Simply go back to the original – Straw Straw by Yuki Iida

What comes to your mind when you think of the word ‘straw’? Most probably the plastic tube for sucking up a beverage. However one designer has brought the ‘original’ straw, the dry stems of wheat into the straw we use everyday.

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↑ Yuki Iida’s ‘Straw Straw’

This wheat straw was designed by the founder of LaLa Lab, Yuki Iida. After graduating from Musashino Art University in Japan in 2005 and working as industrial designer designing electronic appliances, Iida started his own design studio LaLa lab since 2010. The most notable achievement he made was receiving gold prize for MUJI Design Award in 2008 with ‘Straw Straw’. It may look like Iida simply made a pun on different meanings of ‘straw’, but in Japanese the wheat straw (麦わら – Mugiwara) does not sound like the plastic straw (ストロー – Straw), so the pun was made after translating into English! He found out that “wall art depicting people using straws of wheat to drink from have been discovered from ancient Mesopotamian ruins”, which is quite interesting as plastic straw is an everyday object but we have not realised how long its history is. However what is really meaningful about this object is not the history. Iida said that “straws of wheat are forms created by nature; they are materials that return to the soil. There’s no waste in either the shape itself, or in its actual existence”. This does not only make it sustainable, but also raises awareness about unnecessary synthetic manufacturing. The straw was originally made from nature, and it is meant to be disposable anyway, so why do we need to produce it in plastic that is not sustainable? The ‘Straw Straw’ may seem like such a simple, possibly too easy idea at first. However it is fascinating that Iida found the true nature of an object that no one else have ever questioned before, and make us think about the better alternatives, or should I say, the original way.

Designs like Iida’s Straw Straw shows how a solution can be as simple as looking back the past. Designers are often challenged to predict and design for the future context which involves lots of scenarios and guessing, followed by doubt and uncertainty. The answer is in the past. Masaaki Kanai, President of Ryohin Keikaku Co., Ltd. (one of the judges from MUJI Design Award) said that the theme for that year’s MUJI Design Award was ‘Found’. He refers to being found “from nature; knowledge from those that came before us; from one’s own unique culture; or from people’s consciousness of the unconscious”. In last week’s post, we looked at Naoto Fukasawa’s cell phone that was shaped like peeled potato. We could also say that Fukasawa ‘found’ appeal from a peeled potato, that most people would have not noticed and chopped up.

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↑ Yuki Iida’s ‘Fire’

This action of ‘finding appeal’ or ‘finding out the origin’ continues in other designs. Iida has showcased his ‘Fire’ lamps in Salone Satellite 2011 at Milan Fairgrounds. Like his ‘Straw Straw’, these lamps also reflect on the fact that there was ‘fire’ before the ‘electric lamp’. He said that “the electric lamp was invented 130 years ago, but people have been using fire for more than 500,000 years. People still love fire as lighting, which is why I wanted to combine them.” This lamp can be used alone which looks like a torch when held, or it can be piled on top of each another which looks like bonfire. Again Iida ‘found’ what has been so obvious but has not been noticed yet. Because electric lamp is everywhere these days, people relate fire to warmth or as a functional tool for lighting a candle etc. However Iida’s ‘Fire’ lamps remind us that fire is the original light source, and electric lamp would have not existed without fire.


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↑ Masashi Watanabe’s ‘Grandpa’s nail hook’

Another design at MUJI Design Award found the ‘consciousness of unconscious’ like Kanai said above. Masashi Watanabe received Bronze prize by designing ‘Grandpa’s nail hook’. He explains the design,

“My grandfather nonchalantly pounded nails into posts and hung various things on them. So that things didn’t fall off these nails, he unconsciously pounded them in at an angle. To me, these felt like the most rational sort of hook you could get. While a simple nail would have sufficed, I made a few alterations. It struck me that if you could secure a nail at a set angle and length every time, then you could have beautiful hooks anywhere you could pound a nail in.”

The value in this design is the detail in its adjustable length. Watanabe did not only focus on the shape of nail, but also the fact that nails stick out at different length. It is interesting how such a little found thing can develop an idea onto the next level and make a difference.

The role of designer is not necessarily creating a completely new idea from scratch. Iida’s Straw Straw and other examples tell us that the role of designer is to design a lifestyle, the lifestyle that people can easily relate to. Of course the aesthetic can be contemporary, but the core of the design comes from understanding the history, tradition and origin of what you are designing. Through this process you will find the unfound, the unseen or the unnoticed. Any object has a story to tell, and designers need to listen to this story and unveil what has been hidden.

In (Tony) Lee