Sori Yanagi is one of the most influential and prolific creators of his time : he became director of the Museum of Popular Arts in Tokyo in 1977. His work spans from industrial design to craft, and perhaps is most recognized for his butterfly stool. Let’s discover the intriguing story of his life and career, and some of his most striking designs.
Yanagi was influenced by Le Corbusier as well as by Charlotte Perriand, whom he translated for when she was in Tokyo during the early 1940s. Perriand introduced him to product design, and his interests later moved from painting to buildings to design and objects. Most of Yanagi’s designs are very simple and beautiful. His products illustrate his thinking: true beauty is not made, it is born naturally. When he created a new product, he made the first versions over and over by hand, seeking new forms that took shape from both new and old ideas. A consummate modernist with a deep reverence for tradition, Yanagi’s 50-year teaching and design career produced a myriad of forms linked by simplicity, economy of materials and means, and unassuming practicality. Buildings, bridges, teapots and torches all received the same thoughtful consideration, multiple hand-made models, and eventual production in the simplest, purest form.
“I try to create things that are useful in our daily lives, and during the process, beauty is born naturally.”
Sori Yanagi’s Career
He was influenced by Le Corbusier as well as by Charlotte Perriand, whom he translated for when she was in Tokyo during the early 1940s. Perriand introduced him to product design, and his interests later moved from painting to buildings to design and objects. Most of Yanagi’s designs are very simple and beautiful. His products illustrate his thinking: true beauty is not made, it is born naturally. When he created a new product, he made the first versions over and over by hand, seeking new forms that took shape from both new and old ideas.
Yanagi was born in 1915 in Tokyo, Japan. His father is Yanagi Sōetsu, founder of the Japanese folk crafts mingei movement, which celebrated the beauty of everyday objects, and the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan). The Mingei movement was a conscious attempt to distinguish ordinary crafts and functional utensils (pottery, lacquerware, textiles, and so on) from “higher” forms of art – at the time much admired by people during a period when Japan was going through rapid westernisation, industrialisation, and urban growth. In some ways, therefore, mingei may be seen as a reaction to Japan’s rapid modernisation processes.We can clearly see the effect of this philosophy on Yanagi’s career, as his design was focused on functional everyday objects, elevated with subtle intention. His father’s main focus was on beauty. The beauty of folk crafts, he argued, lay in: (1) the use of natural materials and “natural” hand-made production; (2) traditional methods and design; (3) simplicity and (4) functionality in form and design; (5) plurality, meaning that folk crafts could be copied and reproduced in quantity, leading to (6) inexpensiveness. Beauty was also be found in (7) the fact that folk crafts should be made by anonymous – or “unknown” – craftsmen, and not by well-known named artists. Finally, (8) there was the “beauty of health”, whereby a healthy attitude during the manufacture of folk crafts led to healthy crafts. In other words, beauty and folk crafts were the product of Japanese tradition – a tradition which he emphasised by saying that mingei should be representative of the regions in which they were produced and make use of natural materials found there.
