Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

Design In Mind: Naoto Fukasawa

Industrial and furniture designer Naoto Fukasawa had design and artistic inclinations since his childhood and, upon discovering that design can allow people to live happier lives, he decided to dedicate himself to the medium and studied it as a student in college. He found success early on and has grown exponentially since he first began, garnering over 50 awards, authoring and co-authoring several books and teaching at several different universities including the one he studied at, Tama Art University in Japan. For some time, Fukasawa worked in San Francisco with IDEO, later opening up their Tokyo offices. He has produced some of Muji’s most well known products, including the CD player which is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. More recently, Fukosawa has been designing for the world’s leading furniture brands including B&B Italia, Artemide and Boffi. His work is some of the most recognizable in the world and ranges from watches to kitchen appliances to mobile phones. Beyond this, he is kind, humble and genuine, believing truly in the reasoning behind why he first became a designer, to make people’s lives more fluid, easy and joyful.
Listen here to our conversation with Naoto Fukasawa or subscribe to the podcast through iTunes. Take the conversation with you and keep Design In Mind.

Below is a transcription of the Design In Mind interview with Naoto Fukasawa.


Arkitektura:
Such a pleasure to meet you.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Very nice to meet you.

Arkitektura:
I was wondering, I was thinking about your childhood and growing up in Japan, and I was wondering if you grew up around design, if design was a part of your life, were your parents interested in it?

Naoto Fukasawa:
I was not a really healthy boy myself when I was child. Then I sometime absent to go to school. At the time, at home I’m more kind of focused to draw, drawings, paintings. I am very good at for that, so then I already naturally start to making things around my house. My father’s owned the company electrician. There is a lot of electric gadget around my house. The making things is quite natural as a hobby. Then after I graduate high school I already thought that, ok, my father already thought I’m following his business.

However, one day I clearly remember I saw my, that one of the book introducing the how to enter the university to become the particular professional job. Then I found the product designers, the work. They said the product designer is making the things from the … No, no, no, making people happy from the things they design. That is very, very good work for me to decide oh, that is great, because then I can do the things I like, like drawing, making new things, naturally make the people happy. That is very good. Then I back to home. Then at home I told my father and mother, I decided to go to art school. That is when I was 18 years old.

Arkitektura:
First of all, what’s interesting is that I interviewed Sam Hecht a few weeks ago. He also grew up with a father that had a lot of electronics around. He was working with his dad.

Naoto Fukasawa:
I was working with him.

Arkitektura:
When you told your family that you wanted to go to art school, were they happy about that or were they …

Naoto Fukasawa:
I think that it is very happy because almost all day every day we are thinking to design and making things. That’s very, very happy. From the other people point of view, why you focus so much the same things making every day or painting. That’s my brother said, “Well, It’s natural for me”, but from the other person point of view that’s quite strange.

Arkitektura:
As a child, the way that you ended up doing these things was because you were actually ill so you had to be home a lot. Amazing. From something challenging came something …

Naoto Fukasawa:
Sure. I think at the time it was not so good for me. The result, I think it was a great experience for me to become the designer or artist.

Arkitektura:
It was when you saw that line that product design is to make things that make people happy, which is such a great way of thinking about it, had you ever thought about that before?

Naoto Fukasawa:
Actually, I like to observe the people who is being in a subconsciousness status. Means I’m more focused reality that the human being behave without thinking. That is very natural. On the other hand, design too much focus about human mind, making things. I’m a lot more interested in natural human behaviors because without thinking. Since I was childhood, I’m really observing carefully to see what’s the natural behavior for interact with the things around product or human being or environment. Then that has helped me to design such a kind of things. I can say it’s an objective style, objective thought. That is my very basic thought right now.

Arkitektura:
You really have to be aware of just how people function and what feels natural to them.

Naoto Fukasawa:
True.

