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. We accompany exhibition director and designer Yoshiizumi Satoshi on visits to some of the featured artists, exploring how designs arise from nature's abundance, as well as a world of designs deeply rooted in their materials!
Today on DESIGN X STORIES, we're exploring the "Material, or" exhibition in Roppongi, Tokyo.
Humans have spent millennia exploring our world's materials and creating designs.
International designer and exhibition director Yoshiizumi Satoshi
says that this exhibition brings us back to the roots of our relationship with such materials.
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.
I'll be visiting some of the creators featured in the exhibition.
Join me as I explore designs born from the natural world, and the new potential they create.
What on earth is that?
It's a bird's nest.
We have several exhibited.
I had no idea they were so beautiful.
It's a surprise, mainly because
we don't pay attention, I think.
They often use palm leaves.
They carry them in their beaks.
It looks like an artwork.
It does. The gentle curves
almost suggest pregnancy.
Unlike a home, a nest isn't for
living in. It's for laying eggs.
It makes that shape take on
a new significance.
It's a protective shape.
A pure distillation of that idea.
Like architects, birds will adapt their structures to suit the local environment.
The Japanese green woodpecker uses its hard beak like a chisel to carve out its nest.
Even Tokyo's crows have adapted to city life.
They choose to build nests from wire coat hangers.
Of course cities have fewer materials
but it seems it might be deliberate.
Wood branches and twigs can snap.
They don't bend.
Crows figured out that wire hangers
are easily bent into shape.
That's so smart!
They're updating their abilities.
It feels like a very human approach
to materials, don't you think?
It really does.
Are these all bird's nests?
Yes. This one is made from wool.
The birds took it from sheep.
- Off their backs?
Then brought it to the nest.
They essentially felted
the wool with their beaks.
The nests are abandoned once
the chicks have fledged.
In Mongolia, locals use those nests for
children's socks. Like material!
- Part of the local culture?
- So I'm told.
What a natural step to take.
- It looks warm and comfy!
- It really does.
I was drawn to this black, glossy liquid.
Wait, what is this?
- It's not lacquer.
- The smell...
- Crude oil from Akita.
- There's oil there?
- That's right.
- I had no idea!
Few people have ever seen the real
thing, though it's a thorny topic.
With the environment.
They used to collect huge amounts.
It was very much prized.
But that perspective has changed.
It's all around us, so I wanted
to nudge today's visitors.
Take a proper look at this.
We have negative associations
but in the end it's a raw material.
The sign says 'natural asphalt.'
It feels so artificial, right?
But it's made naturally by our
planet's geology. I didn't know.
Nor did I!
They're from the same place.
- Both from Akita?
As crude oil sinks through the strata, it
vaporizes over time, creating bitumen.
So it's natural asphalt.
Sadly we can't touch it,
but it's a little sticky.
It's been used for millennia.
Humans used it as glue.
To attach arrowheads to wooden arrows.
We have a very long, storied history
with it. That carries meaning.
One that's changing. It's our choices
that gave it a bad reputation.
Exactly. The material itself has
no moral value. It's neutral.
It simply exists. It's up to us
to question what it means.
You must have done a lot
of research for this exhibition.
I've always been an avid researcher!
One area I've been researching recently is
Japan's Tohoku region. It's where I'm from.
Oh, is it?
I never thought about it back then.
- It was just home.
- I kind of just wanted to go to Tokyo!
Then I looked back at Akita
from a material perspective.
I remembered that there were these
Because they drilled in town.
- In town?
I started wondering and
actually went back to research it.
Japan's north is blessed with nature,
and famously very snowy.
I wanted to know more
about its creative history.
So I'm digging into that now.
Time to hit the road for Sendai, where Yoshiizumi's research project is based.
Here we are in Sendai.
Your TOHOKU Lab is quite a space!
The lab is a satellite space for Yoshiizumi's research into the Tohoku region.
It's like an extension of the exhibition - Yoshiizumi's ideas on materials can be found everywhere.
What is this material?
Ogatsu stone, from Ishinomaki
in Miyagi Prefecture.
It's used for inkstones and on roofs.
Urethane. We use both natural and
artificial materials in their pure form.
Have a seat.
- May I?
- Of course.
It looks solid.
You have solid urethane and then this.
It's really comfortable!
