Journal

Discovering Mingei I

Discovering Mingei I

“The fundamental problem is that many products are created to be sold, not used.”

– Sori Yanagi

2015 was a great year. Prior to that, we were 2-3 years into the business of producing Japan-made Singapore themed porcelain collection and had achieved possibly a cult status of redefining the traditional blue-white porcelain. I was questioning where we should proceed from there, bearing in mind the openness of our consumers towards buying designed-in-Singapore collections.

With the big SG50 celebration coming up in 2015, I decided to give it a shot to possibly update the image of kitsch local souvenirs – to move away from Merlion keychains. The strategy was simple, in order for this to be successful there gotta be 3 key elements – good design, good price and simple production techniques. “Souvenirs from Singapore” was birthed and the first collection – inspired by the 50 icons of Singapore – was wildly successful. I always believed that 2015 was the year which gave birth to the general acceptance and adoption of Singapore design. Due to the seemingly positive outlook, what followed next was the rise of many designers, artists, illustrators and content creators honing their skills, creating fabulous works and along the way developed sustainable business models by pushing out Singapore themed content. While the souvenirs label grew, I also realised that my entire psyche towards content creation had changed. I was in a haste to create the next big thing, perhaps a Merlion figurine, or a plush or whatever that can sell.

So, in a way I was guilty of the opening quote by Yanagi. I was becoming that fundamental problem he mentioned.

I assumed we did change the perception/image of Singapore souvenirs in 2015 yet, I cannot help but to feel that things moved way too fast. It is a little too rushed, and somehow I was not convinced that we had changed the landscape. To continue this approach of content creation adds more to the fuzziness of the already confusing Singapore “design language” than really defining a clear direction. Things were too orchestrated. Somewhat creativity systemised. There's no spontaneity any more. No soul. And then everyone is doing the same thing. Slapping Peranakan motifs on every available product. And then I realised the new Singapore material landscape that I had so earnestly wanted to transform, somehow did transform. It did. But it's more of covering up the old with an additional coat of paint. And I am guilty. I am guilty that whatever I produced seemed like created to be sold. I had become the one whom I wanted to replace. And I should be replaced.

So I decided to put a stop to this – even though it meant that we will lose our investment and our positioning as the good ol local souvenir store. And then we went silent on the souvenirs label. I needed to find my roots as a product designer again.

In early 2017, I visited the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (also known as Mingei-kan) for the first time and was re-introduced to the philosophy of Mingei. I was attracted to Mingei (or otherwise known as the new Kogei) some 10-15 years ago when I first learnt about Muji. The idea of the unknown designer/maker, producing honest, stripped to bare, no fancy, no frills product was mind-blowing at that time – the era of Karim Rashids and Starcks.

The idea of crafting a piece of mono-functional artefact seemed so primitive today, yet I can't help but to admire how a simple artefact like a sauce dish or a rice bowl can contain an entire belief system. Shouldn't this be the type of design we ought to be teaching, making or using? That moment, I decided that is what I wanted to do. Designing, producing and selling simple artefacts for everyday folks. Artefacts that are relatable and honest. And while in it, allow time to shape its course, allow time to shape our identity.

I tried to visit the writings of Soetsu and Sori Yanagi (the father-son duo who were integral in the Mingei movement from its founding to its evolution), scavenging whatever material that is translated in English, googling everything I can find about Mingei and Kogei - in bid to create our own “Singei” (haha)… One thing I noticed, while many of the writings was made almost 2-3 generations ago, it seemed like every account given was parallel to the world we lived in today. What happened in Japan back then seemed to describe what I see in my city today. The shift from expressive Kogei to the unassuming Mingei (the new Kogei some say it), the rejection of “flashy” designs for the honest crafts etc.

"The name “Mingei” combines min (), meaning the common people, and gei ( or , the same character used in geisha), meaning art. It is also an abbreviation for minshuteki kōgei (民衆的工芸), which literally translates to popular industrial arts. Essentially, Mingei refers to the art of the common people."

- reference from Etymology of the Mingei term, MINGEI Project

This year Supermama will be 10 years old. Thats the age of my boy. I often ask myself, what kind of inheritance would I leave for my kids? An Iphone? A silicon door stopper? Some polyester plushies? Maybe some fancy UI-UX interfaces on screens? Or perhaps, a porcelain plate.

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