Like every other Westerner first visiting Japan, I was amazed at the plethora of simple, clever design solutions that seemed ripe for adaptation in North America or Europe. So in 1986 I published 283 Useful Ideas from Japan, pages from which are reproduced below. A few of the ideas did eventually surface in the West, but most didn’t.
Some of the Japanese ideas I documented were actually inspired by American or European models, but then redesigned. Mujirushi-Ryohin, now commonly known as Muji, is an example. Kazuko Koike, one of the brand’s creators (the other was graphic designer Ikko Tanaka), related how astonished she was when she encountered the stark generic packaging then fashionable in U.S. supermarkets circa 1978-79. She explained the concept to her superior at Seiyu, a department store management and development company. He gave the go-ahead to create a more stylish Japanese version. The rest is history.
Durability—physical durability—is, for me, integral to the notion of “a well-designed chair.” On the other hand, physical durability is not so important to the notion of “an artwork.” I expect artworks to be fragile, even when they appear to be robust. So I asked the Knoll V.P. if the deconstruction-prone Gehry Cross Check wouldn’t be more appropriately marketed as a work of art, rather than a chair. He chuckled. “That’s an interesting idea,” he said.
Unfortunately, Knoll does not merchandise art. Knoll only manufactures and markets furniture and textiles.
Knoll was founded in 1938 by Hans Knoll, the son of a German furniture manufacturer. Eight years later he married Florence (née Schust), an architect. Together they built Knoll into a highly respected Bauhaus-inspired furniture brand. By the end of 1965, however, Hans and Florence were no longer involved with the company.
• In 1968 Knoll was acquired by an investment firm.
• Later Knoll was purchased by a pair of Wall Street veterans.
• The Wall Streeters took the company public in 1983.
• They took it private again in 1986.
• In 1990 Knoll was sold to a conglomerate.
• In 1996 Knoll was purchased by a private equity investment firm.
• Knoll went public for a second time in 1997.
• It became private again in 1999.
• It went public for a third time in 2004. . . .
How much of Knoll’s original commitment to quality design and manufacturing remains? (Would Hans or Florence have let the Cross Check go to market? If so, would they have found a way to make it durable, or remove it from the market, once they understood its deficiencies?)
Knoll’s products continue to garner prizes and honors. In 1992, when the Cross Check was initially launched, the chair won six major design awards. The Cross Check was so appealing—and so skillfully marketed—that journalist Patricia Leigh Brown’s article in the New York Times (January 23, 1992) ran with the headline, “With Glue Hardly Dry, this Chair’s a Classic.”
With glue hardly dry, this chair’s a classic?
How can a chair be judged a “classic” before it is field tested for at least a few years? Regardless, Time Magazine gave the Cross Check its “Best Design of 1992” award.” And in 1992 ID Magazine gave it a “Gold Metal.” Even the MoMA acquired a Cross Check for its permanent collection, also in 1992, without waiting to see if the chair really worked as intended. (See MoMAs criteria for design collection inclusion.)
Were Time, ID, the MoMA—and other design institutions—remiss in their critical due diligence?
Or is durability now a minor, even irrelevant, factor when determining a chair’s “design excellence”?
In 1989-91 architect Frank Gehry designed a line of fanciful bentwood chairs. Knoll, one of America’s preeminent furniture brands, manufactured and marketed them. I bought one (the Cross Check). After ten years most of my chair’s glue joints failed. But not because of use; the chair was rarely used. I contacted Knoll and was told the five-year warranty had lapsed. I was offered repair instructions. Later I learned of other people having the same problem with the same chair. Through persistent letter writing I finally found a Knoll V.P. who, after thoughtful discussions, agreed to repair my chair at the company’s expense. On the way to this outcome, some curious questions arose:
How long should a $3,600 chair—the Cross Check’s 2012 retail price—last?
Is the Cross Check’s disappointing structural integrity the result of poor design, manufacturing deficiencies, or both?
Why hasn’t Knoll addressed these problems in the intervening 20 years?
Knoll’s current C.E.O. is also a director of the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum based on the ideas of minimalist artist Donald Judd (1928–94). Judd made both art and furniture. But art and furniture occupy separate, unbridgeable, ontological realms he insisted. According to Judd, art can be manifested in almost any manner or form. Furniture, on the other hand, must principally address utilitarian concerns. In Judd’s words, “the idea of a chair isn’t a chair.”*
Chairs, of course, do embody ideas. This is a big part of the Cross Check’s appeal; it’s chock-full of ideas. It has the lyricism and symbolic complexity of Gehry’s architecture, but in miniature. But a chair is first and foremost a piece of furniture for sitting. If this primary function is compromised because the chair falls apart, is it a bad chair?
Should Knoll market the Cross Check as “an artwork”?
Would this render the preceding issues moot?
*Some chairs do seem to function primarily as ideas. Both Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig Zag and Shiro Kuramata’s Miss Blanche fall into this category. I considered both as possible alternatives when mulling over my Cross Check purchase. I concluded that I really wanted a chair in the Judd-described sense—a useful piece of furniture—not merely a beautiful idea.
Stories—spoken, written, acted, sung, or graphically rendered—are potent aesthetic constructions. I was reminded just how potent when my friend Marta, an industrial and moving-media designer, inadvertently reset my moral compass. This is what happened:
On a cold, foggy San Francisco summer morning I phoned Marta. Marta lives on the sunny side of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.
“It’s warm here,” she said. “Why not come over for lunch?”
After showing me around her mid-century Modern tract house, we sat at a picnic table in her backyard. She then proceeded to tell me about her recent New York trip.
While staying at a friend’s midtown apartment, she saw smoke coming from the building across the street. She looked closer and saw a man in pajamas standing on the building’s tenth-floor ledge yelling, “My apartment’s on fire!”
Sirens soon filled the air. Firefighters scurried into action on the ground.
A bullhorn-amplified voice from the street urged the man to get back inside.
“It’s too hot!” he screamed.
“Help is on the way!” the voice from the street promised.
Feeling utterly helpless, Marta watched. Flames engulfed the entire apartment. The firemen were close, but not close enough. The man jumped. . . .
After a somber lunch I drove back to the city and tried to work for the rest of the afternoon.
Later that evening I received a call from an old college friend. We hadn’t spoken in at least 15 years. She sounded depressed. She said she had lost her job. I inquired about her daughter. She said they were estranged. Her ex-husband was partially to blame. Also, he stopped paying the court-ordered alimony he owed. Consequently she was two months arrears in her rent. An eviction notice was forthcoming.
I suggested strategies to get the money from her ex. She said she tried them all. Useless. She was desperate. “I’ve been contemplating suicide. . . .”
Just then I remembered the fire story and ran the moral calculus. If tragedy unfolds in front of you and you’re powerless to do anything to avert it, that’s sad. But if tragedy unfolds in front of you and you’re in a position to help but don’t, that’s horrible.
I asked my friend how much rent she owed. I told her it would be my great pleasure to send a check—a no-strings-attached gift—to cover it.
After an intense silence, there was calm. Profuse thanks followed.
For the next few days I felt like an exemplary human being.