The Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata (1934-1991) and the master of Italian design Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007) came from different cultures, spoke with different tongues but shared a common language in playful design. Theirs was an aesthetic of boundless freedom created to bring joy and surprise rather than mere functionality. In an age seemingly obsessed with the efficiency of objects, the joint philosophy of Kuramata and Sottsass is something to remember. Indeed, with the opening of the exhibition “Shiro Kuramata and Ettore Sottsass” at Issey Miyake’s 21_21 Design Sight museum in Tokyo, the fashion designer aims to introduce their work to an audience not acquainted with these great talents.

Kuramata and Sottsass first began working together in 1981 as part of the Memphis collective. Led by Sottsass, this was a group of young designers and architects that presented their work together and became a huge influence in their fields. Kuramata joined Memphis after being inspired by the limitless possibilities of their thinking. It is from this time that originate the 65 pieces of Kuramata’s work exhibited at 21_21 Design Sight. The work of Sottsass is represented in 20 never-seen-before “Kachina” art pieces, which are based on drawings created in his final years. These glass sculptures were inspired by the native American Indian Kachina dolls that symbolized supernatural spirits.

As well as the designers’ work, this show includes interviews and notes from the Memphis period. Not that this is a retrospective of their work at the time; the exhibition’s director, Yasuko Seki, comments that the format of the show is very much “not period”. Instead, “Shiro Kuramata and Ettore Sottsass” is about educating a new generation of designers and architects in the work of these two pioneers.


“When we begun working in early 1960s, Japan was the height of its post-WWII economic recovery. Kuramata was a heroic presence to me, even within a group comprised of so many formidable talents. His use of materials, for example: no matter what it was, he transformed it into an attractive design that we had never seen before. We all deeply respected Kuramata both in terms of his work and as a person. Japanese design is tight and rational, and has no unnecessary elements. But Kuramata’s work was filled with mystery; a world that we are not ordinarily capable of expressing. My work might have been different had I never met him.

I met Sottsass in Paris in the 1960s during the Olivetti exhibition at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Sottsass was as naturally a gifted artist as he was an architect, designer, poet, and photographer. He was also a producer who led design movements such as Memphis, and an editor who directed the magazine Terazzo. He told me that feeling and touch are most important elements in design, despite the fact that people tend to act using their brains. I initiated this exhibition to introduce a new generation of designers to the designs of both Shiro Kuramata, whose aesthetic transcended space and time; and Ettore Sottsass, by whom Kuramata was influenced.
- Issey Miyake

“Shiro was a friend, he was like a brother, and he was a man that I could trust with all my heart. He was a man that made you feel as though we were travelling together on a long journey… He strove to express something more fragile while I strove to create something more heavy and solid.”
- Ettore Sottsass

“Ever since meeting Sottsass, I have come to believe in a certain calling. A calling to cut loose function from practicality and to communicate the true unity of beauty and practicality in design. That the essential joy of design must outshine its functionality…”
- Shiro Kuramata

“At our first meeting, I felt as thought Mr. Miyake delivered us three messages regarding this exhibition. “Not Period”. In other words, he did not want to make this a simple retrospective. Our mission was to communicate the importance of dreams and love in design. Especially to the younger generation who are strangers to these two artists… We live in a generation that is far different from the times in which they lived. In particular, the 1980s, the generation when the two men cultivated their friendship, was a golden age for the Japanese economy which thrived in being “Japan as number one”, and at a time in which the Japanese people backed by the economic momentum started shifting their eyes to quality of life and design. 30 years since then, the expansion of IT and the internet, as well as the lessons learnt from gobalism and commercialism prompts us to reconsider once again, “What is design?”

The exhibition reveals the great creators and their design in their true colors, told through their works, past footage, quotes and slide shows. Please experience the world of bountiful dreams and love created by the two men and take the opportunity to think again about the meaning of design.”
- Yasuko Seki, Exhibition Director

More info:
Shiro Kuramata and Ettore Sottsass runs until August 5, 2011