Q&A: Kenya hara
March 27, 2017 / Rachel Gallaher / Image by Andrew J.S.
Mention the name Kenya Hara to any design lover, and you’re likely to elicit immediate exclamations about their love of Muiji, the Japanese retailer that sells a wide variety of perfectly minimalist household items, office supplies, and clothing. Although Hara is widely known for his 16-year role as the company’s art director, he also holds rank as one of the most influential names in contemporary Japanese design. With more than 20 book titles to his name (Designing Design and White are two of the most popular), and hosts of advertising campaigns, exhibitions, and products under his belt, Hara works with a deep understanding of Japanese design history and philosophy.
In 1991 he founded the think tank Hara Design Institute and has worked with high-level clients such as fashion label Kenzo and the Olympic Games, creating programs for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Nagano Winter Olympic Games and Expo 2005. We sat down with Hara when he was in Seattle to participate in Civilization’s 2016-2017 Design Lecture Series. We learned a lot about his approach, how he got into the field, and his favorite projects to work on… but still no word on when Seattle will finally get a Muji. Vancouver, on the other hand, is set to open the doors on two Muji stores later this year.
Tell me about your journey into the world of design. What first attracted you?
Naturally, I draw a lot. My father had a housing company so I saw him sketch quite a bit. When I was younger I took an after-school art program and did a lot of painting and drawing. During the summertime of my second year of high school, I talked with an art teacher about the possibility of going to an art university. He encouraged me to apply and I ended up going to Musashino Art University in Tokyo.
How do you typically approach design?
Many years ago, a design project often started with a client asking me to solve a problem, but these days I’m more interested in the possibilities hidden in [various] industries.
About three years ago, I curated a special exhibition called “House Vision” that brought together designers and architects to explore the future of the home. A house can be a very important crossing point for the energy and mobile industries, as well as a study of how people live at different ages in their lives. Housing should not just be for young people starting a family, but for old people looking to design their final home as well. This kind of opportunity to create future possibilities is what interests me.
How do you know when a design is complete?
You can always keep working, but if there is no limit, no stopping point, then a design project is never complete. That gives me great pressure always.
The term or concept of “emptiness” is seen as a negative in many cultures, but you embrace it in your work. Tell me about that.
I treat the concept of emptiness as a creative receptacle. If there is a possibility to be filled, that is emptiness—and that is not a bad thing. Japanese people use this kind of emptiness to communicate with the gods. The center core of many shrines is empty because that represents the possibility of what they could be filled with. If people create an empty space, then god may enter. But if that space is full, god cannot fill it.
How do you approach trends?
At Muji we keep a suitable distance from trends.
What is your favorite object you’ve ever designed?
After the start of the 21st century, I began designing many exhibitions as a way to explore ideas in design, nature, science, and technology. So it is not an object that is my favorite, but an idea, a way to address things. I created the “Haptic” exhibition [in 2004 Hara asked 22 participants, ranging from artists to a traditional Japanese plasterer, to create an object that would ‘awaken the senses’] because I realized that the human senses are very important resources for designing. Architecture for Dogs is also a very special project I created. I am not a dog lover, but the dog is a very huge platform for the human being. I asked 12 very talented architects to design not a ‘doghouse,’ but architecture for dogs that would make them happy.
What are your thoughts about the influence of technology on design?
At the end of the 20th century, humankind created a new era of Artificial Intelligence that is just beginning. In this situation, humankind stopped creating the tools and the tools are now creating the human. This is a very serious crossing over and I can’t imagine what kind of world will come in the future. Of course, there is some hope. After all, human relationships and communications have already changed. When I was in high school I used a rotary phone with a cord attached to the wall to call my girlfriend, and now today I can call a person from anywhere in the world and they can be anywhere in the world. We are always changed by the tools we create.