Imagine there’s an empty piece of white paper. I’ll give you a minute. What feelings does it evoke? After a while of looking at it, you are persuaded by its vast possibility. You may become immersed in its texture perhaps running your fingers over its surface, you might notice its subtle smell and its minuscule crevices, your senses are exploring this landscape although it can be argued by many of us, there’s nothing to explore.
What you are really exploring, is your own creativity. As Japanese designer and author Kenya Hara summarises: “Emptiness itself is the possibility of being filled.” In an intriguing talk to a western audience, Hara re-contextualises the meaning of emptiness. In western culture, emptiness lacks purpose and without clear intent in design, the user cannot make a straight line to the product being sold. With this understanding, we may make the mistake of seeing nothing in what actually is endless possibility. Hara explains that in Japan, emptiness is a fundamental principle of design.
Ancient Japanese traditions emphasize that wisdom lies in nature. Hara expresses that the Japanese do not see nature as wild, but as abundant. Nature is not just a source of inspiration, rather it is the substance of all creation; infinite and ubiquitous. It is believed that god exists in all natural forms. It is through the creation of empty space that we invite god in all the forces of nature, to come to fill it. Therefore, emptiness is an integral part of traditional Japanese design and architecture.
Yasuhiro Suzuki is a Japanese designer whose works express this concept. His design ‘Cabbage Bowls’ are at first glance, an organic and intricate metaphor that plays with the idea of layering. However, with a deeper understanding of Japanese design, we can appreciate the thoughtfulness that is encompassed within.
The white colour of the cabbage leaves like in the paper example before, removes an element of certainty. Now, we are persuaded to notice the delicate texture of every unique leaf, to feel the ridges and fragility between our fingertips and explore a plethora of possibilities. There is no instruction manual to this design, it is ambiguous and therefore our experience with the design is uniquely our own.
Suzuki’s other designs such as ‘Melt up Furniture collection’ and ‘Cocoon Silk Lamp’ play upon emptiness through organic forms, subtle metaphors and ambiguity, leaving room for complex and nuanced interpretations. In contrast to much of what we are exposed to in the western world, Suzuki’s work stimulates more than just the visual. His works are deeply attuned to the natural world. ‘Cabbage Bowl’ and his other designs incorporate a haptic element through highly sensory textures, involving the user in an experience that leaves imprints in our memories.
As with much of Japanese design, ‘Cabbage Bowls’ do not have a distinctive purpose. In the emptiness of this design, we are lost, and in losing ourselves we are opening up to our subconscious creativity. We are so to speak, doodling in our thoughts. The effect is that we become much more involved in creating the meaning of the design, and in doing so, the design itself is far more valuable to us.