Arkitektura:
You really have to observe people.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Yeah, observe people but I’m not really care about, too much care about the human mind, the people’s mind. It’s more I think as human being as using, as having the same body. If we focus the human body, so it’s nearly all of the people the same to behave with something they use or something they interact. That is why I think, “What’s your body? What’s your human being like and make me happy? Not just your mind.” If I focus each person’s mind, it’s a slightly different way. If it is as a human being, it’s nearly all same. That’s why it’s very easy to find the things to be common, to be making them happy.

Arkitektura:
That’s a great way of saying it. So interesting. As a child you were painting a lot. Do you think that design is at all like painting or do you find that you ever miss painting or the ways in which painting comes into design?

Naoto Fukasawa:
Painting is not just for the painting. Painting is more what we see and what we feel, so sensing the things around our life. That is first. That is called the input, the things in our mind. Then painting is just to realize it, visualize it. That’s why if you don’t, if you can’t see, you can’t paint it. That’s why if I can paint it I can draw some creative image in my mind. It means that is from my observation, the things I look.

Arkitektura:
I was thinking about that on my drive here today, about what happens when you conceive of a design and how close is it to what comes out. Let’s say one of your most popular things for Muji is the rice cooker. It’s a beautiful object, very beautiful, very elegant. It could almost not be a rice cooker. It could just be something beautiful. Does what we see look very close to what you conceived?

Naoto Fukasawa:
I am not only designing the rice cooker. We have to design the variety of the kitchen home appliance from the refrigerator to the rice cooker or toaster or something. I logically thought of course it’s a refrigerator. It’s more close to the wall, wall side. For the hand tool is maybe more close to our body. We analyze the position in which product can be the place in between the human body and the wall. Maybe the rice cooker in the little middle, a little bit more the side of human but still it’s on the table. That’s why a little bit more wall side. That’s in between. I’m thinking about that kind of things to be what kind of form or shape can be inevitable, in between those. Then I found it. That is a very basic thought of that.

Arkitektura:
It’s fascinating how you think of these things. Another popular product, of course, is the CD player. What was the inspiration to have it on the wall?

Naoto Fukasawa:
I think before that, when I looking to see the CD turning by the motor we have to wait a bit to be the turning CD is being at consistency. Then I thought at the same time when I see the fan of the kitchen fan also once we switch on the fan is slowly turning, turning, turning to be getting the air go through. I thought this. Maybe the music from the CD is also same things. In my mind the music from the CD coming slowly to be coming to me. Air is also same thing. That’s why I designed the wall mount CD player as a kitchen fan. Then, also, the switch is quite important to be on to turning the CD. All of the human behaviors related to the form and shape. That’s what we call the design dissolving in behavior. It’s not just an object. The object have to be really match with human nature behavior. That is basic idea.

Arkitektura:
Design dissolving into human behavior. Is that the line you said?

Naoto Fukasawa:
Yes, true.

Arkitektura:
It’s a beautiful line. Is that your line?

Naoto Fukasawa:
Yes, because when you are using some object, you are not thinking about that, or maybe even you are working. You are not thinking about the floor. You are not thinking about the shoes or you are not thinking about legs. That is a human behavior. You are not making any mistake. You can walk very smoothly. That is a human. If the floor is not really flat enough and very slippery, you really more careful to be focused at, too. Means our behavior is informed by the environment. Environment first, making your behavior. That reflects your mind. Mind is the very last thing. The environment with the human body is the most important contact, I mean interact, to creating something, object, following that kind of behavior.

Arkitektura:
That’s why great design can be so subtle because it’s not like … You don’t want to over design.

Naoto Fukasawa:
True because you don’t care during your use either what kind of shape or what kind of color or what kind of … Maybe texture is important. You already like some sort of design. You are easy forget about during to use. The product should not to be too much show off themselves. The products should be more humble.

Arkitektura:
I think about the designers that you like like Jasper Morrison and I read your introduction to his book which I’ve …

Naoto Fukasawa:
Sure, sure.

Arkitektura:
I came upon it in New York just by chance. He also has that tendency.

