This time we visit the "Material, or" exhibition at design institute 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT in Roppongi, Tokyo. Humans have worked with countless raw materials and adapted them using designs. The exhibition reexamines that relationship, and explores how it feels to make something from scratch. Exhibition director and designer Yoshiizumi Satoshi shows us some of the ways we connect to materials, and opens up a new world of design!
Hello everyone, I find myself in Roppongi district in central Tokyo.
Today, I'm visiting a one of my favorite design institutions
which is holding fascinating exhibition on the theme of "material."
So let's go check it out!
The materials we use to create things.
Human beings have worked with all kinds of materials to shape their designs.
This exhibition explores the "heart" of creativity through our relationship with materials.
It was directed by designer Yoshiizumi Satoshi.
From dyeable furniture made out of special absorbent plastic...
To lights that use electronic parts as materials, combined with resin meant for house exteriors...
Or this knitted fabric, which hardens with heat to create these soft-looking, cloth flowers.
Yoshiizumi has earned a global reputation for his designs
that "dive" deep into their materials and tear down our preconceptions.
Today on DESIGN X STORIES, we explore Yoshiizumi's exhibition!
Get ready to reexamine the very "concept" of "materials," and the "nature" of design.
Good to see you again!
Hello, it's a pleasure!
- I can't wait to explore today.
- Thank you.
Something's already caught my eye.
Yes, an unexpected ball!
This is a mud ball.
We'd make these as kids.
You polish it until it shines.
Both a chore and a game.
As a kid you have this natural urge
to squeeze clay into a ball.
We call that a "dialogue" with
"materials" in the exhibition.
The sense of the earth,
its dampness, its roughness.
Our hands move in reaction
to those sensations.
Those shared signals are a dialogue.
I see what you mean.
Our topic this time is materials.
Can you expand on that idea?
Earth you can pick up from the ground.
Wood comes from living trees.
We use them to create other things.
Wood that was free of significance
becomes the "medium" for a chair.
It gains meaning through that change.
Our exhibition highlights the difference
between these two terms.
"Raw material" and "medium."
A raw material might be anything.
It has no intrinsic meaning.
Only when we make something with it
does it become a medium.
Design plays a major role in how meaning
is ascribed to that transformation.
Of course, raw materials bring up
issues of the environment.
How did these problems arise
from human fabrication of objects?
We need to examine
its earliest roots to answer that.
I can't wait!
I can see several exhibits already
but I'm drawn over there.
Let's take a look.
It all sounds pretty weird, right?
This is one of my works.
It's made with a plastic resin.
The upper bottles contained the resin.
It started out as a liquid.
It's unusual because it hardens
when exposed to light.
A plastic that hardens under light?
Yes, and it gradually drips down
over these LED lights.
- Like icicles!
- Exactly, yes.
We had an idea of the shape,
but we couldn't design the details.
It sort of grew over time.
It's baked into the design.
An "artificial" resin drizzled over "artificial" lights.
Yet the result is shaped by "natural" wind currents and gravity.
The piece highlights the idea that we also assign significance to "plastic" as a material.
Plastic is normally poured into molds
and used for mass production.
We've imposed that meaning on it.
A more neutral perspective can
show us other facets and meanings.
It can also be shaped by the natural environment.
This idea blurs the boundaries we've created.
It does look very organic.
It kind of designs itself.
I've visited this venue often
but this is a fascinating setup.
The partitions are new, right?
Yes, these are for our exhibition.
These low, white walls are completely separate from the building's structure,
"piercing" the entire venue, from inside to outside.
This breaks up any obvious route through the exhibition,
allowing visitors to wander freely and discover hidden gaps or unexpected exhibits.
Some exhibits "really" are unexpected!
What's all this?
They're all on the floor!
They've done away with pedestals - this is new.
Just as children crouch on the ground to closely observe stones and plants,
this exhibit encourages a more "natural" way of interacting with raw materials.
Crouching down briefly allows visitors to "become" designers, about to begin a creative process.
The floor is a pretty awkward
way to display items for visitors.
But a big part of our message is
the idea of reaching out to explore.
Here we crouch to do that.
That is pretty new, isn't it?
Like picking up a cool rock
as a kid. First you crouch.
We wanted this to feel the same.
Not just an inconvenience.
- A natural action.
What's this? Oh, it's water!
Moving drops of water.
These are threads? A textile?
It's water repellent?
Not in the way you think,
which is the key to this exhibit.
It's a new kind of water repellant textile.
