A Reflection on Tradition - dwell.com, 03/14/2008

Looking at this chair by furniture designer Maruni, I saw both the natural wood and clean-lined simplicity of a Japanese design, as well as the plush, high-backed evidence of a western armchair. So imagine my surprise when I saw that this product was a part of the company’s Traditional Series due out in April. If such a design is in fact traditional, I wondered, to what tradition does it belong?

To answer this question, I turned to Eizo Okada, who runs an influential design blog from his home in Kyoto. After explaining the reasons for my confusion, Eizo started to laugh. “The Japanese are very good at importing,” he said, setting down his cup of Darjeeling tea.

Many accuse Japan, a closed society until the late 19th century, of having indiscriminately absorbed western culture. And in this rush toward modernization, they say the Japanese have warped, perhaps even destroyed, their own sense of identity. “We could hardly take in…the ludicrous would-be modernity of the tin facades that confronted us, could not fathom the loud hideousness of this confusion of architectural styles,” bemoaned German architect Bruno Taut, during his visit to Tokyo in 1933. “What had become of the refined vision of the Japanese?”

But this is not what Eizo believes, nor what he wished to communicate: Rather, a close look at Japanese design over several decades reveals a subtle, but very real selectiveness as to its influences. Japanese designers aren’t afraid to reject what doesn’t fit, Eizo pointed out, and this absorption can be, at times, a highly self-reflective, even graceful, process.

Take Maruni’s design, for example, a wrenchingly simple, yet elegant structure, that speaks of the Japanese idea of what an overstuffed Western arm chair should be.