Inside the Mind of Conceptual Japanese Designer Nosigner
An interview with the Japanese furniture and product designer Nosigner, whose high-concept works engage with social issues, like waste and disaster relief.
In the last year the designer who calls himself ‘Nosigner’ has debuted diverse and original products and installations while exhibiting at nearly every major design show around the globe including Tokyo, London, Seoul ,and Sydney. The 28-year-old furniture and product designer says he always wanted to be an architect (he trained as an architect and his student work in 2004 was a finalist for the best architecture diploma project in Japan), but a look through his portfolio proves his high-concept works are outside a traditional architectural practice.
His work encourages debate about issues beyond form: environmental issues and waste (he created an installation with plastic food wrap), the aesthetics of digital design (his hand-drawn leaf motifs look digitally produced but were painstakingly traced by hand), and social issues (designing for an aging population and disaster relief).
Nosigner opened his own studio last year in Sendagi, an old town in Tokyo surrounded by temples and Japanese gardens. With a studio and his own assistants, he is now able to “focus on the creative works” and develop his ideas of people, nature, proportion, and space through his unusual product designs, furniture, and installations.
You call yourself ‘Nosigner’, why did you choose this name?
The word ‘design’ originates from the Latin word meaning ‘sign.’ So the word ‘design’ means something visible. When I discovered this origin, I thought it was strange. For me, the most important things in design are invisible—the way a person feels when using a product or the intentions under which the design is produced.
So you design for these invisible things?
Yes, I created Nosigner as a person who makes ‘nosign’ works. Nosigner represents an ideal for me. With each project, I question if the outcome is worthwhile to be called ‘Nosigner’.
At Tokyo Design Week you showed your Rebirth light (2008) and Hatch planter (2008), part of your ‘Open Source’ series. Both of these designs use real eggshells. How did you find working with eggshells as a material?
Eggshells can be a very good material. They have a beautiful shape, good structure, and they are biodegradable. They are waste products and you can get them anywhere. Eggshells are fragile, but we can make a stronger structure by using them together in a larger shell form. The form can distribute the weakness of the material.
Your ‘Open Source’ series suggests a new future for designer objects and design authorship. What are your aims with this series?
The ‘Open Source’ series is an experimental project I am developing to make products without consumption. I am trying to share with everyone how to make design products with their own hands, without a designer, and without purchasing them—like open source software on Internet. For example, I can share how to make the lighting products made of noodles [Spring Rain light, 2007] or egg shell plant pods [Hatch planter 2008] because their materials are easy to get anywhere in the world.
Like the Rebirth Light, your Pokkari light (2007) is also made of a natural material: real feathers. You’ve said when you designed Pokkari (which means ‘clouds’ in Japanese) you felt like the material and form belonged together, and that the product felt familiar even as you designed it. What inspired you and where can you imagine this light hanging?
I aimed to make the ultimate lampshade. I began by thinking that if electric lighting was invented as a way to have sun inside a building then the ultimate lampshade should be something which covers the strong sunlight in nature, like the clouds in the sky or the leaves on a tree. So for Pokkari, the lighting is like a virtual cloud inside a room. I used white feathers to make a similar effect to a cloud. The light shining through the feathers is calming, so I recommend it for a living room. Pokkari is still a prototype product and I am looking for a manufacturer.
In your ‘Edible Product’ series, ‘Spring Rain’ (2007) is a light made of bean starch vermicelli that’s edible when boiled. Do you have any other ideas for using food as design products?
I am currently looking at salt and sugar as materials. Their crystals are beautiful and the materials are hard enough to make products. I made a dry garden exhibition booth with rock salts at Seoul Design Week 2007. I like how salt will go back to nature when you put it in sea water.
Your award winning ’Tacticicle’ (2007) at the TECHTILE exhibition at the University of Tokyo was an installation of a huge icicle made from food wrap film. What did it feel like in the space?
For the TECHTILE exhibition, I tried to design a space about the tactile sensation of ice. The huge icicle was made out of 10,000 meters of food wrap film. When sixteen layers of the films are compressed, it looks like thin ice with cracks. The texture often looks cheap but in the installation, the material was transformed through layering.
I used lighting and sound effects to make the space feel cold. Actually, everyone was surprised that the room felt like the inside of an ice chamber. Because of the unique way of making the space and also the extremely low cost of the design it was awarded Design For Asia Award Silver, which is the highest prize for exhibition design.
Another spatial installation is ‘Fluoless’ (2008) which you installed at the Museum of Omotesando Hills in collaboration with fashion brand THEORY. The installation features used fluorescent lights arranged in complicated 3D geometric forms. What made you choose this material?
Do you know about four hundred million or 75,000 tons of used fluorescent lights are thrown away as garbage every year in Japan? And 85% of them are thrown into the sea for reclamation of the waterfront even though they contain gaseous mercury? At the same time, it is very difficult to recycle them because they contain toxic materials. We don’t thinks about these discarded lights once we throw them away—we easily forget about them.
The structure of Fluoflow is a flat grid of equilateral triangles. I designed the shape of the installation on site, during the construction. There was no simulation on the computer. I exhibited FLUOLESS last December in Seoul Design Festival. At that time, I used local discarded fluorescent lights from Korea. I would like to make FLUOLESS again in another country.
I had not planned to turn on the tubes because I thought they wouldn’t work, but I found that most of them did work. Most of them are thrown away even in working condition due to building maintenance. Next I want to try to make a structure with them that does light up. I expect them to flicker as if they are alive.
You recently designed a temporary house for the earthquake disaster relief efforts in Sichuan, citing “truth and sincerity” as your design values. Is design for social issues a direction you are interested in? What do you think is the future of design?
There is a future in designing for disasters and designing for sustainability. I think there are a lot of problems which can be solved by design. For example, I am currently very interested in design for the aging population because I was raised by my grandmother. We need to look for answers in design outside of the small world of design itself. We have to open our eyes not only to the design realm, but also outward – to the society where we live.
What are your plans in 2009?
My first exhibition of 2009 is a solo exhibition at the Aomori Museum of Art. This exhibition will be a collaboration between myself and a craftsman from Nebuta. Also this year, I will collaborate with media artists for Japan Media Arts Festival. I also hope to exhibit my ‘Edible Design’ and ‘Open Source’ products.
A year ago I couldn’t have imagined where I would be now. So next year I want to continue to design things beyond my imagination.