As you see, it's a single material.
Water-repellent fabrics are
mainly used for outdoor clothing.
Those items are usually made of
lots of layers of different materials.
Plus a fluorine coating.
All that makes them
very difficult to recycle.
They can't be separated.
This is a single material.
So it can be recycled.
It's made by a startup
headed by Kamei Jun.
He conducts research on natural mechanisms.
Areas like biomimicry.
This repels water in beads,
like a lotus leaf.
I see the resemblance.
He recreated the effect by studying water
repellency in nature.
And applied it to each thread of the fabric.
Biomimicry involves the study of mechanisms and structures
from the natural world for applications in technology.
Many people are excited about its potential in a number of different fields.
I'm sure Kamei-san knew
we had to tackle the larger issue.
It's cutting-edge science.
But the natural aspect means
it's not that complex.
It's a new future for raw materials
and potential media.
This is unexpected!
It's clearly a fur...
A bear, right?
- A Japanese black bear.
- Oh wow.
With the distinctive white markings.
There are people called "matagi,"
mainly in Akita Prefecture.
They took this fur.
Their view of the world is quite
different from most people today.
- Matagi have their own culture.
- I agree, yes.
An ancient tradition in northeastern Japan, matagi traverse mountains in groups,
making a living hunting with traditional methods.
Revered as messengers of the mountain deity,
the bears' fur, meat, and organs are all used to ensure no waste.
If you meet a matagi, they will explain
how they differ from hunters.
A hunter will trap all they can
because that's a better outcome.
Matagi take only what they need.
A catch is a gift from the local deity.
It's received gratefully and shared.
The basic approach to
raw materials is very different.
- It's okay to touch.
- Oh, may I?
It's pretty frightening.
- Touching it makes it real.
- It does.
- The claws are intact.
- So they are.
Today we only see meat at
the butcher's or the supermarket.
- All packaged up.
- Nice and neat.
But matagi hunt, butcher, and make good use
of every part of their catch.
That was key to historic Japanese society.
There's a lot to learn from
earlier attitudes to raw materials.
Matagi are one excellent example.
This looks fascinating!
Can you talk me through it?
What do you think they are?
I'm cheating by reading the display!
Oh, they're water flasks?
Yes, made from bladders.
This is from a cow.
It's pretty big!
Yes, a cow and a pig.
Quite a major size difference!
I suppose the "thin," "waterproof" nature of animal bladders makes them perfect for this!
It's the work of a design unit based in the Netherlands.
They research indigenous lifestyles and tools and utilize what they find to create "modern" designs.
I guess it's also a material, right?
Filling and drinking from a bladder...
It's hard to imagine.
You'd hesitate, right?
But when you only consider
function, it's perfect.
The life of an animal is a gift
so why not use it properly?
It's a broader perspective.
The same unit used modern "leathercraft" techniques to make a stool from "fish" skin.
It's a reminder that for centuries,
we depended on the lives of many creatures to make our clothing and tools.
This unusual exhibit features blocks of earth stacked on the floor.
The blocks are made from rice bran, chaff, bamboo charcoal, and other everyday materials.
They're used for planting trees and plants.
The design is completed once the blocks return to the earth.
The blocks encapsulate the creation of a forest.
As a tree grows, so do microbes and
an entire ecosystem.
Then the block vanishes.
- It falls apart?
- Replaced by the ecosystem.
Yamanashi Prefecture, in the foothills of Japan's Southern Alps.
This forest is a design lab and hub for the creative team who made the blocks.
It doesn't look much like a lab
but it's home to our prototypes.
We put them out and experiment.
No buildings at all yet.
These designer-researchers split their time between Tokyo and this 13,000-square-meter area of forest.
They hope to create a rich forest ecosystem in the city.
The collective includes designers, city planners, and other professionals.
But they all say they know little about forests.
So why did they decide to make their lab in one?
We're learning a lot from
what we've planted in here.
We've been planting oaks and
other suitable plants.
We're researching what soil
best improves the earth.
Good water and air circulation in soil
improves microbe and fungal activity.
Boosts the forest ecosystem.
Our work in soil improvement goes back
into our designs.
We do a lot of prototyping.
Along the bank of the stream is a strange sensor.
Some microbes in the soil
can create electricity.
This prototype is to see if
we can use that power at all.
The amount is very small.
But they like damp conditions
so we're trying it here.
The goal is to connect lots of units
and create one big light.
But we can't even power a tiny LED yet!
