Kenya Hara on the 21st Century as an Age of Discovery, Making the Ordinary Unknown & Imagining the Future at 6.8

We all have myriad seeds of thoughts and ideas lying dormant or actively sprouting in every nook and recess of our brains. Over time, some of these seeds will erupt into full-blown concepts and form relationships with other kernels of thoughts. My favorite phase of the creative process is what I have come to term the ‘festering’ phase. In the festering phase, two or more kernels of ideas start to hatch, and one can almost feel the ideas pecking at the membranes that isolate them, seeking to break out of their containers to intertwine with other ideas and concepts. Germination might seem a fitting alternative to describe this process but I prefer festering because of how forcefully it conveys the notion of infection–itself denoting pain and delirium, which can alternatively be perceived and experienced as good or bad depending on the strength of the fever.

Festering is the part of thinking that you feel; it’s strenuous—there is real effort involved. You can sense the ideas reaching for one another and you feel compelled to help them in their quest despite the great mental effort required. You strain and push for a while, sometimes you are rewarded with glimpses of the creature to come, but before long you are forced to give up, exhausted. You try to put it out of your head, to think of something else, but it always creeps back, this pecking at your skull.

Creativity is a productive act but it is also an act of destruction. For something new to emerge–to be created–you must first help it break past the constraints that kept it from its renewed state. This process takes time: weeks, months, and sometimes even years. But when the ideas have festered long enough to seep outside of their contained spaces and into the rest of your mind, you are rewarded with the ecstatic feeling of discovery, of experiencing the ordinary as if in the presence of a mystery.

Every once in while however, you chance upon someone else’s ‘brain creatures’ and you realize that this person has done the delicate weaving of your own fragile evolving ideas and expressed—in words that ring so true to the way you experience reality you want to weep—an obsession you hold deep within but are unable to express as fully as you need. Kenya Hara is such a catalyst for many of my festering kernels of lurking obsessions, key among which, my desire to unroof reality, to question assumptions and experience the ordinary as an unknown. A theme central to our philosophy, work and values here at Rethinked…*

In his splendid book, Designing Design, Hara defines his vision of the 21st century as an age of discovery. While reminding us that the act of “making the known unknown” is a creative act, Hara aims to nuance our understanding of the future by conceiving of it not as a radical break with the past but, rather, a rethinking of the ordinary.

The future is not where everyone looks for it, “there,” right after the present. It’s not an integral number in a line: 9, 10, 11…It’s somewhere like 6.8 or 7.3. The new design scene nestled in ordinary life will be created by the intellect that perceives the unlimited numbers between two successive integers. (51)

And now, in Hara’s own, beautiful words ~

Naoto Fukasawa’s Tea Bag Redesign for Hara’s 2000 exhibition RE-DESIGN: Daily Products of the 21st Century. Source: Hara Design Institute ~ This concept comes from the motion of dipping a tea bag in hot water, which reminds him of a marionette dancing. The handle on this human-shaped tea bag looks like a marionette handle too. When the bag is dipped in hot water, the leaves swell to fill the bag, creating a deep-hued roll. Repeating the dipping action, the user is engaged in a wondrous world of puppet play. Thus, design intrigued with the unconscious emerges through the medium of an action.

Perception & Understanding

To understand something is not to be able to define it or describe it. Instead, taking something that we think we already know and making it unknown thrills us afresh with reality and deepens our understanding of it. For instance, suppose there’s a glass here. You might know about a glass. But what if you need to design one? The moment a glass is proposed as an object to be designed, you start thinking about what kind of glass you want to design, and you lose a little bit of your understanding of “glass.” Arrayed in order before you are dozens of glass vessels of gradually varying depths, from “glass” to “dish.” What if you are asked to clarify the exact boundary point between one and the other? Faced with objects, you’re at a loss. And again you become a little less sure of your knowledge of a glass. However, this doesn’t mean that your knowledge has been overturned. Indeed, it’s just the opposite. You’ve become more keenly conscious of glasses than before, when you understood them by simply unconsciously calling them all by the term “glass.” Now you actually understand glasses more realistically. (19)

The whole world looks different if you just put your chin in your hand and think. There are an unlimited number of ways of thinking and perceiving. In my understanding, to design is to intentionally apply to ordinary objects, phenomena and communication the essence of these innumerable ways of thinking and perceiving. (19)

