OUR ART IN
Jan. 09, 2020
“Objects and Things” A paradigm shift in value
Interview with Nagaoka Kenmei
Design activist /D&DEPARTMENT Director
writer FUMIKA TSUKADA
photographer YUBA HAYASHI
editor NAOMI KAKIUCHI
translator ELAINE CZECH
Design activist. Based on the notion of “Long Life Design,” established D&DEPARTMENT. In 2009, he published the travel magazine “d design travel.” Through activities such as merchandise sales, eating and drinking, publishing, and sightseeing, the magazine was able to establish local partnerships in the 47 prefectures. All while reviewing the unique personalities and designs of each prefecture and introducing them to the whole country. In 2012, he designed and began operating Japan’s first regional design museum “d47 MUSEUM.” The museum’s permanent exhibition: “Lifestyle’s” of the 47 prefectures is located in Hikarie 8 / in Shibuya, Tokyo and in 2013 received the Mainichi Design Award.
* You can follow his daily activities and ideas:
Nagaoka Kenmei is a design activist.
Even though I say that, if you do not know Nagaoka you may be wondering, “What is a design activist?” But for those who know him well may think, “Ah, that doesn’t seem right.” But whether or not you know him, I cannot be the only one who is thinking “activists aren’t usually so calm though…”
Nagaoka Kenmei is a designer.
Nagoka is an advocate for long-life designs or “universal and excellent design that is not affected by the times or trends.” He like “things.” He likes the origin of “things.” He creates spatial designs and works to sustain the successive nature of Japanese cultures and craft techniques. And yet this is not enough?
What does it mean to be an activist then? If that sort of activity doesn’t count? So I spoke with Nagaoka.
D&DEPARTMENT TOKYO exterior
Want to go to D & DEPARTMENT in Okuzawa, Setagaya-ku? It is a brisk walk from the Kushinbutsu Station on the Tokyu Oimachi Line. Although I say “brisk,” when it comes to anywhere in Tokyo, the distance you need to walk is never really that conveniently close. Exit the small station, go through the shopping street and then walk a little further. Just ahead you will come upon the D & DEPARTMENT. The white walls of the building is decorated by the dancing shadows of the well-grown eucalyptus leaves.
The first thing out of my mouth when we met, “What is a Design Activist?”
“Actually my wife was very opposed to that title saying I should be embarrassed to use it. So I stopped using it for a while, but there really was no other word to describe what I was doing, so about 3 years ago I started using it again,” Nagaoka laughed as he crossed his arms defiantly.
“Comparatively to those in my field, I’m not particularly skilled in any one area. I’m originally a graphic designer, but if I call myself so, then there is an unwritten rule that I have to specialize in graphic design.
I love design, but I have always looked at the design market as a consumer would, not as a specialist. This way regardless of skill, I could see what the design market was lacking. If I looked at the market always from the “designer” standpoint, that isn’t always easy. So I started to call myself a design activist. From the Balinese designer to the traditional craftist, wouldn’t it be nice to consider deeper about the people who make things? I think that more people must act with the maker as a person in mind.”
After a while, he said, “I guess I have the image of a town doctor. People come to me, ‘I don’t know if this is design…’ for a consultation. I consult on design as a doctor for an illness.”
If put that way, even the medical field isn’t made up of just specialist. Some doctor’s need to serve small towns: there are generalists and, of course, specialists. When a person is ill they don’t always know who to consult. And that is where a person like Nagaoka comes in. He takes on the sick person, accompanying them as he connects them with the right specialist and sets them on a path to getting better.
So, D&DEPARTMENT PROJECT, led by Nagaoka, will open a hotel next spring on Jeju Island, in South Korea. Nagaoka said he had always wanted to run a hotel.
D&DEPARTMENT originally started with the concept of “let’s sell something like a desk, but not a desk.” Keeping with this train of thought, our hotel is going to be “something like a hotel.” People can stay for a long time. Or just a short while. Bringing together people from different countries and races, in a place that can be used for anything but in the end is “something like a hotel.”
My desire to run a hotel in this fashion was inspired by the film “Bagdad Cafe.” A motel along the side of a major highway in the middle of the desert. In this remote setting, people from all walks of life come and spend their time as they please. When I think of it, the film’s title track starts playing in my head, “I’m Calling You.”