The team's trial-and-error approach led to the design which is on show at the exhibition.
This was the first block prototype we made.
We installed it six months ago.
It's breaking down nicely.
Look closely and you can see
the bamboo charcoal.
Its tiny holes are home to microbes
that multiply and help the tree.
A packed cube with all the nutrition
necessary to make soil.
It won't become a forest on its own.
It needs soil and rain and other elements.
It achieves its potential
when it breaks down.
It works with the soil
around itself to improve.
That's how it helps trees grow.
Our eventual goal is to do this
in a big city like Tokyo.
Bring nature closer to the city.
What kind of design will interface
well with that goal?
The Roppongi exhibit is an experiment.
A kit to grow tiny forests in quality soil, anywhere in the city.
But the techniques they use to create the soil stem from ancient farming practices.
It's the "shape" that adds that modern touch.
The blocks also make use of urban waste from Tokyo's Roppongi district.
Coffee grounds and wood scraps
from work sites.
We designed the blocks
to use local materials.
We chose blocks to make them
easier to carry and to appeal to kids.
They can stack and play
while helping to grow trees.
The ideal is for people to make their own blocks.
To use leftover materials from their own local area.
That would create an ecosystem that would
be in harmony with local organisms.
We wanted to design that entire process.
The blocks help us do that.
Trees and other plants that would grow well in Roppongi were chosen and planted.
As part of the team's design for a closer relationship between forest and city,
one block contains a shoot grown from a Yamanashi oak tree.
We call it the mother tree.
Part of the forest is now in Roppongi.
We hope our experiments encourage
people in the city to get involved.
To bolster the connection between
forest and city.
- A spiderweb.
Not part of the exhibit?
I've just noticed it!
Part of the ecosystem.
In a month it'll look so different.
So will the forest, I guess.
The goal is for people to make their own
tiny urban forests.
That create ecosystems within the city, yes.
What's all this?
What a fascinating way to exhibit.
Yes, an array of random objects.
This is called 'Materialing.'
It's by designer Misawa Haruka.
She gathered these items from the
shore and rearranged them here.
She visited the sea and found all these.
What's this? Like a stone
but two different materials.
- What do you think it is?
- An old brick?
- Yes! An old brick.
- I was right?
Materials aren't fixed.
When you examine them like this
we see that they're in flux.
Yes, a brick comes from clay.
- A plant?
Some berries, I think.
Designer Misawa Haruka handled the main visuals of the exhibition
as well as the venue's graphic design.
She's previously designed new underwater environments for aquatic life.
As well as this moving paper project.
She observes the principles behind the natural world
to create designs that highlight unrealized potential.
Misawa says she saw a miniature earth in the items she collected during her beachcombing.
I wanted to showcase a
diverse array of materials.
One of the best places on the planet
to do that is the shoreline.
So I went to the sea.
All these things with no obvious
origin lay there side by side.
I was drawn to that oddness.
I've always found it fascinating.
I often gather and observe
things along the shoreline.
Manmade or natural? What "is" it?
I picked up the most ambiguous items.
Once we had them all together, that
helped us see their differences.
Our imaginations work better on
things like this than clearcut forms.
It encourages us to connect our own memories
with those of the materials.
There are so many.
Does anything speak to you?
I don't know what this is.
Not stone, right?
I think it's pottery.
A shard softened by the waves.
Broken and smoothed.
Just the blue glaze remains.
We say only humans create things
but over time, so does nature.
Just look at that form.
It feels like it's slowly returning to nature.
Over many years.
Do you have a favorite?
- This one.
- What is it?
- A lighter.
- Look at that!
- It's really a lighter?
- It is.
I guess it really is.
A cigarette lighter.
- Worn down to a nub!
It almost looks natural.
I feel that nature reshaped it
as feedback on the original form!
- So much prettier!
- It really is.
Misawa-san and her team spent days
picking items up. I went too.
And it's fascinating. We all found
something that called to us.
We're all drawn to something.
That's the exhibition in a nutshell!
We want to take a raw material
home with us. To create with it.
It's the first step to turning it
into a medium.
You call the process a dialogue.
That feels right. It's a conversation:
'Let's go home together.'
Each person will have a different
conversation with a material.
And they'll create something
unique with it, too.
This exhibition has given me new perspectives on "materials" - and just "what" that word means.
I've gained a new appreciation for our relationship with the planet.
I'm looking forward to exploring further with Yoshiizumi.
I'll also be visiting the creators featured in the exhibition
and discovering more designs that connect location and material.