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Kenya Hara and the Language of Design Pt 2

Written by Diyana Jailani/24th December 2021


If a person is an accumulation of their experiences, trials and tribulations, then what would make up a designer? This question has been circulating in my mind; the idea of artistry versus design, handcraft versus commercial skill. Where would the two boundaries meet? One way or another, I’ve found that both the worlds of art and design collide in multiple industries.


MUJI Campaign

Hara has said himself that his work primarily focuses on communication design. He’s done many projects, from exhibits to graphics, advertisement commercials to packaging. I find that the beauty of his work however lies not in its diversity but within his process of breaking apart an otherwise complex concept to find its sole essence. I spoke about this concept in Part 1, where Hara has described emptiness as a design value birthed from Japanese cultures and traditions, that weigh heavily on his overall vision as MUJI’s art director.

Legless Chair designed by Kenya Hara

Glocal is another term Hara has been quoted for in multiple interviews. He describes his

Kenya Hara; Designer, Author & my (Diyana's) Current Inspiration

work at MUJI as a way for him to digest the local design language and translate it for a global audience. In this way, he reintroduces the essence of Japanese design in a new, informative way that curiously requires less information, and strips away what we know and recognize as Japanese (i.e kimono patterns, ikebana decorations, traditional temple roofs and so on.) In his case, local does not inherently mean where once is from. He refers to the current times as the New Nomadic Age, where society is constantly on the move and one’s birthland does not necessarily mean ‘local’. This movement and concept of what is local and foreign is constantly changing, as one’s world view expands the more they move upwards or downwards in life. This means that global and local are not necessarily opposite concepts of each other.


I have to agree. As a Singaporean, we’re constantly exposed to a multitude of persons of different histories and cultures. One cannot distinguish themselves from another based on race or skin colour any longer. As society continues to intermingle, our cultures are becoming less defined by design – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The concept of elimination of what we think is the essence of something, is just a means of discovering what lays beneath it.


What I’ve observed in most of Hara's illustrations (as seen below), is that he’s taken common Japanese concepts and broken them down into what makes up his concept of emptiness. The tall entry gates of Japanese temples announce the beginning of a journey towards a spiritual path, transporting one into an environment that is tranquil and peaceful. Again, there is a concept of emptiness in its path that one naturally steps into.

Kenya Hara Temple Illustration

Snapshot of the Esplanade Interior /Unsplash

What comes to mind when I think about Singaporean design are the Peranakan patterns in traditional kebaya, the same patterns used in the SIA stewardess uniforms. There are also the iconic landmarks of Singapore; the Merlion, the durian mimicking structure of the Esplanade, the tiled slides in retro HDB playgrounds in the shape of a dragon. These are just a few examples but essentially, what I am trying to point out is that Hara’s design process is extremely intricate and time-consuming. He studies the history of things, to trace its evolution into what we recognize as current.


As a writer myself, I’m struck by Hara’s use of language. Terms like ungorgeous, uncheap, glocal, co-dividual; these are all new terms that one doesn’t usually come across in the English language but it communicates what is necessary. I am to assume that English is not Hara’s first language but he uses it in a profound way that is awe-inspiring to me. He is of course most fluent in Japanese but he is more than capable of communicating his visions to the interviewer and audience in English as well.

Kenya Hara giving a talk as MUJI's Art Director

Many have described Kenya Hara as a curator, rather than a designer. He often curates non-typical exhibitions and to my knowledge, does not work alone. He collaborates with different designers and companies, often introducing the work of these new designers to a bigger audience in the process.


But I have to agree with Hara, this work is design. His work of tracing the origin of things, peeling back the layers of ungorgeousness, creating environments where the community and individual collide. If one is able to introduce a new angle to what is familiar, then that is design.


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