“Although D&DEPARTMENT isn’t a hotel, I want my hotel to have a similar atmosphere. Like a cafe where you can sweep in and relax. For example, in the past, here (D&DEPARTMENT), I used to be able to park along the road whenever it pleased me. You could just drive up to the front of the store, slam the car door and be almost instantly in the shop.”
Looking toward the entrance at the Tokyo Ring Road 8, “I could hardly imagine doing that now,” laughed Nagaoka.
The 26th issue of 「d design travel」was released in October 2019 and featured Kagawa
Going back to the hotel. I am sure you are wondering, why is the first ever hotel built by Nagaoka going to be on Jeju in South Korea? Especially when a person like Nagaoka, who is extremely knowledgeable of Japan’s 47 prefectures having produced the “d design travel” guidebook all about each individual locations “uniqueness” and “charm.” Surely he could find a perfect sight here in Japan?
“We don’t do direct management. In order to sustain the roots of the location in a healthy way, it is necessary for the people who live their to be the one’s introducing and selling the items important to their location. D&DEPARTMENT is just a mechanism that helps them do that. The store is basically just a franchise. I don’t want to do business. And the same thing happened with Jeju. A local made the request and I thought if I am going to make a shop might as well throw in a hotel as well.
But to me, the building or form doesn’t matter. Whether we build an aquarium or baseball diamond isn’t important. It is that when you go to that location and look around and buy things that you are interacting with the place. When I went to Jeju, it was a place I wanted to take in slowly, and that is how the hotel idea came about.
Nagaoka not only travels around Japan but throughout Asia, finding “things” that have deep roots and importance to each area. From that perspective, considering the 47 prefectures, I wonder what he considers the Japanese-style?
“Being an island nation means there have been overwhelming influences. I was born in Hokkaido and I love Okinawa. But both regions are considered non-Japanese lands. Hokkaido is Ainu land and Okinawa is the Ryukyu kingdom. And if you talk to the older generations in Okinawa they will say ‘well, I dislike the United States but I also dislike the Japanese government.’ Which to me seems very Okinawan. But if you think about it, the same can be said for Japan as a whole. It’s an island country, meaning unless you get on a plane or a ship you can’t go to another country. There were times when we were isolated and I think it was during those times that a collective culture was formed.”
From 1639 to 1854, the Japanese isolation policies restricted foreign arrivals and immigration. The whole country was in a state of withdrawal. It was during that time, that the Japanese culture flourished and took on a direction of its own.
“When you are closed off (from outside influences) then you just repeat repeat repeat. And to break that monotony, elaborate things and crafts are born. Nowadays you can go and just buy things from other prefectures, but when such a such thing was a difficult chore, people learned to expertly work with the materials in their area. Muneyoshi Yanagi said, “items must be made locally,” and you know, that’s exactly how it is. As a result of such philosophies, if you go to a place where they manufacture bamboo, you’ll see that they thoroughly use the bamboo to an obsessive point that makes you think ‘do they MAKE the bamboo itself?’ and there is that similar obsession with cloth with weavers. I think that the level of extremity of each region is what can be said to be Japanese.”
“However, these ‘extremes’ are getting blurred nowadays. Once the bullet train and online shopping boomed, I thought, ‘the days of buying traditional is over.’
It maybe over, but aren’t Nagaoka’s effects actually helping to support is the “extremes” of each land and traditional craft?
D&DEPARTMENT TOKYO interior
KARIMOKU 60 sofa
The number’s within the black circles represent the year each product was “born.”
As transportation and the internet have developed, and you can easily purchase things from various places. Or so I had thought, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Nagaoka told me about Hokkaido folk crafts as an example.
“Have you ever seen a wooden carving of a bear?”
During the 1920s and 1930s, when travel in Hokkaido started to become popular due to the development of transportation. As a result, the carved wooden bears became a very popular souvenir. Originally, the Ainu people are known to be very skilled wood carvers but the carving of bears in particular grew in popularity after the ruler during that era took a trip to Switzerland and encouraged there creation.
“The people who make traditional crafts didn’t want to make money from mass production, but the momentum of sightseeing meant that there was no time for the crafters to make them in the ‘old fashioned way.’ Originally the black coloring of the bears was created by painting on many layers of ink, but that was substituted for quicker lacquer since that would sell. But after making a profit, the crafters are ultimately left asking, “is this what we wanted to do?” To meet market demand, creators are left exhausted in a physical and mental sense. The Japanese are consuming Japan.”
