Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
MIYAKE

TOWARDSTRANSCENDENCE

A poet of language, metal, and space, who lead the transformation of post-war Japan, Shiro Kuramata dismantled the boundaries between interior design and architecture, product design and fine art, minimalism and Memphis. Here, we examine the records of his lifelong alliance with Issey Miyake—two Japanese men who had endured the horror of WW2, joining forces to reinvent the retail space, negotiating the ephemeral and the eternal.

Words by Jesse Dorris

Shirō Kuramata was only a boy—the youngest of seven children in a conservative Tokyo family—when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, causing America to enter World War II. As the United States rained steel upon Tokyo in a series of attacks, Kuramata’s family sent him to a place they hoped might be safe: Numazu, a small city rung with hot springs a few hours away on an eastern peninsula. US forces destroyed the Kuramata family home in Tokyo. In 1945, it destroyed Numazu, along with 59 other Japanese cities. Kuramata lived another half-century before dying young in 1991 at the age of 56. Japan, of course, transformed itself at an astonishing clip—a transformation Kuramata would lead as one of the most important designers of the 20th Century. Dismantling the boundaries between interior design and architecture, product design and fine art, Minimalism and Memphis and post-modernism, Kuramata left hundreds of furnishings and environments behind, though few of them survived. Those that did demonstrate his ability to embrace both the ephemeral and the eternal by juxtaposing Japanese balance, European intellectualism, and American melodrama. Shirō Kuramata was a poet of language, metal, and space.

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In a text titled Silver Danced on a Moonlight, Kuramata reviewed his childhood air raids in the aestheticized language a critic might use to describe a restaurant he’d designed.

The moon shone brightly in the sky... Then with beautiful rustling sounds, things that resembled fine pieces of silver paper flittered in the slight breeze. Lit by the moon they shimmered as they danced and fell from the air... Like tears shed by a dragon, they seemed to come out of a story about an entirely different world. The next day I learned they were pieces of tin foil used to jam radio signals... It was slightly wrinkled, but mostly smooth. The foil was about the thickness of paper, and reflected light beautifully. A piece of tinfoil caught on top of a persimmon tree glistened coolly and soundlessly in the winter night.
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You don’t have to subscribe to the idea that childhood trauma is the synecdoche of one’s life to realize how much of Kuramata’s work resonates with this moment. Consider the name of his 1986 chair How High the Moon, for instance: a paper-thin mesh of steel with a regulated face that goes moiré when light hits it, a stationary object that twinkles in the mind as if from “an entirely different world.” One needn’t play armchair psychologist and contemplate a potential interaction between his childhood displacement and his adult faculty for conceiving playful chests of drawers that undulate with the siren song of organized abundance (his 1970 Furniture in Irregular Forms Side 1 and 2), or serve as comfortingly secure foundations to rest upon (1967’s Furniture with Drawers series of seating). Tennessee Williams’ tragic Blanche Dubois in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire is a textbook example of how trauma can subsume a person’s identity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the chair Kuramata made in her honor, which suspends (maybe traps) artificial red roses in blocks of acrylic, is some kind of rosebud.

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1985 Issey Miyake Men Tsukaguchi 1985 Designed by SHIRO KURAMATA Photographed by Hiroyuki Hirai 1

And yet, in a career of collaborations, which included helping found the Memphis movement with Ettore Sottsass, Kuramata’s most fascinating partnership was with another man who’d endured the horror of World War II. Issey Miyake was seven when US forces bombed his hometown of Hiroshima; he later wrote of seeing “the bright red light, the black cloud soon after,” and of watching his mother die of radiation exposure. When Miyake established his eponymous brand in 1973, his aesthetic was in many ways already formed: ethereal yet rigorous, embracing of technology yet free of novelty, elegant enough to cut a cool figure anywhere in the world, and practical enough to be balled up and tossed into a suitcase at a moment’s notice.

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Kuramata had already honed his woodworking skills at the Tokyo Polytechnic High School, worked at a furniture factory, studied interior design at Tokyo’s Kuwasawa Design School, and worked on displays at the San-Ai and Matsuya department stores when he opened a design studio of his own in 1965. He quickly established a reputation for conceiving both his forward-thinking furnishings and the kicky nightlife spaces around Tokyo that might house them. By 1972, he was as big of a design star as anyone in Japan, with hundreds of inspired admixtures of art and craft to his name. He made his No. 124 lamp—nicknamed Oba-Q by the artist Eiko Ishioka as a tribute to the cartoon ghosts they resembled—by warming plasterboard in an oven then allowing it to harden around a center pole support. Two years later, this play of opaque white and varying light informed the palette of a two-story flagship for the Milk and Milk Boy fashion lines. Part blank canvas, part hall of mirrors with floors of white ceramic tiles, reflective walls, and chrome-plated steel pipe as hangers, Milk foreshadowed the high-gloss/ high-stakes minimalism later used by Halston in the late 1970s. But Miyake loved the Milk shop immediately, and asked Kuramata to design a new retail concept for the brand. Kuramata was as ready to spring into action as his 1970 Spring Table, in which a metal coil seems to compress beneath a glass top. The resulting store was as striking as Milk, yet altogether different, and launched the pair of designers into a lifelong alliance. Tucked into the From First Building, which opened in 1976 in Shibuya’s fashionable Minami-Aoyama district, the boutique crystallized a severe, yet sincere context for Miyake’s creations. Kuramata clad the walls and ceiling in hairline brushed anodized aluminum, hung wood rails around the perimeter, and lined the floors with mats of Manila-jute. Those rails might support a hanger or two, but the clothes mostly rested on horizontal displays, none more provocative than the vast display table made of aluminum honeycomb sheet concealed in timber, cantilevered before built-in shelving of the same blonde wood. The effect was like a floating Donald Judd box beneath Miyake’s flowy, draping clothes. The shop was a solid effort. Its influence can be found in John Pawson’s epochal 1995 Calvin Klein flagship on Madison Avenue and every subsequent boutique that favored an airy ambiance.

