MISS BLANCHE (1988)
Chair by Shiro Kuramata (1934-1991)
Acrylic, synthetic roses, purple stained tubular aluminum legs. Manufactured by Ishimaru Company, Tokyo, Japan, from an edition of 56. Dimensions: H 91 x W 63 x D 60.5 cm (35 ¾” x 24 ¾” x 23 ¾”)
“Make sure they float!”
– Shiro Kuramata.
By Keith Johnson.
THE JAPANESE SO often just seem to get it right. Until the late 20th Century, the distinctions between painting, sculpture, craft and decorative art were all part of a single continuum – it was only in the West that painting and sculpture were distinguished as purer and more important than the decorative arts. In Japan, craft & hermetical skills were considered the apex on the aesthetic scale of notability. Functionality (however abstract the method of presenting it) was paramount.
No where in recent times has this become more evident than in the design oeuvre of Shiro Kuramata. Japan’s leading twentieth-century designer of furniture and interiors, he was born in Tokyo between the wars. Coming of age during the post-WWII American Occupation of Japan, he graduated in 1957 from the special polytechnic Kuwazawa Design Institute where he studied Western Design, Japanese woodcraft and the plastic arts. Included in this curriculum was the study of furniture such as chairs – ironic, since most of the Japanese public still maintained traditional homes where they sat on the floor on tatami mats.
In 1957 Kuramata was hired by the San-Ai department store, where he made his mark as a designer of virtuoso showcase vignettes as well as floor and window displays. Thereafter, he opened his own Design office in Tokyo in 1965.
This coming-of-age for the artist occurred during a particularly fervent period of Japanese technical ingenuity and dramatic economic growth that fueled the development of VCRs, the Sony Walkman, subcompact cars, portable TVs, video games, etc. It was the time of the emergence of such contemporaries as Arata Isozaki, Tadao Ando and fashion designers Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcons), Issey Miyake (his biggest client) and Yohji Yamamoto.
Kuramata’s greatest gift to design at that time was his combination of Western Pop, Minimalist and Conceptual Art influences (Flavin, Judd, Duchamp, Buren) comingled with the Japanese notion of the “oneness” of arts and crafts, both high and low. He was especially moved and influenced by the works and theories of the Italian furniture designer Ettore Sottsass and his playful usage of bright, intense colours and gawky, intentionally awkward forms.
Kuramata was soon asked to join the experimental design group MEMPHIS, launched by Sottsass and based in Milan, at its founding in 1981.
IN HIS PARED-DOWN and fantastic forms, Kuramata turned the viewers’ expectations inside-out and upside-down, conjuring up objects and physical spaces that were radical and yet extremely functional. His ability to transform industrial materials (perforated stainless steel, chains, terrazzo, Lucite, glass) into shimmering objects of desire still provokes endless dialogue amongst critics and supporters alike.
Specifically, Kuramata was once commissioned in the 1980’s by his stalwart patron Issey Miyake to design his in-store boutique at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. Simple L-shaped, 20 ft. x 6 ft. shelves of thin stainless steel (cut from single sheets, so as to avoid weld joints) hovered above a poured-in-place terrazzo floor of creamy yellow cement and tiny shards of emerald-coloured glass. This writer, visiting Manhattan with a couple of friends at the time, dropped to his knees on the floor during a very busy Saturday retail hour to investigate Kuramata’s solitary usage of green glass (typically terrazzo is made up of multi-coloured marble chips as the aggregate).
Within seconds, I discovered the reason for the enigma. Calling over to my friends Jonathan and Ladislav (as well as the store’s dumbfounded customers) – “Look! I can see it! The broken glass pieces, they have words on them! C – o – c – a C – o – l – a ! My God – it’s Kuramata’s homage to America!”
Obsession has its rewards!
To be sure then, his sublime Miss Blanche chair is most certainly his masterpiece! The synthesis of his aesthetic theories, comingled with his love of Western popular culture, this ephemeral work was inspired by the corsage worn by Vivien Leigh in the role of Blanche Dubois in the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire.
To create this work, Kuramata gathered an array of artificial flowers from every source possible, using them to make prototype models over and over until he achieved the illusion that the flowers were actually “floating” in space. During the final stage of production at the Ishimaru Company in Tokyo, the liquid acrylic was poured into its mold and the roses were secured in place with tweezers that were removed moments before the plastic chemically congealed and hardened.
Kuramata reportedly telephoned the technical team at the factory every 30 minutes throughout the day of production to plead: “Make sure they float!”
Keith Rennie Johnson is the President and Director of Urban Architecture, Inc., in Brooklyn, NY. The gallery features important twentieth century visual and avant-garde decorative art and for 20 years has been the leading US dealer for Memphis Milano and Museo Alchimia.