The best books about the best of Japanese product design

Why am I passionate about this?

Since I came to architecture through classical archeology, writing about design was kind of like coming home. I made the switch to journalism after moving to Tokyo. At that time, Japan’s economy was going strong, boom cranes were everywhere, and the worldwide appetite for information about new construction was robust. An outgrowth of my success documenting architecture, my interest in design was sparked partly by the chairs and teapots created by Japanese architects but also by the superb array of daily-use goods available in Japan. The dearth of information about these items and their designers led me to cover design at various scales. 

I wrote...

Japanese Design Since 1945: A Complete Sourcebook

By Naomi Pollock,

Book cover of Japanese Design Since 1945: A Complete Sourcebook

What is my book about?

In Japan, great design is everywhere—from sleek vacuum cleaners to subway posters to the three-wheeled mini-trucks on the street. Keen to share my observations of this with the world, I began this book. To make it user-friendly, I organized the contents like a museum store with separate chapters devoted to furnishings, tableware, textiles, graphics, appliances, and the like. Each chapter features profiles of leading designers and their seminal works. Because I wanted to explain their underlying thinking, my goal was to speak with the designers or those that knew them well. I interviewed former staff and family members as well as colleagues and critics. Procuring my sources, not to mention the photos, was a massive, but extremely rewarding, treasure hunt.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Philosophy of Design: Essays by Sori Yanagi

Naomi Pollock Why did I love this book?

This was one of the first books I read when I began my research.

Authored by Japan’s most important product designer, this essay collection covers a wide range of topics, including the stories behind some of his most iconic designs. I particularly enjoy Yanagi’s explanation of the Cellulose Tape Table Dispenser whose white, sculptural form swivels. How cool is that?

Happily, when the dispenser was briefly re-released a few years ago by a Japanese office goods manufacturer, I was able to purchase one of my own. It sits on my desk, a source of inspiration.

By Sori Yanagi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Philosophy of Design as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

Book cover of Designing Modern Japan

Naomi Pollock Why did I love this book?

This is an extremely well-researched book which provides an in-depth look at how the design fields developed and have evolved in Japan.

Though airing on the academic, I find it very readable, and I consult it when I wish to know more about a particular period of Japanese design history. Having scoured the landscape myself, I have great admiration for the author’s ability to ferret out information – there is no central design museum or archive in Japan – and present it cogently.

By Sarah Teasley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Designing Modern Japan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Muji to Sony televisions, our lives are surrounded by Japanese design. We think we know it, whether it reflects calming minimalism, avant-garde catwalk fashion or the Kawaii aesthetic populating Tokyo streets. But these stereotypes do not portray the creativity, generosity and sheer hard work that has gone into creating design industries in Japan.
In Designing Modern Japan, Sarah Teasley traces the stories of the people who shaped and shape design in modern Japan. Key to the account is how design was seen as a strategy to help the nation thrive during turbulent times, and for making life better along…

Book cover of Japanese Design: A Survey Since 1950

Naomi Pollock Why did I love this book?

I first encountered this book many years before I began my own.

It accompanied a marvelous exhibit launched by the Philadelphia Museum of Art which, sadly, I did not see in person. Arranged by decade, the body of the book features individual products from the 1950s to the 1990s.

This reveals the overlap between different design disciplines and the cross-fertilization of ideas. I love the large photos which pull you in and make you want to read the texts. The supporting essays were contributed by many of the most important design luminaries at work in Japan.

By the time I was working on my book, many of them were already gone. 

By Kathryn B. Hiesinger (editor), Felice Fischer (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Japanese Design as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shows the evolution of Japanese commercial designs over the last five decades

Book cover of Naoto Fukasawa: Embodiment

Naomi Pollock Why did I love this book?

Several years ago, when I was living in Tokyo, I needed a blender.

So, I went to MUJI and bought the one they had on offer. It was smaller than a US model, but the components fit together so easily, and the blades did their job so efficiently. I had to marvel. Unsurprisingly, the appliance I purchased was the product of Naoto Fukasawa who has a gift for making ordinary, everyday goods better. They practically intuit the user’s movement. Like my blender, these are things one buys to fulfill a basic need. But then cannot imagine living without them.

Filled with first-person explanations, this book is a window into the mind of one of Japan’s most accomplished designers. 

By Naoto Fukasawa,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Naoto Fukasawa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brand new monograph on one of Japan's best-known product designers, featuring more than 100 of his latest works

Naoto Fukasawa's simple, restrained, and user-friendly products have an extraordinarily universal appeal. Featuring more than 100 of his latest designs, including furniture, phones, watches, fashion, luggage, and accessories, Naoto Fukasawa: Embodiment perfectly captures Fukasawa's perspective on the dynamic interplay between people, places, and things.

It places the designer's products into the context of the contemporary design world and offers a first-hand account of Fukasawa's design philosophy.

Book cover of Designing Japan: A Future Built on Aesthetics

Naomi Pollock Why did I love this book?

A graphic designer by training, Kenya Hara is one of Japan’s most theoretical design thinkers. He steps back and ponders possibility. Especially where the future of Japan is concerned.

Seated in his elegant office in downtown Tokyo, Hara explained to me years ago that Japan once churned out exports but now, as other countries assume that role, Japan must offer something else. In this book he indicates that something else not a physical object. It is the experience of the country’s rich culture, aesthetics, and underlying values.

Living in Tokyo for many years enabled many chances to savor the smell of fresh tatami mats and the toothsomeness of new harvest rice.

Hara’s thoughts resonate with me, but I hope Japan never stops making elegant, user-friendly housewares.

By Kenya Hara,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Designing Japan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Designing Japan' presents renowned designer Kenya Hara's vision of how his industry can support Japan in crafting a future founded on a unique philosophy of beauty as well as crowd-sourced wisdom from around the world. A master collaborator, meticulous organiser, and globally conscious innovator, Hara draws on more than three decades of participations in design work and exhibition curating, as well as deep professional interaction with creators from many fields.

In 'Designing Japan' Hara reveals methods that make publicly accessible aesthetic inquiries of how this island nation will proceed as its population ages, other nations take over manufacturing, and technology…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Japan, industrial design, and Tokyo?

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