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Over the next decade and a half, the duo completed dozens of boutiques around the world. The dangling folds of Oba-Q returned as drapes across the walls of a 1983 boutique in Paris’ Saint-Germain, but this time made of cloth seemingly turned to stone with acrylic resin. It was a space almost Roman in its classicism, and backstage in its drama, toughened up a bit by industrial-chic steel railings and a bold counter in graphic black. In the ancient town of Kokura, in 1985, Kuramata installed a second vision of this drapery, this time secreting fluorescent lights behind the cloth to heighten the material’s hovering between solid and liquid states. Kuramata anchored the Paris and Kokura shops with another material he’d become famous for: composite terrazzo, invented by ancient Egyptians and reinvigorated by mid-century Italians. Kuramata floored the Paris boutique with a rational grid of blocks embedded with shiny stainless steel chips; in Kokura, the installation came in almost faceted angles and was polished on-site, as if the base of heaven itself had cracked. Shoppers encountered a less delirious iteration across the floors of his Issey Miyake Men boutique in Kyoto’s Times Building, where some floating shelves overlapped with each other at rough angles, and others spun like a pile of 7" records. For Miyake’s Ginza location in the Matsuya Department Store, he remixed the From First concept, exchanging the wooden railings for steel, and the aluminum for a terrazzo energized by chips of primary colors. The bright spatterings transformed the walls, floors, and furnishings into a united canvas, as if they were drop cloths for a brighter project somewhere unseen, calling back to the cloth-stone of the Saint-German boutique, and further back to the athletic art of the Abstract Expressionists.

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Kuramata named this blend of concrete and colored glass Star Piece and used it to clad the floors of a guesthouse for another longtime apparel client, Esprit. He also molded it into a series of tables: 1983’s Kyoto, Tokyo, and Nara, each given a name by the Memphis group and forms that mixed the movement’s cheerful faith in geometry with the intuitive unpredictability of AbEx via the composite’s irregularity. The following year, he developed a decidedly more Americana terrazzo for Miyake’s Bergdorf Goodman boutique in New York City, swapping out the colored glass for smashed Coca-Cola bottles. The mottled composite drank up the walls and floors, then overflowed into furnishings that included a pair of cylindrical columns supporting a glass-plated partition wall, which in turn trained shoppers’ gazes to a sharp steel display table. That steel—whether because of Kuramata’s traumatic experience of its power, its extraordinary versatility and futuristic patina, or because it could be vaporous— became a kind of signature toward the end of the designer’s life. This can be seen both in the aforementioned and beloved How High the Moon, but also through a visionary sequence of interiors inspired by Miyake’s request to replicate the chair at the scale of a boutique.

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For a 1986 Issey Miyake Men boutique in Shibuya, Kuramata used mesh for full-height cylindrical supports, clothes rails, and display shelves. But the duo wasn’t satisfied with the extent to which it was used. Depending on its gage, mesh can be used as fencing, armor, or a cage; it can restrict or protect. For a 1987 men’s boutique in Shibuya, it’s all of the above. First Kuramata built a rectangle coated in black melamine, within which he hung a barrel vault of the same material and secured the mesh expanses not to the floor but only to each other. Shimmering in moiré, the architecture references both prison and church.

1986 Issey Miyake Kobe Rirans Gate Designed by SHIRO KURAMATA Photographed by Hiroyuki Hirai 4

Kuramata’s designs often signaled a longing for, and frustration in not achieving, transcendence. Rising above often means navigating through, and Kuramata turned the steel that destroyed two of his childhood homes, and Miyake’s too, into practical metaphors: stainless wires swoop through an Issey Miyake Men’s boutique in Tokyo like tight ropes or power lines, abuzz with danger, yet on the move. Indeed, the technology to realize his final collaboration with Miyake would take almost two decades to arrive. A year before Kuramata’s death in 1991, Miyake launched the perfume Ode d’Issey and asked his old friend to design the bottle. Kuramata’s prototypes pushed the limits of glass almost as far as he’d earlier pushed metal, with spiral interiors or a foursquare of globes that, in practice, just shattered. It wasn’t until 2008 that one of the shapes was made when Miyake released Perfume Bottle #3 as a tribute to Kuramata. The long-awaited shape features a dense rectangle with soft edges and a heart-like globe to dispense the scent. For Kuramata, there was always something in the air.

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