Naoto Fukasawa:
He is a good friend of me. We are thinking the same way of thinking and we have done one of the interesting movement, super normal. That is pretty interesting things we did. We did it together. Find a very, very normal product because quite commonly the people thinking as design as making a special thing. Our life, now the normal things already be aware, I mean fit well about our life. Means the normal things makes us more happy naturally, not special. In general, the people waiting. People expecting to get special things from the designer. Designer like us just show the people very normal things. They’re reaction, “Whoa, that is super normal.” That is most interesting thing because they’re really expecting it to be special but I feel the normal. They’re quite impressed. Whoa, normal. Oh, yes, that is normal things that make us happy, not super special things. That is a point.

Arkitektura:
I think that’s why Muji is so successful because everything in there is normal. You think, “Wow, look how beautiful that teapot is,” or look how beautiful that … They’re just things that you would use in your every day. I read somewhere that you don’t buy many things. You’re not …

Naoto Fukasawa:
No, no.

Arkitektura:
Because you’re more interested in normal things.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Normal things or products should be our life background, should not be too much outstanding because a human being is center of the life. That’s why someone should be a little humble to be making a lifestyle background. That’s why Muji particularly make, not we make too much special things, that’s all of the things be normal and not to really disturb too much about our things. That is a very basic idea because the long times the design really have to make a special impression to the customer, not the users, as the marketing issues. We are making things for the user, not the customer. Now it’s more we try making things for human, so human being is being of subconsciousness, not too much attention to see. That is why it have to be very, very natural and inevitable as a background of the life.

Arkitektura:
Beautifully said, thank you. Talking about the subconscious, I was thinking about how in America or parts of America there are many ways in which we try to emulate Japanese design. There’s simple spaces…

Naoto Fukasawa:
Sure, sure, sure.

Arkitektura:
I was wondering how if it’s even a conscious thing how having grown up in Japan dictated so much of how you design, how much the environment affected you.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Japanese, we can say the one word, the minimalism. People think minimalist as simplicity. I’m rather more Japanese way of thought is more harmony, the right fitting environment. The product, human, and environment have to be fit well and making good relationship with each other. That makes a very, very simple object as the minimalism. Japan has really, really tried carefully to have such a kind of relationship in detail. That’s, of course, influenced me as become making things.

Arkitektura:
It makes sense because you were just talking about earlier when I mentioned the rice cooker how you had to think of everything in harmony with each other. It’s not about the single object but how it lives within everything else. You did spend some time here in California at Ideo and then opened up Ideo’s place in Japan. I wondered what, how California influenced you and what you brought back with you when you went back to Japan.

Naoto Fukasawa:
I think one of the things I feel from this country and particularly California, there are many fundamental comforts in this environment because the weather nice and the easy going and food is very good. People, even hard business person, lifestyle is quite comfortable to easy. They are not wear a serious suits and no wear tie. Everybody friendly. We don’t need to have much serious design things, object, in this particular place because the fundamental life is quite stable. That’s why when I start living this place, in San Francisco Bay area, everybody already happy. Sometimes the design need to help the people who live in the very hard, chaotic downtown cosmopolitans, that kinds of things. I learn more, even more what makes people happy. I found it in here, not from the design point of view, more lifestyle. It’s already there. That is so important things.

I can say that is more ambient. Ambient is not focused too much on body or product itself. We should more design ambient as atmosphere. The other word, atmosphere. Now, since I was there and then learn a lot from our lifestyle here, it was oh, I should focus not too much about one object, more surround it. That is more important, make a very interesting comfort atmosphere.

Arkitektura:
Were you tempted to stay? Were you tempted to stay in California or did you feel like you needed to be in Japan?

Naoto Fukasawa:
Yeah, sure. That is most. I like most from. I learned the most from here. I miss very much, yes.

Arkitektura:
You do, you miss living here?

Naoto Fukasawa:
I miss very much. Not, I miss design from here. I miss that kind of lifestyle, yes.

Arkitektura:
You’re in Tokyo.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Yes, it’s very strict, very stifled, tight. Of course., Japanese kind of the oven lifestyles, incredibly quality and amazing consistency. If I compare with California, Japan did very well, too, but I’m not sure which is good. Maybe California sometimes makes us happy more than that. That’s why in this country, particularly this place, we don’t need to have much about design things. We need just white t-shirts and shorts and beach sandals. That’s enough.