This is where D&DEPARTMENT reluctantly relies on online sales. The company orders only as many products as the region can handle, helping to maintain proper production preventing an upset of the region’s supply and demand balance. But to such an extreme, why does D&DEPARTMENT follow each region’s “business manners?”
“My main goal is to support. I introduce the work of various people from various places to the world in a conveniently located shop, and at the same time control sales so that overproduction and inevitable decrease in quality does not occur. My business isn’t just about selling things, it is about keeping the production healthy.
“Because it is just bizarre that people will work till many midnights in an office to the point of going crazy. I think you can prevent others from being in that situation by just asking when you buy something “do I really want this?” You aren’t just buying an item online or at our select shop in Tokyo, you are saying I want to buy a part of this specific region. I think when people buy in this manner, then the items are going to owners who will treasure them. I think this also causes creators to develop fans. I personally would want to increase my fans slowly, not suddenly. That is why I don’t want to do business, I want to do that kind of activity.”
Recent books "LONG LIFE DESIGN 1 - Healthy Design of the 47 Prefectures" (D&DEPARTMENT PROJECT) and "Creating Continuity: The Secret of Long Life Design" (Nikkei BP)
“The time for select shops is over,” states Nagaoka. Most things can be found readily online. In addition, values have changed.
“In the past, by buying an “item” there was a thought that it would help you achieve “something.” ‘If I buy this lacquer bowl, will it enrich my life in some way?’ type of thinking. But that’s never true. A lacquer bowl added to my everyday life will hardly be used and will end up in the back of some cupboard.”
“But now I think the “something” is already embedded in the “item.” I think there has been a sort of reversal and that people value the “something” more, and that an item must have that “something” factor for it to even matter. I wonder if this is how it will be?
In June 2019, the café was renewed as "d eating laboratory". It is now a cafeteria where you can not only taste the food cultures of the 47 prefectures but also study the “long life” design of food by sitting around the dining table with various producers and studying related topics.
That is why “it is time to reconsider the role of brick-and-mortar stores.”
“Because I like things, I have an urge to hold on to them until the end. For that purpose, I begin by getting to know about “what surrounds the thing.” If it is a lacquer bowl, that means learning how to properly make miso. From there I can properly ask, “Do I really want this?” “Do I now feel desire for this?” and that is how I approach buying and selling. If I feel that way based on “what surrounds the thing” then I know I can deliver that feeling to others.
If people follow that thinking, then there is no wasteful shopping.
“That’s why we’re going to change the world’s thinking onto the right path. In that sense, it’s going to be a very good era. But, it will be a world in which the people who are making are trying to convince others to buy. That, I don’t know if we can really change thinking to that extent.”
What to buy? What to not buy? I wonder will we as consumers be able to consider items, things in such a manner? I hope that in 5, maybe 10 years the world will be filled with “design activist,” or at least be living in such a manner. When that time comes it will truly be was Nagaoka calls “A very good era.” When the interview finished, I looked around the shop, I was able to see the “something” held by the “things.”
Design activist, D&DEPARTMENT director
In 1965, born in Hokkaido
In 1997, established DRAWING AND MANUAL. In 2000, as a culmination of design work, he began the D&DEPARTMENT PROJECT, a new business that combines design and recycling in Setagaya, Tokyo. Currently, “D & DEPARTMENT PROJECT,” considering the world philosophy of “long life” design, is engaged in dialogues with local community to organize, propose, and operate stores based on the community’s “likeness” as a means to explore the future of design. A total of 10 stores are in operation, including stores Nagaoka directly managed in Tokyo, Toyama, and Kyoto, and partner stores in Hokkaido, Saitama, Yamanashi, Kagoshima, Okinawa, Seoul, Korea, and Huangshan, China.
In the spring of 2020, a hotel will be opened on Jeju Island, Korea.
Since 2009, Nagaoka has published a guidebook series, “d design travel” that introduces the prefectures of Japan from a design perspective.
Since 2012, the first regional design museum of Japan, d47 MUSEUM, was invented and permanently displays the “Lifestyle’s” of 47 prefectures in Japan. d47 is operated by Shibuya Hikarie and received the 2013 Mainichi Design Award.
He has authored books such as “Ideas of Nagaoka Kenmei”, “A ‘how to’ on Nagaoka Kenmei”, “Nagaoka Kenmei and Nippon”, “Design Product Exhibition Nippon”, “DESIGN BUSSAN 2014”, “Another Design Work of Nagaoka Kenmei” and “Continue to Create.”