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TGS Classic #2: Sori Yanagi, Industrial Modernist

A stainless steel kettle. A butterfly stool. An Olympic torch. A grapefruit spoon

These are some of the iconic designs Sori Yanagi produced in his career of over half a century. Yanagi is known as both distinctly Japanese and the prime example of a full blown modernist - creating designs that remain functional and beautiful throughout many different times and places. These designs can be deceptively simple, so for the second installment of our #TortoiseClassic series, we are going to do a deep dive into the philosophy and attention to detail hidden within Sori Yanagi's timeless designs.

Coming from what might seem like unlikely origins, Sori Yanagi was not the first Yanagi to have strong feelings about aesthetics and design. His father, Sōetsu Yanagi, built his life around celebrating the art of mingei. Mingei refers to traditional Japanese craftsmanship present in everyday ordinary and utilitarian objects, produced by nameless craftsmen. Yanagi saw mingei craft as utilitarian objects made by common people, “beyond beauty and ugliness”. In an attempt to celebrate mingei craft, Sōetsu founded the first  Folk Craft Museum in 1924. 

For something to count as mingei, an object must be:

  • Produced by hand
  • Inexpensive
  • Made by anonymous craftsmen
  • Functional within daily life
  • Used by the masses
  • Representative of the region where it was produced

 

It may be difficult to see how these principles could ever influence industrial design. Sori Yanagi strove to apply certain values of his father’s work to his designs, but with a crucial difference. He had a positive association with modernity, machines, and science. He believed mass production could be used to bring “the craft of the people, by the people, to the people.” 

Sori Yanagi's 1994 stainless steel kettle is a perfect example of the marriage of these two design philosophies. The kettle is full of mingei-like design details, all oriented around craftsman style attention to everyday life. For example, the handle is shaped in such a way that the minute you pick up the kettle, it is already tilted downward and ready to pour.

The kettle's wide base means water will boil extra quickly, and the holes strategically placed on the kettle's lid allow for steam to escape while keeping the handle cool to the touch. Over half a million of these kettles are sold in Japan every year, making it one of the country's very best selling designs. 

After growing up surrounded by his father's work around Mingei craft, Sori Yanagi studied painting at art school. He went on to work with the iconic mid-century modern designer Charlotte Perriand. While Perriand was working in Tokyo, Yanagi would accompany her as a translator. This experience introduced Yanagi to product design, and moved him away from painting and towards object-making.

The iconic butterfly stool, designed in 1954, shows Yanagi's perfect synthesis of Japanese tradition and the modernist principles of simplicity, practicality and tactility. The stool won the gold prize at the Milan Triennial XI and is currently in the permanent collection of MoMA.

Yanagi was inspired by Shinto shrine gateways while creating this classic stool

Sori Yanagi describes his design philosophy like this - "True beauty is not made, it is born naturally." By focusing on perfecting a form's usefulness, Yanagi believed it would become beautiful in and of itself. This attitude has allowed many of Yanagi's designs to maintain the warmth of Mingei craft with the functionality of industrial production. The beauty truly lies in each piece's tiny details. 

For example...

The 7" Sauce Pot's lid can be rotated to create small openings for steam to escape from the pot, without having to remove the lid entirely. The matching strainer from Yanagi's Strainer & Bowls series fits perfectly into the pot, making into a steamer.

And since the pot has a lip on both sides, righties or lefties can pour liquid out of the pot efficiently. 

Yanagi's stainless steel cutlery are each equally specific - a utensil for every particular need. One of our favorites is the grapefruit spoon. With spiked edges, this spoon is perfect for digging out grapefruit sections during your breakfast. 

Yanagi's kitchen tongs, available both with and without holes, are also highly versatile. When held one way, they become almost tweezer like with their ability to pick up small and slippery items. When flipped around, they are perfect for scooping up larger sized pieces!

The Kitchen Utensil Series, winner of the Good Design Award in 1998, is full of similarly delightful hidden details - like an extra deep, flat lipped ladle that is sure to get the last sip from your soup pot. 

And not all of Yanagi's designs are made entirely through industrial production. The birchwood flatware series is made by hand, with expert craftsmen sealing each handle with unparalleled simplicity and elegance. 

“True design lies in a realm counter to trends.” - Sori Yanagi


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