Arkitektura:
That’s great. I love your laughter. Many years ago I interviewed the Dalai Lama.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Oh, did you do?

Arkitektura:
Yes. He, like you, he would laugh at the end of the answer. It was just wonderful. It was perfect.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Oh, wow.

Arkitektura:
There was another thing that I really love that you said that I was reading where you said that I guess someone had asked you what are your favorite moments in life, or what’s the best part of your day. You had said that the best part was right before coming home when you could look up at the sky. That was a line that you said. I wondered what are some of the things you enjoy doing most. What are some of the ways in which you spend your time that you really enjoy?

Naoto Fukasawa:
The things I experienced life in California. The California working environment very close next to the nature life. Every weekend people go out to spend the life in nature environment. I miss very much about that. That’s why once I decided to go back to Japan I start making a weekend house by myself to build up the small hut by my hand. There is no water, no electricity, use all hand tool to building up my small hut in my land. I bought it in nature environment, driving two hour from the Tokyo. Soon after I arrive Tokyo, I already start building that. I’m still going very often, the weekend to go there, spend and making thing.

I’m interesting to start the life from completely zero. It’s a just a tree and greens and no flat space. I cut the grass first and making a little place to be, to put the tent to sleep as a camping, then start making little hut because I’m interesting to learn everything. What is architect? What is things to learn? Not really learn in an architectural school. I like more which place is the best in this big land. I look up at sky and tree. Oh, maybe this is the place. Decided to put the camping tent somewhere around. That is exactly same. That is my hobby. I’m still hard working to designing every day in a weekday. I retreat to be back to the nature environment but still making the things. That is my hobby, not designing. That’s quite important time for me to do.

Arkitektura:
That sounds heavenly.

Naoto Fukasawa:
That’s because California gave me that kind of opportunity.

Arkitektura:
You said did you only use hand tools?

Naoto Fukasawa:
Sure.

Arkitektura:
No power tools?

Naoto Fukasawa:
No. In the beginning. Now a little bit we need but in the beginning, I only use one hammer and one saw and water. I need the water to mix the concrete. I was making foundation. I go to the river near there to bring the water into there to mix the concrete for making the small foundations. That is amazing.

Arkitektura:
That’s amazing. No, it really is.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Everybody say not say. “Amazing.” “You are crazy.”

Arkitektura:
Yeah, but it’s a great thing to … It’s raw. It’s so fundamental. You go. River. Bring in water. It’s a very special thing to do.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Sure.

Arkitektura:
Meditative as well, I’m sure.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Also, that’s taught me a lot about what is the meaning of life because no water, no electric, not really electric tool, so means what I need minimally, minimalistic things. How much water I need to drink every day or what amount of the food I need for one days? Very interesting. It is a truly a minimal life. I learn. That’s still help me to design the things now, particularly for a Muji kind of company.

Arkitektura:
How is that relationship been with Muji? You’ve done so many different beautiful things for them. What are some of your favorites?

Naoto Fukasawa:
For Muji?

Arkitektura:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Naoto Fukasawa:
I can tell you the one, the story why I participated to the making design as a designer there. I set up one of the workshop with a young designers called without thought, without thinking. That is an interesting things for me to tell them, the people using object without thinking. Then not only they make something design, I also made one of the piece, the design object, which is the CD player, wall mount CD player. That was not for Muji. It’s for me as my product to express that without thought. Then, oh, this might be good product for someone else should produce it. I thought only Muji can produce it, not other electronics, home appliance company do it. Then I ask the guy who ran the product department then that is now is a chairman of the Muji, Mr. Kanai, “Hey, do you like the product? Do you want to produce it?”

