As a young design student, eagerly devouring everything I could find that might help me understand the profession I was devoting my life too, I came across a book, titled The Unknown Craftsman, (1972) by the Japanese philosopher, Sōetsu Yanagi (1889-1961). It examined the beauty of anonymous crafts, particularly the most simple, straightforward and typically Japanese. For someone such as myself, an introverted minimalist, this was a very positive affirmation of at least some of my values. When I then went on to study with Jim Krenov in Sweden, I wasn’t completely surprised to find that he had his own copy of the book, which would have supported some of his values too, specifically those we held in common. That was what would have attracted me to him in the first place.
To my surprise, I recently found a second book by Yanagi (in Oslo, as it turns out), freshly published and a collection of some of his earlier essays; The Beauty of Everyday Things. I guess that after almost 50 years, his time to advise us has come around again. Unlike my earlier enthusiastic response, I now find him to be a bit naïve and pretentious, but I recall my earlier endorsement and happily acknowledge his positive influence on what is by now a succession of generations of designers and craftsmen. Evidence of this renewed interest is a very recent article in the Economist magazine. Yanagi coined the word Mingei, meaning folk craft, to describe what he found to be beautiful and now it has become part of our vocabulary.
Yanagi’s influence has been the greatest in Japan, or maybe he is only a reflection of pre-existing and underlying values and expression. But internationally, many current (and almost current) designers will recognize some of his ideas as influential and valuable. His writing would have influenced my desire to visit Japan which I first did in 1978. I was practically mesmerized by the attention that was so casually paid to beauty in both conspicuous and inconspicuous places, although there was plenty of ugliness too. One memory is of being served tea at some newly made friends home and after the fact, being told what the humble looking tea cup I was holding had cost them, which was more than their car was worth. That impressed me.
On the other end of an economic spectrum is the success that the Japanese company Muji has had internationally. It claims to produce No-Brand Quality Goods which reflects the Mingei philosophy, and that are largely anonymous in appearance. Ironically, this lack of identity has itself become a strong and valuable brand. Their commitment to simple products that are basic and necessary has succeeded beyond their expectations. I first found a few of their products for sale at a museum shop in Los Angeles almost 20 years ago, and I’ve been intrigued enough to have followed them ever since. It used to be that you could identity fellow designers by the fact that at meetings, their pens were also Muji products. Now, when I visit one of their stores in Toronto (or Berlin, or Shanghai), I’m the old white guy among a sea of young Asian-looking women. It has become popular fashion which is a bit of a surprise for me.
Doing a good job of making things simply and efficiently is hardly unique to Muji or traditional rural Japan. There are plenty of Canadian designers and manufacturing firms that are willing to produce goods that are anonymous in appearance as long as they do what they are supposed to do. We don’t need Mingei philosophy to value the unpretentious and modest. Part of it is because we have largely lost our traditions of ornamentation, accepting and perpetuating a premise of Modernism. Part of it is an intuitive preference of not making things more expensive than they need to be.
We have lots of talented designers who are able to design objects that are expressive and to design goods that are highly distinctive, as marketing (and individual egos) might require. And I’m glad we do. But sometimes I’m fully satisfied with products that are as straight forward and quietly effective as possible. It’s a long tradition.
Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University in Toronto, Ont., and former chair of its Industrial Design department.