A conversation with Masayo Ave, MasayoAve creation.
Masayo Ave is an embodiment of cultural and disciplinary synthesis. One of Japan’s most intriguing design exports, Ave has practiced in Japan and Europe, and she brings expertise in architecture, product design, landscape, fashion, and lighting design to her work. In projects ranging from everyday objects to architecture, she seeks to expose the emotional value lying hidden within materials, and has led a number of workshops focused on design-related material research. For Ave, design is a process of discovery in which she thoroughly studies a material in order to optimize its potential. She argues that design is a profoundly multisensory experience, and her ongoing experiments with haptic learning promise to break new ground for material applications.
Throughout your career, you have trained in a variety of design disciplines and established your base location in several different countries. As a budding designer, did you know you would embark upon such a colorful journey?
I had been aware that travel would enrich although I did not have any clear picture about how this would happen in the beginning. I have built a career by “sniffing and scratching,” which is my intrinsic nature, and the wide range of activities I have engaged in as a designer is simply the result of small, incremental steps over the course of the last two decades.
I am interested in your first step—what inspired you to move to Italy from Japan?
I wanted to move to Milan in 1989 in order to join the experimental master’s program in industrial design at the Domus Academy. I did not have any preconception about Italian design, mostly because I was educated as an architect in Japan during the mid-1980s—a period that predated the “Italian culture boom” there. I had a basic knowledge about historical architecture in Italy, but I was actually more interested in modern masterpieces by Scandinavian architects such as Alvar Aalto, or European design movements such as the Vienna Secession or the Bauhaus. However, by experiencing Italy without any preconception—not falling blindly in love with Italian design from a distance—I was able to discover the true essence of Italian design purely with my own eyes. I could also analyze and value Italian design rationally within the wider context of European design culture in general. I considered Milan—where I lived from 1990 to 2005—to be a hub in which I could learn about other European cultures and engage the broader environment of Europe as much as possible. Since 2005, Berlin has become my new European hub, and I have also frequented Tallinn in Estonia for a two-year professorship. It has been fascinating to discover different parts of Europe in this way, although I feel that I am still in the middle of my colorful journey.
I can imagine that such a broad perspective derived from operating in different countries would greatly enhance one’s work. I am also interested in your knowledge of multiple disciplines. How might your experience with architecture affect your design of a light fixture, for example?
I consider products to be mini-architecture, which I can build at 1:1 scale on my worktable. I think my design method is always based on the discipline of the architect. I also consider products to be part of the space in which humans carry out their daily lives. It is difficult for me to start designing a single product before getting a picture of the ambience in which the product will exist—not only the user’s environment but also the temporary storehouse of the factory, shop, or even the space of the transport container. Throughout my career, I have noticed that many trained designers can start designing once they have a clear picture of the user.
I wonder if this particular regard for “product space” in the design process is especially Japanese? Despite the fact that you have lived in Europe for many years now, would you say that part of your work is still inherently Japanese?
The answer is definitely yes! Something very Japanese always reveals itself in my design work and reveals my Japanese identity no matter where I am.
Interesting! On this note, I wonder if you could describe the fourteen-hundred-year old Japanese art of shibori, or “shaped-resist” textiles?1 How did you utilize this process to make your shaped-resist polyester products, such as the Hattifatteners hanging light or Ninni floor light, for example? In what ways did you modernize the process?
I studied the traditional Japanese shibori textile technique in 1993 and 1994. Meanwhile, I got to know about an advanced shaped-resist technique used to fix flexible three-dimensional textures permanently within textiles. I became fascinated with the idea to apply this technique to interior items, as I felt that the texture could make products feel naturally alive, even if synthetic fibers were used in making the textiles. So, I made a lot of experiments with shaped-resist textiles in order to understand how to achieve this quality of being alive. I recognized that this character could easily be killed, however, if manipulated in the wrong way. I knew that I needed to learn the best way to bring out the intrinsic character of the material—which is actually the key to approaching any material in design.
In the years that followed—from 1995 to 1997—I realized models of handicraft textile applications in lighting and furniture—such as the Mimura floor lamp, the Toft cushion, and the Filly table cover, in addition to Hattifatteners and Ninni. I realized the key to optimizing volume and handling light effectively by making models, and I also applied the method to create the Genesi light using open-cell polyester foam. Actually, I always consider Ninni to be the mother of Genesi. In my design process, low-tech practices often create the sparks that initiate work with high-tech materials, and that’s why I always experiment with both methods.
Read the rest of this conversation in the book Matter in the Floating World: Conversations with Leading Japanese Architects and Designers, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
1. Shibori, or shiborizome, is a Japanese method of dyeing cloth dating to the eighth century that involves folding, binding, twisting, and other physical manipulations.