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 led to the Japanese Government instituting a system designed to protect what it considered to be the National Treasures of Japan and individual artist-craftsmen – popularly known as “national treasures” – who were deemed to be holders of important cultural skills This resulted in enormous consumer demand for hand-made folk crafts, which many people thought included such things as tooth-picks and log cabins, as well as more mainstream crafts. This demand came to be labelled the “mingei boom” and continued until the mid-70s, since when it has gradually declined until becoming almost irrelevant to contemporary Japanese in the 2000s. Nevertheless, craftsmen who had been struggling to make ends meet before and just after the Pacific War, suddenly found themselves comparatively well-off; potters in particular benefited financially from the “boom”. With all the publicity surrounding folk crafts, new kilns were set up everywhere. So far as the purists were concerned, however, the day of the “instant potter” had come to accompany the other “instants” of everyday life in Japan – coffee, noodles and geisha. The average craftsman, they said, was interested in mingei for the money that was to be made from it, rather than for its beauty. It was little more than an urban elitist fad
Sōri entered Tokyo Art School (now, Tokyo University of the Arts) in 1934, where he studied both art and architecture. Then, he became Charlotte Perriand’s assistant between 1940 and 1942 during her trip to Japan. This experience has a huge influence on her work but it also marks a whole generation of Japanese designers. Sori Yanagi is at the forefront to discover European Modernism and reflections on industrial design thanks to his collaboration with Charlotte Perriand. In 1947, he studied these fields and he won the first prize in the Japanese Industrial Design Competition. He is the son of Sōetsu Yanagi, founder of the Mingei movement, celebrating Japanese ancestral know-how and the beauty of everyday objects, Sori Yanagi gives prominence to crafts creating a two-headed rich design. The « Yanagi Industrial Design Institute » was opened in 1952, where his basic principle of “design by hand” accompanied his admiration for what he called “anonymous design” such as the Jeep, or a baseball glove. and. This idea found natural expression in his life-long interest in designing household objects such as kitchen implements. It is estimated that each year over 500,000 of Yanagi’s famed Teapot are sold in Japan alone. For Yanagi, the intrinsic beauty of an object expressed itself through the successful utility of the design, and the design expressed its’ own success by ease of use and simplicity of production.
After World War II, he designed many products: furniture, three-wheeled vehicles, Olympic cauldrons, pedestrian overpasses, etc. One of the most famous pieces of furniture is his Butterfly Stool which won a gold prize at the Milan Triennial XI. Announced in 1956, its 2-piece form has been compared to a butterfly’s open wings. Alternately, the shape can be seen as the gateway of a Shinto shrine or even an antique samurai helmet. In effect, it is a form that is both modern and timeless, that has won critical acclaim and prizes, and is included in major collections such as the Museum of Modern Art New York and the Ruble Museum. This one is a true poetic materialization of the meeting between the East and the West. This creation is exemplary for more than a reason. It conceived according to the curved laminated plywood technique : its two similar wings, like butterfly ones – hence its name – are connected to each other by a simple brass rod. This type of seating did not exist in Japanese culture : its function is occidental, but its form is a tribute to Japan , reminding both ideograms and torii, these portals marking the entrance to Shinto temples. The « Butterfly » stool is an hybrid work : it is a simple and organic creation, in its form and materializes the perfect union between industrial design and Japanese craft tradition. Engineered according to strict tectonic principles of tension and compression, these visual references imbue the piece with the subconscious strength of traditional associations, while it’s elegant organic form exhibits the modernist principles of simplicity and practicality shared by his contemparies such as the Eames, Alvar AAlto, and Corbusier. Yanagi’s influence as both a designer and teacher grew throughout his lifetime, and continues to be seen among current designers both in Japan and around the world. “Over time, he has become timeless.”
Yanagi designed the official torch for the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. “Things that are easy to use survive, regardless of what is fashionable, and people want to use them forever,” Yanagi said in a 2002 Japan Times article. “But if things are created merely for a passing vogue and not for a purpose, people soon get bored with them and throw them away. Credited with paving the way on the international stage for younger Japanese designers, his legacy was not just the products he designed.
Sōri Yanagi died in 2011 at the age of 96.
