While Western concepts of design in the twentieth century centered on the binary notions of form and function, the current debate has redirected its focus to relationships, boundaries, and narratives.
Thanks to this paradigm shift, we no longer seek to fulfill function through form alone; instead, we challenge expectations and preconceptions of both form and function through an investigation of different cultures, disciplines, technologies, and personal identities.
The impact of this approach on design has been disruptive, blurring the edges of form and upsetting orthodoxies of function. And just as relationships, boundaries, and narratives are often in constant flux, so too are many of the objects created by this sort of thinking. Rather than perceiving this state of flux as unsettling, or even nihilistic, Japanese cultural thinking and aesthetics have long celebrated the concepts of transience, temporality and transformation.
From such physical manifestations as the shoji screen to the more philosophical, religious and spatial concepts of mu (the void), ma (in-between space, emptiness) and oku (inwardness), notions of impermanence and the importance of space have allowed for richly imaginative possibilities over the course of many centuries. In The Art of Looking Sideways, the British graphic designer Alan Fletcher reminds us of how easy it is to neglect the significance of "space":
Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modeled space. Giacometti sculpted by "taking the fat off space." Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses... Isaac Stern described music as "that little bit between each note - silences which give the form"... The Japanese have a word (ma) for this nterval which gives shape to the whole. In the West we have neither word nor term. A serious omission.(1)
A basic interpretation of ma is "the interval between two things."This interval may be spatial, or it may be temporal. It can refer to the relationship between people, between people and their environment, or between things. Unlike quantitative readings of space, ma invokes a relational or sensorial practice. When edges touch they have to reconcile their common border. In the presence of a void, space is left to mediate between the two elements it separates.
Far from being "negative," this empty field offers a chance for repose and reflection. It urges the user to search for the hidden sentiment or value within. By way of reward, the empty field provides a tabula rasa, a place for imagination or narratives to be inserted. The space inbetween has the power to change prejudices - as Fletcher quipped, is a zebra "a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes?"2 The abstract interplay between states - between something and nothing, dynamic and static, public and private, darkness and light - is at the heart of many of nendo's designs. From the nest shelf (2015) to the deep sea (2013) and the fadeout-Chair (2009), nendo and its founder Oki Sato have sought to destabilize the familiar through transformation, truncation, voids and (im)materiality.
Writing of their thin black lines collection (2010), design historian Sarah Teasley observed that nendo was demarcating space through volume,"taking advantage of our unconscious desire to complete forms half-seen to suggest tables and chairs, paradoxically denying material presence through the material." (3) Its reductionism, similar to Japanese calligraphy or axonometric drawings, pares objects down to a dialogue between form and non-form. They become a graphic notation that, with user engagement or different viewpoints, deftly moves from two dimensions to three and back again, and like Fletcher's zebra or Victor Vasarely's Op paintings, throw into question the substance of the object and of perspectival planes.
The borders are not always so absolute. The Japanese kanji character for ma combines the symbols for door (or gate) and sun. Together, they encourage light to creep around the lintels, casting shadows that transform the planes. While ma is about a pause, it is not motionless. With this transitional state comes an appreciation of space as the marker of time - both of its passage and of its usage. It is only by inviting action that the space-time continuum becomes meaningful.
Beyond the sensorial experience of space is the practical virtue of space in motion - of designing flexible spaces for modern, metropolitan lives. For nendo, the use of space and transformation reveals new functions hidden within, ultimately creating objects that can be used in different contexts or that have more than one purpose. Such spatial efficiency recalls the pioneering results of Eileen Gray's sophisticated modernism or the radical inversions practiced in 1960s Italy by Joe Colombo. Flexibility, mobility, modularity, variability, and most importantly, humanity, were key. In responding to the shifting social, technical, political and economic horizons, their designs were all movement, realignment and possibility. Choice, no matter how standardized, offered empowerment. "Habits change," Colombo once said. "In the past, space was static, and this has
been the accepted notion for thousands of years. Our century is characterized by dynamism, and it has a fourth dimension: time. Now this must be introduced into space to make it dynamic."(4)
Fluidity of form, purpose, and behavior are even more relevant today than they were in the twentieth century. How designers respond to this new demand for "dynamism" and adaptability goes beyond flexible forms and multiple functions to address the compound needs of an individual. The call for increasingly complex and nuanced designs that respond to our singular identities is intensifying. By transposing the notion of choice into the interstitial space - the flexible or transient area in which idiosyncratic desires, requisites and wants can be posited - such dynamic and definitive contemporary objects start to emerge.
1. Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways, Phaidon, 2001, p. 370.
2. Ibid., p. 233.
3. Sarah Teasley, nendo thin black lines / blurry white surfaces, Phillips de Pury, 2010, p.5.
4. As quoted in Dominic Luytens,"The way we'll live tomorrow," The Observer, April 3, 2003.