By  on March 25, 2005

NEW YORK — Whether in a remote control that appears to breathe, or juice boxes that seem to be wrapped with the skins of their fruits, designs that convey transient states are among the more innovative creations coming from Japan.

During last weekend’s “Cool Ideas & Hot Products” symposium at the Japan Society here, speakers shared ideas about their expertise. While Western designers are more hung up on form, their Japanese counterparts are inclined to come up with edgier designs intended to express a transient state or feeling, or that focus on such ephemeral qualities as light, air and emptiness. 

Consider a recent exhibition about “haptic,” the Japanese term for the sense of touch. The event’s organizer, graphic designer Kenya Hara of the Hara Design Institute, described a few featured pieces, including a spare white remote control made out of what looked like plastic but was actually biogel, a soft material. When not in use, the device went limp like one of the soft watches in Salvador Dali’s painting, “The Persistence of Memory.” The device stiffened and appeared to breathe when it was in use. He also showed off other equally surreal creations such as hairy lanterns and the juice boxes.

Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a design historian and Masashino Art University professor, highlighted trends in Japanese design, including miniaturization, cuteness, emphasis on the ease of use, minimalism and references to Japanese tradition, and fashion. As middle-of-the-road as these might sound, Japanese designers are ramping up their meanings. Kashiwagi pointed to an eraser with 50 corners as an example of how ease of use is illustrated in everyday design. Its creator apparently wasn’t deterred by the fact that 75 types of erasers are sold in Japan.

Cuteness is still not wearing off in Japan. “Cute has been a key word for the past 20 years in Japan,” he said.

Case in point: a tiny Panasonic washing machine meant to wash one item at a time. Kashiwagi said Japanese designs are always adorable or charming, perhaps because the Japanese have an anxiety about being unfriendly or causing anxiety in others. 

David McFadden, chief curator of the Museum of Arts & Design here, showed an image of a chair that folds out into a precariously balanced table. “It looks as if something is about to happen,” he said. “To me, that quality is unique in Japanese design.”Many of the projects shown, in fields as diverse as product design, fashion and architecture, played with such concepts as air, light and wind. Fashion designer Yoshiki Hishinuma’s clothing relies on wind — instead of padding and boning — to give his garments shape.

Japanese designers place more importance on beauty and delight than their Western counterparts, according to Tatsuya Matsui, a robot designer and architect. A belief that beauty is a “function” rather than a mere decoration is one of the hallmarks of cutting-edge Japanese design, he said. His own robots do not perform labor-saving tasks, but are expressive. His Posy flower girl robot has appeared in dance and music performances and at perfume launches.

“We consider a robot’s function to be the same as flowers — it speaks directly to a human soul,” he said.

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