Sori Yanagi’s Most Iconic Designs
The postwar years in Japan were marked by the reconstruction effort. As Japan was under the supreme command of the Allied Forces, the Institute of Industrial Art was instructed to develop furniture and electrical appliances for houses for the occupation forces and to produce them throughout the entire country as quickly as possible. The scheme lasted until 1947, and, based on American models, led the Japanese to adopt Western technology. Americanisms permeated daily Japanese life; and the influence of Western style remains undiminished even today. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, Japan profited immensely as a neighboring country and experienced a tremendous economic upswing. This upswing was fueled further when the occupation of Japan ended in 1951. Renewed independence led to the founding of numerous companies, universities, and cultural establishments. In 1952 Sori Yanagi was among the founders of the Industrial Design Association (JIDA) and the Japan Design Committee, which had set itself the task of fostering the influence of designers within company hierarchies, for they had previously been excluded from decisionmaking processes: their job consisted solely in lending existing products a new (in other words, Western) look. That same year, Yanagi opened his own design studio and won first prize for a turntable in the very first Japanese design competition. Against this background, the “Butterfly” stool can be regarded as extraordinary for several reasons. Yanagi borrows no known Western forms. This is all the more astonishing given that he spent a great deal of time with Charlotte Perriand between 1940-2, and later as well. She went to Japan on the invitation of the Japanese Secretary of Commerce and Industry to give design a new orientation. Yanagi was at that time a French student, and accompanied Charlotte Perriand on her travels through Japan, thus becoming acquainted with the European classic Modernity. This was quite possibly the source of Yanagi’s interest in seating furniture, which did not exist in Japanese culture. Even today many urban households are quite content without any seating furniture whatsoever; traditionally, one sits on tatami mats on the floor.
Yanagi used the plywood molding technique made famous by the Eameses to mass-produce the stool at the Tendo Mokko Company. The stool features an unusually clever construction: two identical forms are attached together symmetrically around the axis using two screws underneath the seat and a threaded brass rod. This yields a shape which on the one hand is reminiscent of the torii (portals) of Shinto shrines and is thus Asian in expression; on the other hand, it resembles the wings of a butterfly, from which it derives its name. In 1957 the stool was awarded a gold medal at the Milan Triennial. Constructed of two identical pieces of plywood seamlessly combined using only a screwed-on brass rod and two screws under the seat, the deceptively simple design was perfected over three years in collaboration with furniture maker Tendo Mokko and plywood researcher Inui Saburo. Now over 60 years old, the Butterfly Stool remains an enduring international style icon and can be found in major collections such as that of MoMA and the Louvre.
2. Elephant Stool
Yanagi’s classic three-legged Elephant Stool debuted in 1954 and is one of the most famous examples of Japanese post-war design. A stacking stool which can be used indoors or outdoors, its clear functional form and versatility has enjoyed enduring appeal. Originally produced in fibreglass, the current model was updated by Vitra in partnership with Yanagi in 2004 and is made from recyclable polypropylene. Vitra is a Swiss family-owned furniture company with headquarters in Birsfelden, Switzerland. It is the manufacturer of the works of many furniture designers. Environmental consciousness finds expression in every aspect of Vitra’s work. It is manifested in how Vitra develops and manufactures its products, in the sourcing of raw materials and the organisation of its supply chain. Every new insight is regarded as an opportunity for further development. So, it makes perfect sense given Yanagi’s feelings about quality and sustainability that Vitra would be the producer of his designs.
In an interview, he said “Machine manufacturing must switch from quantity to quality. Design must switch from cheap, flashy coquetry to quality design with an honest purpose to truly serve mankind. As resources on this earth diminish, it will be impossible to maintain desire for mass production any longer.”
3. Tea Kettle
Beneath the kettle’s deceptively simple exterior is a highly functional and carefully calculated design: its every feature developed for maximum usability, from the wide sturdy base which ensures water is boiled fast and efficiently, to the ergonomic handle which enables effortless pouring. It was the winner of the Good Design Award for exceptional design and functionality in 1998, and remains one of Yanagi’s best-selling products today. The Yanagi Sōri series of kitchenware is produced by Nihon Yoshokki in Tsubame city, Niigata Prefecture. Work on this curvy, aluminum kettle — one of his most memorable designs — took Yanagi more than two years. The wide bottom conducts heat well, while the molded handle makes it easy to pour water. The kettle is still being sold today. Yanagi strongly believed that beauty cannot exist without utility, and often used to quote William Morris: “Art is man’s expression of his joy in labor”
“Making use of tradition is not the act of faithfully imitating it. It means creating something new, according to its principles, using techniques and materials.”
