Seeing Things / Sori Yanagi’s Everyday Beauty
Re-posted from The New York Times Magazine, by Brooke Hodge, January 5, 2011
The Japanese designer Sori Yanagi, who died on Dec. 25 in Tokyo at the age of 96, is best known for his 1956 Butterfly Stool. It is both elegant and utterly simple: two curved pieces of molded plywood are held together through compression and tension by a single brass rod. The stool’s graceful shape recalls a butterfly’s wings, and has also been compared to the form of torii, the traditional Shinto shrine gates. According to Matilda McQuaid, the deputy curatorial director at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the stool “epitomizes Yanagi’s approach to design. He loved traditional Japanese crafts and was dedicated to the modernist principles of simplicity, practicality and tactility that are associated with Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, and Le Corbusier.”
Over the course of a career that spanned more than 60 years, Yanagi designed a vast array of products, from flatware and furniture to cars, subway stations and even the torch for the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. Like the Butterfly Stool (which is included in the exhibition “Plywood: Material, Process, Form,” at the Museum of Modern Art through Feb. 27), Yanagi’s work is characterized by pure, organic form, an economy of means and material, and an emphasis on beauty in even the most functional and quotidian objects. Over time the designer’s work has become, well, timeless.
Yanagi, who studied architecture and art at Tokyo’s Academy of Fine Art, was inspired by the work of Le Corbusier and by the designer Charlotte Perriand, with whom he worked in the early 1940s, while she was in Tokyo as the arts and crafts adviser to the Japanese Board of Trade. But perhaps the most indelible influence on Yanagi was that of his father, Soetsu Yanagi, who led the “mingei” movement, which celebrated Japanese folk craft and the beauty of everyday objects, and who founded the Nihon Mingeikan (or Japanese Folk Crafts Museum) in Tokyo. Yanagi fils, who was named director of the museum in 1977, succinctly described his design aesthetic in a 2002 interview in The Japan Times: “I try to create things that we human beings feel are useful in our daily lives. During the process, beauty is born naturally.” Throughout his life, Sori Yanagi was inspired by what he called “anonymous design” — he cited the Jeep and a baseball glove as two examples — and he in turn inspired younger designers, like Naoto Fukasawa, Tom Dixon and Jasper Morrison. Many of Yanagi’s designs are in production today (including his 1954 Elephant Stool, which, like the Butterfly Stool, is now made by Vitra), and over half a million of his 1994 stainless steel teakettles are sold in Japan every year, making it one of the country’s all-time best-selling designs.
- sori yanagi : obituary by jasper morrison (designboom.com)