A long trail of remarkable product designers have walked on the red carpet of Japanese modern design: Sori Yanagi, Shiro Kuramata, Isamu Kenmochi, Riki Watanabe, Katsuhei Toyoguchi, to name a few; and contemporary creators who continually cultivate industrial creativity in Japanese design today: Naoto Fukusawa, Isamu Noguchi, Shigeru Uchida, Toshiyuki Kita, Masanori Umeda, and more. Joining this collective pool of brilliancy is Shinichi Sumikawa, well known for his stylish creations of the SONY Sports and Grip Walkmans, MAMIYA ZD lens camera, and innovative aluminum products, such as the AQUARIUM DUMBBELL, that earned him the Red Dot Design Award in 2012.
Born in Tokyo, Shinichi studied design at the Chiba University Industrial Design Department before joining Sony Corporation as a product designer, developing SONY products, such as the Walkman, radios, headphones and television sets. In 1992, he established Sumikawa Design in Tokyo, and has since, been designing communication tools, cars, medical equipment, sports gear, and other crafts. He is also currently Visiting Professor at Osaka University of Arts. A multi-awardee who is constantly selected in the Good Design Awards and has exhibited his works extensively in Germany, Canada, and across Japan, Shinichi is foremost an aluminum product designer. His designs always evoke qualities of elasticity, smoothness and ease of use with that anticipated gentle but firm grip and touch.
What made you become a designer?
I excelled well in Geometry in school, and always liked Fine Arts. I loved drawing pictures, and was good in maneuvering them more than the others. I discovered that design co-exists both as an occupation and as a form of creativity.
Did you always specialize in aluminum product design? Why?
When I went to the Hokuriku region (north) of Japan, I learned the craft of lacquer ware. By chance, I witnessed the polishing of aluminum, and I was captivated by its brilliance and shiny quality. In the Hokuriku region, there is a wonderful technique of polishing to clean metal. It is a story that goes back eighteen years ago, but since then, I learned to enhance the expression of the curved surface of the aluminum material and to match it with its glossiness, creating my own original worldview. I found charm in the polished curved surface more than in the plane surface.
What are the attractive features of aluminum?
There is a particular sense of beauty that nobody sees in the shine of the polished aluminum. It is like a piece of raw material that is not tainted, over time, and when polished, brings back the original shine. Even in room temperature, you could feel a cold tactile sensation of lower degree than the human body temperature, and I find this feature very attractive. Unlike plastic, aluminum gives you a feel of a luxurious gloss, especially when polished. It is also a recyclable material; therefore, it is gentle to the earth.
What is your particular design concept?
The time used for creating a tool is merely a fraction of a second. As a tool, design exists in time, and does not use a product, but has to be present beautifully as an interior in a room, like it was an art museum. In the group of aluminum works, the concept "sculpture that functions" exists. A product should have easy-to-use features, and when it is not in use, its appearance exists like a work of art in a room.
What makes you different from other designers?
Basically, I have a passion for curved surfaces, and I am considerably influenced by the forms of surrealists, such as Hans Arp, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dalì. Their works stay close to my heart. Since I deal with three-dimensional CAD, I feel fortunate to be in this era that carries out a digital representation of the curved surface. Moreover, I have traveled as a backpacker to 57 nations around the world during my college days, and I believe I have seen a common sense of the world that helps me perceive design in a flexible manner, taking into account various customs that change by country.
How do you think has Japanese product design changed or evolved these fifty years?
Since the chaotic times of post-war Japan, I think that Japanese design, technology and craftsmanship have accelerated to a world top level in this era of high-growth industries.
Can Japanese traditional design and modern design be combined or should they remain separate from each other?
I think modern design and traditional Japanese crafts should continue to be fused while inspiring each other. The traditional crafts industry itself is experiencing a crisis of survival. If it ends here, our culture will be too unfortunate. By leveraging the latest technology and modern design more effectively, we should be able to create a new traditional industry.
Do you think there is a large gap between Japanese design and foreign design? How do they differ?
I find Japanese design exudes an extreme feeling of cleanliness or purity—so much so that I have never seen such a culture that prefers the white color so dominantly. In the design of cars, a white car is most common in Japan. A simple design considers the form itself. But now, there are complicated thoughts about taste, such as in APPLE products, and they bring about mixed feelings about good design.
What is the future of Japanese product design?
I think it is critically questionable if designers today are able to maintain the current level of Japanese design, because the capacity or level of strength of Japanese companies, especially major manufacturers is slowly declining. The present times may have become the era for individuals and small businesses. And, I think young designers need to learn more techniques for molding their skills.
What are your future projects?
For me, form has a variety of effects on the mental state of a person. Beautiful form gives peace and vitality to the mind. From now on, I want to create more works that pursue the spirit of the form, such as working on a large monument.
From form to function, Shinichi’s unique touch for shimmer and resiliency continues to shine on every aluminum display one can possibly think of. Indeed, the era of glossy comfort is here.
For more information www001.upp.so-net.ne.jp/sumikawa