Naoto Fukasawa‘s work is subtle, but there’s always a bit of poetry behind it. Over the years, he’s collaborated with a number of companies and designed a wealth of objects including tea kettles and radically simplistic kitchen appliances for Muji. The objects don’t have much flash behind them, but there’s always something incredibly satisfying to their modesty—a concept Fukasawa calls “super normal.” Co.Design spoke to him about work, why interactivity is paramount, and his one design that was a creative breakthrough.
Co.Design: When did you decide to become a designer?
Naoto Fukasawa: When I was a high school student, I read through a magazine that introduced jobs through some particular question of study. I found product designer on the page and the job description was “a product designer makes people happy through the objects.” I thought that’s a great idea because I like to make things that make people happy. That sounds like a great job, so why don’t I do that? That’s the point I choose to be a designer.
Your work ranges from furniture to household items and even elevators. How does your approach change with the disciplines?
In the furniture industry, long-lasting design is quite important. I don’t like producing something for it just to disappear the next year. So once I design furniture, it should be forever. If I design for the high-tech industry—like a mobile phone—I really want to design a super-high-end-technology product. Like the “world’s thinnest” or the “world’s smallest,” or the “world’s most precise.” I like working on both ends of the spectrum.
Can you explain your philosophy of “Objective Thinking” and how it works?
Objective thinking means that I should not express my own mind through the product. The object should be a part of our ambient life. I have to be humble to look at our life from an objective status, to see that a product fits into our life. It’s a way of thinking where I forget about expressing my idea; my design; my “something.” It’s interesting to read into people’s minds, to see which is the right fit for them. People don’t know what they like or not because they all react on a subconscious level to the product. When I design a product and a person says, “How did you read my mind? How did you know what I like?” it’s because I observe the objective status.
What’s one design of yours that’s not “objective,” that’s a very “Naoto Fukasawa” product—a statement of who you are as a designer?
There are two sides. One is purely functional, like the Shelf X for B&B Italia. Or maybe the Demetra light for Artemide—it’s just a cylinder and a tube. It’s very simple—a purity in form. On the other hand, there are designs like the Hiroshima chair for Maruni that are little bit more organic, more like a 3-D integrated sculpture. If I try to be completely geometric and simple, I try to be hard. On the other hand, if I try to be sculptural, I really want to do that. So I have both.
Of the products you’ve designed, what are you most proud about?
The Muji CD player was a pure, new product that opened the door for me. Everyone thought that audio equipment was a black stack of boxes with two speakers. That was the standard, normal size. The wall-mounted CD player was a different point of view. It totally changed my mind. We called it “design dissolving in behavior.” Once you pull the string, the motors start to turn and you hear the sound. That’s really a totally ambient product.
Can you tell us about the importance of tactility—like the motion involved with pulling the string—in the products we use?
Tactile feedback is not only touching, but it’s also smelling, it’s LED lights, it’s how we soften light. Those softer interactions are important. It’s more about feeling and how we feel. It’s not just one thing; it’s total integration.
Right now, Muji—for whom you’ve done a lot of work—is doing well business-wise and it’s expanding. Have you had to shift your approach to do so?
Muji’s philosophy will never change—it’s based on the Japanese mentality of being a little bit humble and quiet. It’s the notion of not telling consumers the reason why I made this kind of form or this kind of product—they should understand why on their own. That’s a kind of main philosophy from Muji, but we learned that in American business, we should talk more about why we made those things. It’s still a quiet product, but we have to say why.
Where do you think design is heading, generally speaking?
Technology will be more invisible. In Japan in the 1960s, and America as well, everyone wanted something to have new technology in it—lots of electronic gadgets in the room. We don’t necessarily see that anymore. Most of those kinds of objects become services. It’s invisible. I think the lighting control is a service. Air conditioning is a service. It becomes about what service is most suitable for me? We need designers to create the service interface. Maybe for chairs, the softness could depend on how tired you are and your bodily situation. A machine could sense my that my body is tired and makes the cushions a little harder or softer or something. The technology is already here; it depends on who thinks about communicating it.
What’s preoccupying your mind right now?
We designed an elevator, which is interesting because designers haven’t done much with them. Maybe a few interior designers have changed the surface of the box, but they’re not really thinking about the interactions. Of course the controls of the elevator have to be intuitive, but before that I thought about how design could make the space feel comfortable. I eliminated the edges of the corners. They’re rounded and the light makes a gradation. There’s also a light in the ceiling. It impacts how we behave in a small box. It’s a great quality interaction. We have to think about how everything comes together.
Creating new things used to be about the designer making an object, but that’s not so anymore. My desire is to create space through interaction.