a designer, I'm also watching your hand and thinking about how you intuitively relate to the things around you. If there was some kind of funny thing or decoration on top of the chair it might not be as natural for you to do that. That's what we mean by Super Normal. 

What sort of inputs or research do you use to get to this kind of design? Is it just intuition?

Look at the Eames Tandem seating. It's in so many airports, and it such a comfortable, almost perfect chair—everybody knows it. You have to ask yourself, ”why do we need another chair?” You have to find something wrong. You can begin to look at how life has changed for people in the 50 years since they designed that chair. We have more paper cups now, because they're not using ceramic cups, or because there’s a Starbucks—so you begin to think about what they will do with a cup when they're sitting in the chair. Or because people aren't using a pay phone, but have one in their pocket (and it maybe needs charging), you begin to think about how they will use that. Maybe it’s not so much designing a new chair, as designing for new applications.

In your monograph there's quite a bit of discussion around James Gibson's concept of affordance. Can you tell us how you interpret this? 

Man constantly searches for value in situations within an environment. Imagine you have an unstable table—maybe one leg is shorter than the others, and you know that you can put something under that leg to stop the table from wobbling. If there's a tea cup, an iPhone, and a business card on the table—you choose the business card to fold and prop up the table. The business card most easily affords the stability of the table. It's your choice, instinctively, but it’s also my choice in the same situation. That's affordance.

And you can employ that kind of approach in design?

Two people exist in each of us. One of them is more conscious about what you're thinking, it makes the rational decisions and maybe gives you opinions or does math problems. The other just operates on feelings and senses—on tacit knowledge. It’s more connected to the body.

You are thinking—but not thinking. Your body just knows it. The body is more honest. And at this kind of basic level, all people are the same. So that's why when you're designing for mass production, the designer should focus more on what the body knows. 

WHY Magazine - The Intuitionist

±0 wrist watch

WHY Magazine - The Intuitionist

MUJI CD Player  (photo by Naoto Fukasawa Design)

“The body is more honest. And at this kind of basic level, all people are the same. So that's why when you're designing for mass production, the designer should focus more on what the body knows.”

-Naoto Fukasawa

You've worked with many of different companies. Does this approach resonate with all of them?

I like to think about it as though I am the person in charge of making a good soup stock. If I go to work with Magis, they have a particular spice they want to put in the stock to make it more flavored like Magis soup. If I work with B&B Italia, they have some different ingredients—maybe more high end—that they want to add, and it becomes a bit different—similar taste, but different. If I go to MUJI—well MUJI is maybe just plain stock! So if I make a good soup stock, then I am quite a stable foundation for designing everything, and each company can come along and put their own spice in it.

Do you ever worry that if you're making things that are a bit too normal, they won't have consumer appeal? 

A good product should be like a good joke. If you and I shared a joke in the past, when we meet again, and we start to speak about the joke, I don't even have to retell it, and maybe you start smiling, even laughing, because you already know. A good product is like that. When you first see it, you remember it, even though it’s new.

For instance, the wall-mounted CD player I designed for MUJI was based on a kitchen fan. You pull the string, and the motor starts spinning—at first slowly, and then faster and faster—just like a fan. The behavior of using the product is exactly the same, but I've changed the air that's supposed to come out to music. In a way though, sound waves are really just a special kind of air, so it’s not much different from a fan at all. 

WHY Magazine - The Intuitionist

JUICE SKIN designed for the  “HAPTIC -Awakening the Senses” Takeo Paper Show 2004 (Photo by Masayoshi Hichiwa).

Have you thought about design this way? 

At age 35 I completely changed. I started to think about Haiku—you know the shortest poem in Japan—and how you use just five, then seven, then five characters to say something. One of the masters of Haiku called it an objective sketch. So for instance if your feelings are hurt, or if you had a broken heart, you don't write that, but maybe you write about how it’s raining outside or it’s so windy, and people just understand. They can all feel it. So it creates a kind of connectivity—a connection. It’s like Matisse using a long stick to draw on the wall because he wanted to see the work from a distance—he needed the distance to be more objective. So that's what I started to try to do as a designer—that's why I'm always sketching you from a distance. Objective status.