Design Masterworks 19 May 2016

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Shiro Kuramata

Miss Blanche chair

Ishimaru Co., Japan
Japan, 1988 / 1989
acrylic, artificial roses, anodized aluminum
24¾ w x 20¼ d x 36¾ h in (63 x 51 x 93 cm)

estimate: $250,000–350,000

This work is number 37 from the edition of 56.

provenance: Mrs. Mieko Kuramata, Kuramata Design Office, Tokyo | Private Collection, Tokyo
literature: Shiro Kuramata: Essays and Writings, Sudjic, ppg. 77, 104-105 Shiro Kuramata: Catalogue of Works, Sudjic, no. 541, pg. 362 Shiro Kuramata 1934-1991, Hara et al., ppg. 187, 192 Shiro Kuramata and Ettore Sottsass, 21_21 Design Sight exhibition catalog, pg. 68 for a drawing, ppg. 69, 208, 211

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Constructs of the Imagination

The Designs of Shiro Kuramata

The work of Shiro Kuramata, celebrated for its clarity and precision, is balanced with an artistic quality reflecting a poetic image frozen in time: a floating feather, a shattered surface, a disappearing chair and most famously, a rose floating in space. Kuramata’s designs evoke the images of memory and the temporal nature of light and material. The designer spoke often of memory when discussing his work, both recollections of his own experience, but also memories he imagined. His works, what he termed, “constructs of my imagination”, can be understood as reflections of his desire for objects to inspire permanence within a fleeting moment.

Shiro Kuramata was an innovative designer, working with master fabricators in his effort to use simple materials, like wire mesh, glass and acrylic, to create forms which often achieved a new level of refinement. But even his high standards of rational creation could not express the fullness of his thoughts and feelings. Kuramata’s best works stand apart because they so clearly and powerfully become a visual statement with significance more powerful than simple morphology or purpose. Asked about functionality of design, he remarked, “I try to see the object with an innocent eye…I try to do things so that the chair resembles a chair, whilst trying to subvert that relationship with the object.” With his iconic Miss Blanche chair, a sublime object of power and beauty, completed just two years before he died, Kuramata surely achieved his goal: Miss Blanche is a graceful and elegant visual statement, a significant work with layers of meanings, some revealed and some concealed.

Drawing of the Miss Blanche chair by Shiro Kuramata (Drawing courtesy of Galerie Yves Gastou, all rights reserved)

In an interview with Patrick Brunie in Paris in 1989, Shiro Kuramata explains where Miss Blanche came from:

It’s from Tennessee Willaims, A Streetcar Named Desire. The heroine is called Miss Blanche DuBois. It’s a tribute. I don’t know if it was the name or the work that came first…Anyway, when I read that book, my memories of Tennessee Williams — whom you have to read slowly, his life was so rich and eventful — came back to me like an echo. That echo didn’t come straight after I read the book, it needed time to ferment, like sake. The echo was mixed with other things. Memories for instance. I think of Blanche or Tennessee Williams, everything gets mixed up together and takes shape.

Kuramata began to develop the Miss Blanche chair in 1988, which debuted it in an exhibition during KAGU Tokyo Designer’s Week and then in an acclaimed exhibition at Galerie Yves Gastou in Paris the following year. A chair of extreme technical complexity, it required much effort by Kuramata and his collaborators to achieve his desired effect. During the laborious hand-pouring of the material, many tests (including many failures) were mounted to establish the correct ratio of hardening agent to liquid acrylic necessary to create a perfectly transparent frame. Each step in the casting process was an eight hour period, and working within this timeframe was also a challenge. During this process each flower was also positioned by hand to ensure they would ‘float’ within the chair’s glassy structure. Various types of flowers were also tested, and Kuramata deemed that artificial flowers — in fact, cheap artificial roses — were ideal for his purpose: aesthetically they looked the best (real flowers would burn and more expensive artificial flowers had color dyes which would run), but moreover Kuramata understood the parallel between a fake rose and the essence of DuBois as a character. Approximately eight examples were finished by the time of Kuramata’s Paris exhibition, and the studio continued the production, limiting the total number produced at fifty-six, one for each year of Kuramata’s life.

Miss Blanche production process, 1988 (Production photograph by Hiroyuki Hirai. Reproduced from Shiro Kuramata by Deyan Sudjic, 2013, Phaidon Press Limited)

For many, the Miss Blanche chair stands not only as the paramount design achievement of Shiro Kuramata’s career, but also as the epitome of contemporary design created during that tremendously innovative period. Much can be said of the resources and freedom afforded the architects and designers in the economically prosperous Japan of the 1980s. Kuramata greatly benefited from these conditions working prolifically and without restraint throughout this time. As Deyan Sudjic recounts, “In those bubble-era days, any building, no matter how outlandish, any idea for an object or a vehicle, no matter how far-fetched, had a high chance of being realized in Japan…The country was ready to start again, to take in everything that excited it from outside but also to create its own visual identity”. Indeed Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Aldo Rossi, Mario Botta, Philippe Starck, Peter Eisenman, not to mention Nigel Coates and Zaha Hadid all took on ambitious projects in Japan.

Kuramata also used the momentum of his work to diversify his career with projects on an international scale. He exhibited in Europe and America, became close with Ettore Sottsass and was invited to join the Memphis Design Group. Europe was especially meaningful to him. On the decision to exhibit Miss Blanche in Paris, he said, “Take this chair; I was determined from the start to bring it to Paris. That’s what inspired me. Perhaps I hoped that in France, or in Paris, my work would be better understood.”

Like Sottsass, Kuramata was a designer with the rare ability to successfully work in any scale. Throughout his career he created bespoke designs for specific interiors, like small restaurants and bars, as well as large-scale projects like entire residential interiors or flagships for global fashion brands like Esprit and Issey Miyake. He conceived products for industrial production for companies like Cappellini and small-scale works from his studio. His work was playful and coy, yet refined, serious and impactful. Miss Blanche, representing the full measure of Kuramata’s creative energy, remains not just a paragon of design, but with its very name, a recognizable image of beauty, creativity and the delicate nature of our humanity.

Don't look for logic. It comes from an image...that I made for myself.

—Shiro Kuramata