Remember this wavy chest of drawers? The one that makes you feel like you’re seeing it through rippling water or after a few too many drinks? Shiro Kuramata designed it, and a lot of other iconic furniture of the late twentieth century, influencing a whole raft of European designers along the way. Now you have the chance to see what made his designs so special in a rare exhibition of his work at the Aram Store on Drury Lane.
Shiro Kuramata was born in Tokyo in 1934. He was traditional trained in the woodcraft department at Tokyo Polytechnic High School, and then worked in the Teikoku Kizai furniture factory before studying western-style interior design at the Kuwasawa Design School in Tokyo. He went to work for a small department store San-ai designing showcases and floor and window displays followed by a brief stint as a freelance designer for the Matsuya department store before he opened his own design office in Tokyo in 1965.
His early furniture reflects his background in working with wood – like this Furniture with Drawers series from 1964/5:
But it was the S-shaped, curvilinear Drawer in an Irregular Form, in black stained ash with the drawer fronts lacquered white that he designed in 1970 that made his name. It has a matching, but less serpentine, chest of drawers.
What makes Kuramata special is the way he mixes Japanese simplicity with western Bauhaus Modernism. His work is abstract and minimalist, or as abstract and minimalist as you can be if your chosen field is furniture design. He constantly tried to dematerialise his furniture, using transparent materials such as glass, acrylic and expanded steel mesh. ‘My strongest desire is to be free of gravity, free of bondage. I want to float,’ he said. Here are some of the ways in which he tried to achieve that.
Lamp 1976 Milk white plastic.
Glass table and chair 1976
One of the best known of his ‘vanishing’ designs is this steel mesh with nickel chrome finish How High the Moon chair which dates from 1986.
In 1981 Kuramata became a founder member of Ettore Sottsass’s design collective Memphis, based in Milan. In 1988 he moved to Paris and set up a design practice in the rue Royal. He was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1990. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Modern Art in Toyama. He died in 1991 aged just 56.
Here’s some of his later work.
Table, 45 degrees North Latitude, 1985.
The exhibition at the Aram Store coincides with the publication of the first ever monograph on Kuramata by Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Museum. It comes in two volumes, one of essays and the other a catalogue raisonnee – in an acrylic box cover. 416 pages with 600 colour illustrations.
And if you’re free tomorrow (Tuesday, 2 July) there’s a conversation event at 8 pm in the Design Museum Riverside Hall between Deyan Sudjic and designer John Pawson in which Pawson will talk about the profound influence Kuramata has had on his career. Deyan Sudjic will also be signing copies of the book, which is available at a special price of £75 at the Aram Store during the exhibition (normally £100). The exhibition continues at the Aram Gallery until 10 July.