Subtle metaphor, hidden symbolism and beautiful craftsmanship make for a fairly compelling argument not to throw out these paper bowls.
Cabbage Bowl, 2004
Designed by Yasuhiro Suzuki, Cabbage Bowls uses metaphor in a subtle manner to fascinate and delight viewers. Initially, the link between a cabbage leaf and a paper bowl is, admittedly, a little perplexing. However, the simple beauty and fragility evident in the structure and material invites a viewer to question the potential meaning behind the product – of which there is no objective answer. In this way (and more!) the Cabbage Bowl is emblematic of poetic design; an object that becomes a catalyst for speculation, reflection and meditation.
On an obvious level, this particular style of leaf shares formal similarities to a common bowl. Both are physically small in size and have shared concave characteristics. Also overtly evident in the design, is the unity of something that is edible and something used to contain food. Somewhat tangentially, the use of a leaf as a bowl is highly reminiscent to the westernised thai dish, Sung Choi Bao, in which an iceberg lettuce leaf acts simultaneously as a vessel in which the rest of the food is stored and as part of the dish itself (incidentally, it’s very delicious). Although clearly quite a novel example, this simple recipe actually embodies a key essence of poetry in design; wherein an object has a sense of duality and multiple levels of interpretation. This, I think, provides evidence that even obvious or shallow connections have a significant part to play in the realm of poetic design.
That being said, a more nuanced (and complex) understanding of Cabbage Bowls can be found with some further research. Very intentionally aligning himself with many of Kenya Hara’s philosophies (many of which are extensively discussed in his internationally acclaimed book, Designing Design), Suzuki’s design makes a significant symbolic statement by exclusively using white. Contradicting the apparent monotony and neutrality of a completely white object, the Cabbage Bowl’s lack of colour is tied to a rich heritage of Japanese cultural thinking in which white represents absolute purity; it is both nothing and everything. Hara claims that a deepening search of white will lead to a more comprehensive understanding of “‘tranquility,’ or ‘emptiness,’ and discern the meanings dormant within them.”
In this way, Suzuki pays homage to Japanese ideals of purity, beauty, sensitivity and tendency of perfectionism. And yet, in a powerful (and deceptively simple) paradox, his Cabbage Bowls are essentially just paper plates; generally perceived to be completely disposable objects to be thrown out after a single use. Consequently, Suzuki subtly questions the object’s value. By transforming a fairly worthless object into something of intricate detail, he implicitly asks us to consider themes of permanence and worth.
So, Suzuki really has created an object that is much more than an empty salad bowl. However, it was only after research that I became informed about some of the more inconspicuous meanings to the work. Both personal experience and an understanding of philosophical context helped in achieving greater insight into the significance of the bowls than was initially perceived.