He said, immediately he said, “Whoa, sure. Why not?” Then that’s it happened. Sell very well, more than we thought. Then that is a kind of opportunity. I meet with him and making a strong partnership together to making the things and thinking about the Muji philosophy together. I’m now advisory board member looking at all of the product under the Muji philosophy. I’m a kind of police to we find oh, this is not Muji. This should be more like to become the Muji. That’s kind of things, a little bit more product art director.

Arkitektura:
Exactly. I was going to say like a creative director. That’s been a really successful collaboration then. What have been some other successful collaborations outside of Muji …

Naoto Fukasawa:
Outside of Muji?

Arkitektura:
Yeah, outside of Muji that you feel have gone really well?

Naoto Fukasawa:
After I back to Tokyo, then I’m not sure it’s immediately. I mean lots of the European furniture brand contact me. I’m not sure why, how this happened. Maybe something a little more interesting. They are the interesting Japanese designer making the things. That is 12 years ago. Then maybe 20 or 30 of the major brand contact in the same time. I used to be designing more product, more electronics product in California, Bay area. They asked me to design something more furniture. Then I do major brand like a B&B Italia, Majis, and very high end kitchen company called Boffi. Tell me they’re liking. That is all of the brand is a measure in the world. I was so lucky for this 12 years working with very high end company and directly working for the owner for the company. That is very important, like me with Mr. Kanai, the chairman at Muji, working together. Muji’s a very unique company, working style, directly working with the creative people. I did the same in Europe with those kind of people.

Arkitektura:
Would you have ever imagined that furniture would be part of your repertoire because you did …

Naoto Fukasawa:
Sure. I think furniture’s a very challenge. I was sure. The number of the design is not so important. If I designed one of the chair, I have to make a very, very good chair as become one of the iconic, classic piece of the art. Otherwise I am not a chair designer. If we think about a past life, a few of the genius designer left design to the very good piece of the chairs. If I really want to become those type of a designer, I have to carefully design very, very good piece of the chairs. Lucky I did a few.

Arkitektura:
Mario Bellini was here …

Naoto Fukasawa:
Oh, really? Oh.

Arkitektura:
… a couple of weeks ago. I interviewed him as well. He had said, and this wasn’t in the interview but this was in his talk that he was talking about design school and how design isn’t something that can be taught. You can grow as a designer but it’s not something that … You have to have an intrinsic nature inside of you like you did as a child. If you were to give advice to young designers, what would your advice be? What would your guidance be?

Naoto Fukasawa:
I think the design world radically change since I was young designer and now. Less product and more thinking behavior or atmosphere or communication interactions. If they too much focused to making things, we make something, the object, which make us … It’s not really suitable, not really right things. It’s too many egos, too many things. They want to make it but no thinking about the life. They have to think about more rationally , carefree, not just for their interest of making things. They have to think about the harmony in life, in particular in this Bay area. They are thinking more interaction design, more web application designs, more ambient atmosphere as the, not just architect or interior designers, should focus more integrated life, not only one things.

If you think about one thing, we have to think surround at the ambient of that product or object, totally. Sometime if they say, “I’m as a product designer,” they naturally think about the object. You know, it’s 20 years ago. People still have the big, the very big box as a TV at home. Now it’s maybe one millimeters glass. It’s going to be just light, like a projection. So who is going to be making such a big, big wooden box or something. We don’t need any more. How about air conditioner? It’s a big box that’s on the wall. Who need to make some sort of form or shape for making that kind of box? It’s disappeared. It’s become the wall.

The new role of designer is think about air, quality of the air come from the wall. That is more important. The designer used to be just thinking about the shape of the machine, but not less think about the quality of the air. Now they forget about the form. Have to think about air, or water, or more communications. It’s totally, it’s a medium. It’s in between the human being and the functional things attached into the wall or some environment.

Arkitektura:
I think this will be my last question. You had said that your brother teased you a lot about how you’d spend a whole day drawing and everything. Now does he use your products now?

Naoto Fukasawa:
My product?

Arkitektura:
Yeah.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Yes, they use a lot of the Muji product. It’s one of my fan, yes.

Arkitektura:
That’s great. Thank you so much.

Naoto Fukasawa:
Thank you. Great.