Umeda Masanori

Masanori Umeda

10 June – 13 June 2022

Curator: Jennfier Wong

1/F, Liang Yi Museum, 181 – 199 Hollywood Road

Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

Umeda Masanori: Bringing the Inanimate to Life

Jennifer Wong

Hong Kong may not be too familiar with Umeda Masanori, but to the internationally renowned designer, Hong Kong holds a special place in his heart. It was here that he kick-started a grand adventure to Europe, where he would work at pivotal design studios, win an acclaimed industrial design prize, and establish lifelong connections that would lead him to join the iconic Milan-based Memphis Group after returning to Japan. In July 1966, Umeda left Yokohama to set sail for Italy on a 35-day journey by the Messageries Maritimes line to Marseille, passing through Southeast and South Asia. The first stop was Hong Kong, the first foreign land he had ever visited. He went around the city in two days—going as far as the northern borders with mainland China — and was especially captivated by the seedy, informal architecture of Kowloon Walled City. This high-energy enthusiasm, paired with a love of learning through firsthand experiences and tendency to venture out of the mainstream, would continue to be prominent throughout Umeda’s career. He takes the world in with a child-like curiosity, translating everyday imageries that move him into thoughtful, functional designs instilled with his own quirk, shaping the development of international postmodernist design from this side of the world.


Early Training and Time in Italy

Originally aspiring to be an architect, fourteen-year-old Umeda visited the Yokohama American Cultural Centre daily to self-study architecture through reading imported books and magazines on the topic. After failing to enter the desired department of architecture three years later, he attended the Kuwazawa Design School to explore his interest in Bauhaus. Kuwazawa was the training ground for many important designers of Umeda’s generation, including Kuramata Shiro, Uchida Shigeru and Ohashi Teruaki. After graduating in the mid-1960s, Umeda worked as an interior designer at the studio of leading graphic designer Kono Takashi. As Japan’s then design education was dominated by developments in Germany and the United States, it was only at Kono’s studio that Umeda was exposed to the Italian design scene through the Domus magazine. Immediately, he wanted to see the place and meet the people for himself. Kono connected him with Swiss graphic designer Max Huber, who was living in Milan at the time, who then referred him to his future employers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni. As one of the earlier assistants at Studio Castiglioni, Umeda was tasked with turning their design sketches into real-life models and technical drawings, working on seminal projects such as the Flos Snoopy table lamp, Zanotta Allunaggio stool, and Brionvega headphones and interphone communication systems.

During the two years at Studio Castiglioni, Umeda had learned how to develop a logical product design process, appreciate ready-made objects, use form as an expression of function, and familiarise himself with the technicalities of material properties and production. Having acquired these skill sets, he joined Ettore Sottsass’s team at Olivetti as a consultant designer and was put in charge of office furniture systems. Working with Sottsass showed Umeda another way of conceptualising design: he gave design briefs in the form of verbal cues and provided no sketches. Once, Sottsass only gave an instruction along the lines of ‘design a beautiful and sweet office chair, because there are often many women typists at work.’ 2 Umeda was given absolute freedom to conceptualise the works from an idea and Olivetti also allowed its designers to take on independent side projects with non-competitive companies, giving him the chance to develop his first personal commercial design project — GEMINI ( see p. 21 ). The clam-shaped ashtray was inspired by Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, which serves a practical function as a cigarette holder that is also friendly to non-smokers, containing the smoke and cigarette residues within the box. By this point, Umeda had become dexterous with integrating several design approaches, be it being more methodological and function-led or driven by keywords and conceptual ideals.

Apart from the design scene, Umeda was also frequently in touch with the local art and cultural circles. One of such connections was industrialist and collector Peppino Agrati, who ran a gallery focusing on modern art from the United States. At a summer pool party in the mid-1970s, Umeda encountered a tree wrapped around by tent fabrics with ropes. This was the first time Umeda had seen Christo’s work. It had a profound impact on him, signalling how rules could be broken by poetic gestures and that even the most familiar environment could be transformed by straightforward yet bold acts of creativity. Umeda would later incorporate this attitude in his own design practice, creating statement works based on direct observations of his own culture and everyday life.



Looking to Traditions

In 1979, Umeda returned to Tokyo after an over twelve-year stint in Italy and established his own studio. Apart from product design, he also expanded his practice to include interior design and exhibition installation, as there were more opportunities there in the Japanese market. In the following year, Umeda received an invitation from Sottsass to contribute a work under the theme of ‘new international design’ for a new collective called Memphis. He was one of three Japanese participants, the other two being architect Isozaki Arata and designer Kuramata Shiro. Umeda did not fully comprehend the brief, but having worked with Sottsass for many years, he knew what forms, materials and colours would fit Sottsass’s vision for the group. The main challenge was to respond from a ‘Japanese’ perspective, so he researched on Japan’s history and traditional culture, resulting in the birth of TAWARAYA ( see p. 23 ): an intellectual ‘boxing ring’ that integrated Umeda’s interpretation of Japan’s past and the then state of design in Italy.


Embodying Nature

In the process of rediscovering Japanese history and culture to create TAWARAYA, Umeda familiarised himself with its art history as well. The concept of kacho-fugetsu 花鳥風月 ( literally flowers, birds, wind and moon ), which celebrates the beauty and wonders of nature, and the elegant representations of nature by the Rimpa school moved him particularly. He cites the floral motifs in Ogata Korin’s folding screens and ceramic wares by Ogata Kenzan as direct influences for MUTSUGORO ( see p. 41 ) and his flower furniture series.4 Whether making zoomorphic tableware or floral sofas, Umeda sees these forms as having uses that mayappearuseless(無用の用 )toothers.5 Beitafin-likehandleoraseatmadeoflayersafterlayersofpetals, they may be decorative, but to Umeda, they are crucial to adding life to the project. This is related to the religions of Shintoism and animism in Japan, which attribute spirits to both living and nonliving things. Umeda wants to create works with a ‘living soul’, so one can develop affection and endearment for it, establishing a relationship that is more akin to a companionship, like pets, than the matter-of-fact linkage of object and user. These decorations give the works their identity and fill the gap of what is missing in the rational, stoic rhetorics of Modernism.

Umeda’s source of inspirations usually came from an imagery that had caught his attention, which he would then distil into functional and quirky works of design. For example, the fearsome razor-sharp teeth of the South American piranha fish became a fruit bowl in amiable pastel colours ( PARANA, see p. 36 ), and the physical features of the adorable Kyushu region mudskipper ( MUTSUGORO ) were incorporated into a set of tea and coffee service. At times, it could result in a generic zoomorphic furniture ( ANIMAL CHAIR, see p. 31 ), and in other times, it could be based on unconventional creatures like Mickey Mouse ( TOPPO ) and even robots from a cyber world ( GINZA, see p. 25 ). The moon and the star also made their ways into his designs as a light stand ( LUNA ) and table centrepiece ( STAR TRAY, see p. 34 ).

Umeda changed the way he represents nature when designing the bellflower-inspired GETSUEN in 1988. He shifted from incorporating recognisable characteristics of the source to a direct embodiment of the chosen subject, such as transforming an entire flower bud into a chair. After GETSUEN, he created furniture after other types of flowers, including lotus, rose, plum flower, anthurium, orchid, sakura and, the latest one, ‘peony’ ( see p. 49 ). While the sculptural pieces are beautiful to look at, Umeda always keeps the comfort of the chairs as a priority.