Naoto Fukasawa: Intuiting function from form LONDON — An abandoned milk carton perches on a street railing. A cigarette is stubbed out on a Braille sign at a railway station. A bicycle basket is filled with empty soda cans and candy wrappers.
What do those images tell us? Not much. At least not until Naoto Fukasawa has explained why placing the milk carton on a railing of exactly the same width couldn't possibly have been accidental; nor was mistaking the Braille sign for an ashtray, or the bicycle basket for a trash can. To him, these apparently random actions were intuitive responses to a sub-conscious recognition that the railing, Braille sign and bicycle basket seem to have been perfectly designed for the purpose.
From paper shredders and cellphones to a chandelier and tea bags, Fukasawa has developed dozens of products in nearly three decades as one of Japan's most influential designers. He strives to ensure that people will use each of them as casually as they chucked their trash into that bicycle basket. "You shouldn't need to use an instruction manual to learn how to use a product," he said. "It should be so intuitive that you work it out naturally."
His peers have no doubt that he has succeeded. "Naoto's great skill is in combining humor, concept and function into a package, which seems so natural that it is accessible to us all immediately and without instructions," explained the British designer Jasper Morrison. "He communicates an object's purpose on an intuitive level, and we somehow receive his message with a mixture of the pleasure of understanding something clever, and the satisfaction of mastering a new piece of equipment."
At a time when product design is divided between old-school stylists, priding themselves on creating seductive objects that fulfill their functions, and new conceptualists, who are also concerned with the abstract qualities of objects and develop new designs, which respond to advances in technology and changes in behavior, Fukasawa is one of the few designers to excel at both.
Born in Yamanashi prefecture on the island of Honshu, Japan, in 1956, he discovered design when leafing through a high school careers guide. "I didn't know anything about it," he recalled. "But the word really caught me." After studying product design at Tama Art University, he joined the watch company Seiko in 1980. "It was the height of the digital watch boom and Seiko was expanding into new micro-technology products," he said. "Luckily, the other guys
had a really traditional way of designing. I was the only person interested in trying something new."
After eight years at Seiko, he joined the San Francisco office of the design consultancy IDEO, where he developed technology products for Silicon Valley companies, designing hardware and graphic interfaces. "He was very much old-school then, essentially a form giver - a most brilliant one at that," recalled the British designer Sam Hecht, who befriended Fukasawa at IDEO when, as rare smokers in a California company, they'd slope off to the roof to light up. "Unlike most of the blobby products we saw then, and even now, his forms had substance."
Working in the United States also enabled Fukasawa to reassess Japanese design. "Seeing Japan from the outside influenced me greatly," he said. "In Japan, the relationship between the object and its environment is more important than the object itself. A fork is good for a particular situation, not for everything. It isn't just an object, it's part of a harmony. My work stopped being about making interesting shapes, and more about the relationship with the object." Fukasawa put these ideas into practice after returning to Japan in 1996 to open IDEO's office there. As well as designing for Japanese manufacturers, he ran "Without Thought" workshops to encourage corporate designers to develop more intuitive products. In 2003 he opened his own design studio, and co-founded Plus Minus Zero, a company that develops products mostly designed by him. He has also continued to foster debate. Fukasawa is a co-director, alongside the fashion designer Issey Miyake and the graphic designer Taku Satoh, of 21_21 Design Sight, a Tokyo museum that aims to redefine the role of design in daily life. He also collaborated with Morrison on the Super Normal exhibition of unobtrusive objects that quietly become indispensable.
These are the products that Fukasawa aims to design himself. Sometimes he invents new ways of using objects, as in the wall-mounted Muji CD player intended for listening to music casually in the kitchen or bathroom. Often he imbues his designs with visual or tactile clues to trigger memories of other objects. Deciding that conventional cellphones were uncomfortable to hold, he hit upon the subtly angular shape of the W11K cellphone by remembering the reassuring feeling of grasping a freshly peeled potato in water. And his Juice Skin cartons resemble the fruits used to make the juice. "His first 20 years were spent understanding form, and his career now is about ideas," observed Hecht. "What makes Naoto special is that he can do both with such depth."
Fukasawa describes his evolution in a monograph, "Naoto Fukasawa," to be published Monday by Phaidon Press. His current projects range from developing new products for Muji and Plus Minus Zero, to a research initiative for a subsidiary of Matsushita in which he is experimenting with ways of integrating heating, air-conditioning and audiovisual systems within the walls, ceilings and floors of homes. "Physical products like TV sets and air-conditioning systems will disappear and be integrated with the environment," he said. "We're developing 'intelligent walls' to achieve this and systems to control them." The project could play an important part in determining the homes of the future, but also highlights the challenges facing designers as they apply their skills to software, rather than the physical products that have dominated their work for decades. "Naoto has the magic touch," said the German designer Konstantin Grcic. " He turns complex into simple, ugly into beautiful, old into new. He could kiss a frog and it would become a princess."