Monday, June 9, 2014

In search of meaning

In my Creative Strategies class that I teach at Art Center College of Design I talk about a concept that we refer to as “Inspirational Investment”. The idea is that we need to step out of our familiar comfort zone and experience new and challenging environments and situations. And not just virtually over the internet but rather physically and personally. So when we embarked on our Yakushima adventure we wanted to take this opportunity to test our theory once again by challenging ourselves with a design project while traveling. 

On our previous trip to the island we had a chance to visit a lot of the local artisans that introduced us to an amazing raw material: 1000 year old cedar wood! It comes from ancient trees that have naturally fallen inside the micro climate of a sunken volcano that has shaped the landscape of Yakushima. Deep in the jungle-like forest of the island that is filled with waterfalls and moss covered boulders you can see these absolutely majestic trees that grow at a very slow pace and reach impressive heights. The are referred to as “Yakusugi” which refers to their age and indigenous nature.

While commercial lumber production has thankfully stopped, there are still local wood craftsmen that use the wood to create souvenirs for the tourists that visit during the busy summer months. Yakusugi has a very dense grain and is relatively light weight and easy to work with. It also has a very distinct and pleasant scent that comes from the oils that are contained within. These oils also have another benefit which make the wood naturally rot resistant. 

So here is a wonderful material that took over 1000 years to grow. It is a very humbling experience to hold it in your hands as you can count the rings. A medium sized piece could easily have up to a hundred lines on it! As a designer I had to wonder what kind of products I could make out if it that would celebrate the wood and in a way recognize its quality. Thus the question that we asked ourselves for this trip was this one:

 “If we think beyond immediate sales to tourists, would it be possible to design products that honor the 1000 year old Yakusugi by having the potential of lasting another 1000 years?”

This question was a really fun challenge because any product that we would design would theoretically need to last until the year 3014! We love things that last and age with beauty as reflected in the type of products in our shop, so this was the perfect exercise for us and it filled the conversations after dinner when the girls were sleeping. 

We also wanted to soak up as much inspiration from the island as possible so that the products would reflect what we have learned during our adventure. After breathing the life on the island for a few days, we quickly realized that many of the concepts for products which we envisioned prior to the trip were perhaps too contemporary. After all, what kind of design could still have relevance in the year 3014? My initial perspective of creating something very functional (which represents my “Bauhaus” approach) shifted towards creating something that is ultimately very meaningful (which represents Wakako’s “Wabi-sabi” approach). And it was this simple insight that steered our project into an entirely new and exciting direction for us. 

Over the course of our 3 week stay we designed a total of 7 conceptual products and each one of them is rooted in the wisdom and culture of Yakushima. I will be spending the summer creating the actual prototypes as we brought back a suitcase filled with pieces of Yakusugi that we got from an analogue wood vending machine. It was basically an unmanned stand by the side of the road where you pick what you need and then leave the money in a little box afterwards. 

I am very excited to share the designs and the ideas behind them once they are completed, so please stay tuned!  


p.s. finally, we have also settled on a title for this project: “Best beyond 3014!”


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