From the showstopping grand pianos to the boxy, modest uprights, the design of the piano has hardly evolved from its roots in 18th century Italy. It’s often the centerpiece of a room, and when not in use it becomes a piece of furniture in its own right. The design of this classic instrument, particularly that of the upright piano and keyboard, still feels like it’s from another era.
That is, with the exception of the midcentury modern-inspired Roland Kiyola piano, which is now available for the first time in the U.S. at the MoMA Design Store in New York. Unlike most digital pianos and keyboards, the instrument is slim and elegant, ideal for a small city apartment. When the lid is down, you’d never know it was a keyboard–it looks and acts like a simple wood table. When you play, the keys have the feel of real ivory, a stark contrast from most keyboards. You can also use the piano’s speaker system to stream music. But it’s not just the technology embedded in the instrument that makes it such a profound detour from your average keyboard.
The Japan-based team that designed the instrument worked with the Japanese company Karimoku, which is the country’s largest maker of wooden furniture. The collaboration completely changed the Roland designers’ perspective on the instrument. “The design process for the Kiyola proved to be unique because we didn’t begin by trying to design a piano that was furniture-like, we set out to design a modern piece of furniture that could be transformed into a piano,” the Kiyola project leader Takahiro Murai tells Co.Design via email.
The designers took inspiration from Scandinavian furniture and midcentury modern designs. The goal was to “to blend the piano seamlessly into a modern living space,” Murai says. For instance, the instrument has slim legs as opposed to the bulky base of an upright piano so the piece doesn’t overcrowd the room it’s in. Its edges are rounded and graceful, in contrast to the boxy style of most mainstream digital pianos. “This design could allow players to feel more at ease on the instrument and in the room, creating a more relaxed mental and physical experience,” Murai says.
Despite the Kiyola’s external simplicity, it’s also a technological marvel that models what every note should sound like based on how hard the player presses the keys. Most keyboards feel plasticky and are no match for a real piano. But when I sat down to play the Kiyola earlier this year, I was stunned by how much its keys felt like the piano I grew up playing–they reacted to my touch and allowed me to play both delicately and dynamically.
For people who live in dense cities like New York, access to a piano is often out of reach, given how big and expensive the instruments are. The Roland Kiyola crosses at least one of those concerns off the list. It’s still a serious investment, clocking in at $4,299–you can get a simple digital keyboard for about $1,000 on Amazon, or spend a little more for an upright on Craigslist. But ultimately it’s the stunning design of the Kiyola that might make it worth the money for those of us who love pianos–but live in tiny apartments.