A slab of date-kanmuri stone from Miyagi is placed like a table.
All the natural materials are local.
The wall-bookshelf is made of the reeds used to thatch roofs in Ishinomaki.
The desk area uses stacks of paper as support, with simple glass panels on top.
Even manmade materials are left largely untouched.
I use the term "smudges" on the ceiling
to explain the overarching concept.
Totally random, but we stare up
and ascribe meaning to them.
Faces or patterns.
I did that as a kid.
We all do, I think. That kind of
imagination is so important.
The pattern changes, gives us inspiration.
The same concept applies to
the designs in this space.
I only realized after making it,
but it dampens sound.
All the tiny holes are the key.
You can turn up your music!
- Imagine a whole house of it.
- It's really stark, isn't it?
You can hear the change.
- A new discovery?
- It really was.
Yoshiizumi comes here several times a month to carry out field research across the region.
As a designer based in the city, Tohoku's links to the natural world also appealed to him and his team.
It's very rich in materials which
has deepened my understanding.
I feel closer to the earth,
and to nature when I'm here.
I think we all wanted to root ourselves in
We hope that working with these materials
will help us redevelop that sense.
It's one reason why I chose to work
with local materials here in Tohoku.
A 40-minute drive from central Sendai brings us to a forest.
Yoshiizumi and I are visiting one of the exhibition's artists who has his studio out here.
- Hello, welcome!
Hi, I'm Andy.
A pleasure to meet you.
Thanks for meeting us.
This is your studio?
- It's wonderful!
Murayama is interested in the origins of glass,
and spends his time exploring the different local sands that can be used to make it.
Other works provide glimpses of geological strata by encasing rocks from deep in the earth in glass.
His studio is filled with all sorts of glass creations.
For the exhibition, he presented a series of glass pieces in the shape of Japan.
He collaborated with a glass manufacturer to create this exhibit that explores the materials behind glass.
Sand taken from all over Japan is displayed alongside the glass it produced.
- Look at these!
- So much sand...
- Labeled with the location.
- Yes, from around the world.
I see Sri Lanka. Mauritania.
- And you make glass from it.
- That's right.
'This piece is made with sand from X.'
This is sand from Mt. Gassan
in Yamagata Prefecture.
From the base.
The sand is a natural material.
- Also Mt. Gassan.
- Oh, the color!
As a natural material, the sand isn't
uniform and nor is the glass it makes.
- The sand is uneven.
- Naturally, yes.
This says 'Hirose River' sand.
- It flows through central Sendai.
- By our lab.
So this is made from sand that's
been dredged from the river.
It's usually dumped but I wanted
to turn it back into glass.
The Hirose river runs through Sendai.
Dredged sand is usually disposed of as industrial waste.
But Murayama opted to reuse it in his art.
He's spent decades exploring the idea of 'melting the earth.'
He melts down the raw sand, adding no coloring in the process.
His glasswork showcases the natural hues of each region's native sand.
Lots of samples.
So I see.
And you do research here?
Yes, it's a totally different world
when seen in such detail.
Fascinating. What first made you
interested in sand and glass?
I first made it as a student.
I combined clear and colored glass.
I began to wonder exactly
what I was working with.
Then I had the chance
to visit the Sahara.
I spoke to an NGO planting
trees to prevent desertification.
They asked me what I did.
I said that I was an artist.
They asked me what artists did to
help with environmental issues.
I didn't know what to say.
It was a painful question!
When I saw the red sand of
the Sahara, I thought of melting it.
That's how it all began.
After a lot of trial and error back in
Japan, I was so happy to succeed.
I wanted to keep going.
And that's how I got to all this.
That adds a new dimension to the work.
It's a collaboration with the Earth.
You collect the sand that it has blended
and turn it into new forms.
Sand eventually returns to the Earth.
It melts in the magma
of the planet's mantle layer.
Same with stone.
It's all part of a cycle.
That's my own take on it.
Most people think of glass as
artificial. It's hard to shake that.
It can be hard to understand
that it's part of the planet.
I've certainly learned a lot
through our conversations.
I was particularly fascinated by this piece at the exhibition.
This piece is titled 'Kezurikake.'
The wood is scraped away with a blade.
It's a single piece?
Yes, it's made of a single log.
It's so beautiful.
It's made by a "sasano ittobori,"
or 'single-blade' artisan.