Masahiko Sato’s Exit/Entry Stamps re-design for Hara’s 2000 exhibition RE-DESIGN: Daily Products of the 21st Century. Source: ~ ” The entry stamp depicts an airplane pointing right, and the exit, one pointing left. This concept hold the seeds of an exchange designed to inject a dose of communication into an office procedure via the intermediary of stamps, which would lead to further germination within the mind of travelers exposed to the stamps. You might see the moment of contact between stamp and traveler as an “ah-ha!” moment, when the traveler, not expecting the message, falls into a pit of a panic, which upon the instant of understanding turns into a small exclamation point in the back of his mind. This “ah-ha!” is positive and full of goodwill. If these stamps were used at our international airports, where 10,000 tourists a day begin their first visit to Japan, they could create 10, 000 positive ah-ha’s a day, or 10, 000 friendly feelings, borne via this small taste of hospitality.” (30)

RE-DESIGN as a Form of Understanding & Creativity

“Re-design” refers to a redoing of the design of ordinary objects. You could call it an experiment, an attempt to look at familiar things as if it were our very first encounter with them. Re-design is a means by which to correct and renew our feelings about the essence of design, hidden within the fascinating environment of an object that is so overly familiar to us that we can no longer see it. (22)

Producing something new from scratch is creative, but making the known unknown is also an act of creation. Maybe the latter is more useful in nailing down just what design is. (22)

Our daily surroundings seem completely wrapped in design: our floors, walls, TV monitors, CDs, books, beer bottles, lighting appliances, bathrobes, coasters, and so on and so forth. All are the outcome of design work. The talent of the designer is to reexamine these daily surroundings at any time, with a fresh eye, as if they were yet unknown. (48)

Kaoru Mende’s Matches redesign for Hara’s 2000 exhibition RE-DESIGN: Daily Products of the 21st Century. Source: Hara Design Institute ~ “his concept is to entrust these dried twigs with a final role (matches), prior to their return to the soil. The design asks us to consider the relationship between humans & fire, which spans tens of thousands of years, letting our imagination run through time, over our ancestors’ life as it was intertwined with fire, & then place fire in the palm of our hand. Now as we take a closer look, the shapes of sticks are quite aesthetically pleasing. Our busy life usually exiles such aesthetic objects from our mind. Nature, fire and humans: Mende’s solution impressively evokes their individual existences. These are called Anniversary Matches. It would be quite effective to use these matches to light the candles on birthday or anniversary cakes. After all, burning fire is a powerful symbol. Perhaps this is because flame enshrines the possibility of both a ferocious, destructive power that can grow immensely, and the essence of creation. This giant imagination is infused into a match-sized design solution.” (40)

The 21st Century as an Age of Discovery: Making the Ordinary Unknown

The more firmly we’re convinced that we’ve identified an object, the less precisely we understand it. The 21st century is an age of discovery—of astonishingly fine designs found right in our midst, in our daily lives. We used to design mere stimulation, but now we part ways with that past and look at the ordinary with clear eyes, to yield new thinking on design. (23)

I used to wonder what kinds of novel things would be created in the 21st century, and what kinds of innovations we’d experience, doubtless one after the other. But today I would say that this very idea should be left behind in the previous century. Instead, a new era should arise, as the ordinary that we think we know so well is made unknown, one object after another. Just as the cell phone has taken its position at the forefront of communication, unnoticed, we shall realize that we sit right in the center of the future, as it reveals itself to us little by little, from within every aperture of our ordinary life. The idea that new things will come crashing upon us from afar, as waves begin in the distance of the sea, is an image that belongs to the past. (48-49)

At the same time, the idea that technological innovation sweeps over the entire planet and shapes our daily lives is also an illusion. Technology will bring forth new possibilities, but it is still only an environment, not creativity itself. The question is how to use human wisdom in the new environment afforded by technology. What should we aim for? What kind of plans should we realize? (49)

Raising our point of view regarding daily life is like discovering decimals. The future is not where everyone looks for it, “there,” right after the present. It’s not an integral number in a line: 9, 10, 11…It’s somewhere like 6.8 or 7.3. The new design scene nestled in ordinary life will be created by the intellect that perceives the unlimited numbers between two successive integers. (51)

Shigeru Ban’s Toilet Paper redesign for Hara’s 2000 exhibition RE-DESIGN: Daily Products of the 21st Century. Source: Hara Design Institute ~ “Ban’s proposal doesn’t mean that all the toilet paper rolls in the world should be square. But I would like you to notice the note of criticism sensed vaguely at the periphery of the concept of square toilet paper. From the perspective of daily life, design passes criticism on civilization. Not that this is anything new. Design thinking and perception have been critical since the beginning. I’ll be happy if you sense design’s critical nature in the difference between two objects: the square roll and the round one” (29)

Source: Hara, Kenya. Designing Design. Zurich: Lars Muller Publishers, 2007. Print.


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