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Kenya Hara – and the Language of Design

These days I’ve been wondering what it is to be human. It is difficult to sum up what makes a person. Personally, I believe that every individual is a collection of their experiences, and the circumstances they now live in is a result of those experiences. Yet, I feel this conclusion is somewhat lacking.

Kenya Hara

I’ve recently been reading about Kenya Hara’s works – primarily his vision behind MUJI as the brand’s Art Director. He uses specific terms to explain the concepts he integrates into his work, whether it may be a collaboration between Japan’s local designers and a commercial company or an exhibition to communicate his revolutionary visions, namely House Vision. Though I know it may be a while till I can view any of Hara’s works in person, I’ve resorted to reading his books instead.

The first on the list? 100 Whites.

100 Whites by Kenya Hara

Hara communicates a rather specific angle on the role of today’s designers, explaining further that as a society progresses, their work must progress at the same pace to create value in the lives of those on the receiving end of their design. ‘Value’ in this case is very subjective. Society views value at very differing ends of the spectrum. For most, this would equate to monetary means, high rates of accessibility and so on. I believe Hara views value in the context of ‘enrichment’ or otherwise, what benefits an individual may receive in terms of raising their quality of life. In my opinion, his designs are always geared towards creating a significant impact on an individual or influencing their views on the ‘essence of things’.

Emptiness, is one of the concepts he uses to explain his vision behind MUJI’s brand. This concept’s roots go all the way back to mid-15thcentury Japan, where Hara explains that Japan’s essence had been significantly swayed by the vibrant colours of international traders entering their ports, helming from exotic places such as India, China and Russia. These trading ships and the goods they carried were often decorated glamorously, in astoundingly bright colours and patterns that was a significant sign of wealth, during said era. The Japanese people integrated these elements into their lives; from their architecture to everyday clothing, sparing no expense in creating a lifestyle filled with ‘richness’.

Checkerboard Water Garden/ House Vision Kenya Hara

Soon after however, Japan then suffered from a civil war which Hara explains demolished this ‘richness’. In turn, what replaced it was ‘emptiness.’ Post-civil war society had changed, inflexed by a need for peace and tranquillity. The Japanese began to strip away all need for glamor and in its place, began to make room in their lives for ‘spiritual richness’ instead. Good living is now defined by being in tune with the environment, making peace between the self and the world.

Checkerboard Water Garden/ House Vision Kenya Hara

Much of what MUJI communicates is attributed to this change. You can see Hara’s efforts in expressing this sentiment through MUJI’s first few advertising campaigns; visuals of a single subject in grand landscapes, featuring a vast horizon and the expanse of blue above. The subject looks rather small- almost miniscule in comparison.

MUJI Advertising Campaign

I believe “Emptiness” in its essence is the awareness of how little we know of the world and the species we call the human race. A select few designers may describe Hara’s ‘emptiness’ as negative space and his collective use of white in his illustrations as evidence, as seen below. Hara has said himself that his work is primarily to do with communication design – so the pieces of the puzzle do click, somewhat. Reading these interpretations of Hara’s works however, I feel that we may only be scratching the surface.

In every single documentary, interview and book excerpt I’ve gotten my hands on, Hara

mentions a single phrase that many in his social circle have started to use: “I know, I know” implying that those who use this phrase, have narrowed their desire to learn about a subject and thus diminished any possibility of adding value to their lives on the off chance that they may learn something, beyond themselves if they were to have opened their minds to such possibilities.

Such situations have further accelerated with the influence of AI. Technology has started to change the lives of a society who value the need for a massive influx of information at high speeds on the whim of a lingering thought. Though AI possesses great potential for the human race to become ‘smarter’ and ‘more informed’, to what extent do we use this information, and does this ‘accessibility’ create any significant value within our lives?

I think the existence of Hara’s work and influence goes a long way to answer this question: We have begun to subconsciously accept that there is only one correct answer to any question at all.


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