For me, this is the most primitive,
primal artwork in the exhibition.
I imagine holding the wood
and blade and working at it.
It feels like the form is the result
of a true dialogue with the material.
- It's truly beautiful.
- It is.
The work was made using traditional woodcarving techniques.
I went to meet the artisan, and find out about his process.
Look at this beautiful place.
We find ourselves in Sasano area.
The Southern region of Yonezawa City in Yamagata Prefecture.
Now I'm in here indeed to meet a young craftsman carrying on the traditional "sasano-ittobori" wood craft.
- Yes, hello.
- Hi, I'm Andy.
- A pleasure.
- Good to meet you.
So we're in Sasano.
I have an "otaka poppo," one famous example
of "sasano ittobori."
"Sasano ittobori" has been made in this region for centuries.
It's a folk craft that's beloved by locals and said to bring luck.
These bold hawks with their delicate and beautiful wings are known as 'otaka poppo.'
Ten years ago, Koyama returned to this area and began an apprenticeship to a master carver.
He hopes to lead younger artisans in an effort to keep traditional crafts alive.
I want to see how an "otaka poppo" is carved.
What materials do you use?
- Today we use "koshiabura."
- From the ginseng family.
That's our main wood.
- It's very soft and sticky.
It's perfect for carving.
What an unusual blade.
It's a "sarukiri," designed specifically
for "sasano ittobori" carving.
I make the whole bird with this.
Yes. That's not always
what you want, of course!
It depends on the wood you're
shaping. I don't keep track.
- The material matters.
- For sure, yes.
And the season too?
The wood is damper or dryer, yes.
You do it all by feel?
Pretty much. We don't use
designs or plans for the work.
Oh, it's lovely!
Just look at this!
The wood is so soft.
Koshiabura is pale and sticky.
It doesn't darken much.
That's a darker one.
Two trees growing 200m apart will
have very different characteristics.
Artisans source their own materials from the snowy mountains.
Because trees don't absorb water during the winter, their wood is more durable after drying.
A thin piece takes a year to dry, while thicker ones can take several.
These wooden flowers are said to be the origin of "sasano ittobori."
These winter decorations are made using the same technique as the "Kezurikake" artwork from the exhibition.
You need a very straight piece
of wood to make a flower.
Naturally wood doesn't always
grow in a straight line.
See the slight curve? That's
a major pain when making flowers.
- Dead straight is key.
- It is.
Koyama switches to a special razor-sharp blade called a "chijire."
There's a trick to the thinness.
It has to be made with a "chijire" blade.
I'm on edge just watching.
It's a natural material so
sometimes you'll find a stain inside.
Yes, which makes it unusable.
- No good?
- Not at all.
It's simple repetition.
You can see the shape of it.
It's not done, but take a look.
- How is it?
- May I touch?
- It's so beautiful!
Once complete, it looks like this.
Thank you. Oh, how gorgeous!
This is the origin of "sasano ittobori."
I'm blown away.
From a single stick of wood.
Truly extraordinary skill.
You've spent a decade now
honing your craft.
How do you feel about it?
It's not just about shaping materials.
You can't shape everything.
Instead, the wood allows us to create
It guides us.
A question of whether the wood you're working
with will accept you as its shaper.
That's it exactly.
We have to bend to the wood.
To be honest I feel it's the material
that determines the work.
A craft in which the wood has the final say.
It feels like one of the earliest forms of dialogue between artist and material.
Many regions have their own wood
carving or shaving craft.
They're part of local festivals,
celebrations and prayers.
All a little different, but
they share the same basic core.
The Ainu people also shave special sticks called
"inau" that are used in rituals.
There are similar practices
all over east Asia.
An object made by humans,
yet it takes on a sacred aura.
We bring meaning to these
wooden objects, venerating them.
That feels very human to me.
That's at the heart of our
relationship with raw materials.
They speak to our imagination.
It's a very ancient response.
This has been a truly fascinating
visit for me, Yoshiizumi-san.
I feel like it's really put me
in touch with the past.
It's history, but it's also been
an exploration of my own DNA.
What an extraordinary exhibition
this is. A revelation.
Our relationship with materials
begins with touch.
There is always some kind
of instinctive response.
I think that's linked to
Materials connect us to a wider world
and broaden our horizons.
- Thank you so much.
- Thank you.