It manifested itself in a firmly held belief that beauty can only be be born in a strong, close-knit community system.
4. 1964 Torch Holder for the Tokyo Olympic Games
He also designed the torch holder and the seats in the stadium for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964. The designer’s focus was to always create long-life products that people finds timelessly useful in everyday life. His philosophy and passion towards the organic beauty in his line of work have been appreciated around the world. The torch was the amalgamation of two Japanese businesses: Showa Kaseihin and the acclaimed designer, Sori Yanagi.The Cylinder: The gauntlet was thrown down the by the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee: create a torch that would “absolutely not go out, even in the rain.” The job to develop the cylinder and the fuel to sustain a fire was given to defense contractor, Showa Kaseihin in early 1964. The cylinder, from the tip of which flames would fly, is 55 centimeters long, 3 centimeters in diameter, and 54 grams in weight. Inside the stainless steel cylinder, Showa Kaseihin (which is now called Nippon Koki) packed a chemical amalgam into the cylinder of red phosphorus, manganese dioxide and magnesium. The flare-like flame that emerged when the amalgam was lit would last up to 14 minutes come rain or shine, while creating a billowy trail of smoke that can be seen from afar.The product of this collaboration is an Olympic torch which fits nicely in one’s palm, its heft equal to its gravitas, its lines simple and striking.
5. 1974 Stainless Steel Cutlery
This cutlery series first went on sale in 1974, the first item in Yanagi’s kitchenware series commissioned by the Sato Shoji corporation. Simple, enduringly elegant and above all highly functional, each individual piece has been meticulously calculated for ease of use: from the distinctive curve of the fork which allows it to effortlessly spear or lift food to the mouth, to the characteristic width of the knife which makes it equally suited to both spreading and cutting. The Yanagi Sōri series of kitchenware is produced by Nihon Yoshokki in Tsubame City, Niigata Prefecture.Nihon Yoshokki Co Ltd was founded in 1955 in Tsubame City, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, which is the center of cutlery and steel manufacturing. It manufactures most of the Sori Yanagi-designed kitchenware and tableware.
6. Stainless steel bowls and punch-pressed strainers
Simple and functional, yet sleek and elegant, Yanagi’s timeless series of bowls were first designed in 1960. Their ergonomic form developed as a result of extensive research with chefs and domestic cooks. The strainers were later developed in 1999, each designed to fit perfectly inside the matching stainless steel bowl leaving enough room to drain liquids. The Yanagi Sōri series of kitchenware is produced by Nihon Yoshokki in Tsubame City, Niigata Prefecture, an area famous for the quality of its stainless steel and metal-working craftsmanship. The bowls are by now a very familiar form, that can be found at just about any kitchen store. Yanagi’s subtle lines remain unique, and the fact that he pioneered the vision for a product so simple and effective, that has become mass produced and engrained into our daily lives speaks volumes to his efficacy as a designer.
Yanagi believed that it must be possible – or even necessary – to reconcile modernity with tradition. “Because it is the machine age, it is necessary to make handicraft works and adopt them, at least partially, in human life” – he wrote shortly after World War II ended. “Nowadays, at a time when humanity is lost, the people should sympathize profoundly with the warm humanity in folk craft and its profound purity.”
He played an essential role in the consolidation of the emerging design profession as a founding member of the Japan Industrial Designers Association in 1952. Also, he wrote extensively on design, including his book Sori Yanagi’s Works and Philosophy (1983). He also played a role in Japanese design education, teaching at Women’s Art College Tokyo (1953-54) and the Kanazawa University of Arts and Crafts.
Sori Yanagi is one of the most influential and prolific creators of his time : he became director of the Museum of Popular Arts in Tokyo in 1977. He creates furniture, lightings, toys, dishes, cars, motorcycles, but also a tape recorder for Sony, or metro stations. Sori Yanagi is a true Jack-of-all-trades : he created the Tokyo Olympic Summer Torch in 1964. It is a consecration for this designer showing to the world the vitality of modern Japanese design.