“For nearly four months, I traveled on a boat to thirty different countries engaging in arts and social practices through a non-governmental organization that worked to promote peace, human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development,” says Kazuki Guzmán about an experience that shaped him as an artist and as a person. “It made me look deeper into my own roots and got me interested in Japanese traditional crafts.” By integrating crafts with industrial technology, the Chicago-based designer—he also serves as the assistant director of the Sullivan Fabrication Studio, the makerspace of the Architecture, Interior Architecture, Designed Objects department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—aims to preserve history and skills that remain integral to how we evolve. In a conversation, he talks about the origin of the mingei movement, his never-ending search for inspiration and the myriad of things we can learn from traditions and objects from the past as we design for a better future.
How did you first get interested in design and how would you describe your aesthetic?
I’m a Chicago-based designer who creates domestic objects and furniture. My ongoing research focuses on mingei—Japanese folk crafts—as a methodology for an appreciation of handmade culture and sustainable design. In 2011, I received a BFA in Sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was awarded a travel fellowship. For nearly four months, I traveled on a boat to thirty different countries engaging in arts and social practices through a non-governmental organization that worked to promote peace, human rights, environmental protection, and sustainable development. This experience, volunteering and working internationally, has actually made me look deeper into my own roots and got me interested in Japanese traditional crafts. As I started my research, I soon realized that these objects were not only beautiful, but carefully designed, giving considerations to material usage in simple forms. Inspired by mingei objects, I would describe my aesthetic as minimal, playful and somewhat Japanese.
What excites you the most about Mingei?
The word mingei was coined by Muneyoshi Yanagi, the founder of the Mingei Movement, nearly one hundred years ago. It’s short for minshu-teki ko-gei, which means crafts of the people. These objects were mass-produced using local materials, by hand, by non-artisans, for everyday use. To me, what’s exciting about the mingei is that their aesthetics and principles are still so relevant to contemporary design discourse even after all these years (minimal aesthetic, sustainable use of materials, inclusive design). In a way, they are relevant now more than ever because of the advancement in technology and our longing for warmth in objects and things handmade. We can learn so much from the traditions and objects from the past and apply them into our contemporary lives as we design for a better future.
Where do the lines between contemporary design techniques and craft traditions, almost as old as the human race, blur?
It’s a very good question and honestly I’m not sure where the definitive line is. It’s an area that I like to explore through my practice, while giving new ways of expression to the traditional crafts using advanced fabrication processes and/or materials. I often use advanced technology such as CNC machining or 3D printers to fabricate my work. One thing that many people don’t realize is that these automated, digital technologies still require training, skills, and a level of finesse to get the objects exactly the way you want them to be; in a way, it is a craft of our time.
Is there a specific project or piece or design of yours that you think is particularly indicative of who you are as a designer?
Since I’m the one making all these objects, they are all indicative of who I am as a designer. At the same time, however, I try not to make my design work too much about me and shift the focus more toward particular traditions that I’m trying to highlight and how they relate to the viewers. To give an example, I recently designed a collection of hammers called Hammer Study. They are a formal and phonetic interpretation of this elemental tool and the title for each form derives from various Japanese onomatopoeia which reveal the subtle, cultural sensitivity to material properties, i.e., Kotsu-Kotsu is the sound of a solid object lightly hitting a surface, whereas Gan-Gan suggests a violent, aggressive noise. The collection was produced by combining the mechanical efficiency of a stainless steel 3D printer and the handcrafted artistry of the master craftsmen in Kyoto, Japan, who applied different patinas on them using traditional techniques. While my design development is rooted in Japanese culture, the hammer is one of the most common and foundational tools used by professionals and DIYers alike. I often understand my role as a designer to be something like glue, a filter, or a translator so that the audience can also access and participate in a larger design discourse, as well as develop curiosity for traditional crafts.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’m always inspired by mingei objects as well as kokeshi dolls. Kokeshi are wooden dolls native to the north of Japan. The objects are intimate expressions of the land, diverse regions and the people. The design, though centuries old, has a sensibility very much in tune with the contemporary world. What I find most inspiring about these dolls is the process in which they are made, specifically the intimate relationship between the object, their makers, and the land. Most of the kokeshi craftsmen live in the mountains and grow their own trees. Once the wood is mature, they log the trees and air-dry them until they are ready to be machined on a lathe. The craftsmen use handmade tools for carving shapes into the wood. All the wood chips created during the process are burnt in the fireplace to keep the house warm in the cold northern climate. The ashes from the fireplace are taken to the farms and to the forest to fertilize the land. This process allows the craftsmen to cultivate the field and continue growing trees which will later be turned into kokeshi. It is a beautiful, sustainable cycle of earth, craft and life.
Anything in the works?
I recently finished a birdhouse that will be exhibited in New York City during their Design Week; Piyo-Piyo is a duplex birdhouse that investigates a sustainable relationship between nature and humans through craft and sharing. The exterior is constructed with Yakisugi walls; Yakisugi is a centuries-old Japanese technique used to preserve wood by charring the surface. Through the process of carbonization, it makes the wood more durable, waterproof, flame-resistant, and protects itself from decay, rot and insect infestation. The duplex symbolizes the idea of cohabitation; by sharing the knowledge and resources, humans not only take away but can leave a positive impact on the wildlife habitat.
What kind of impact do you hope to make in the world?
My goal as a designer is to create a body of work that will bring awareness to the Japanese traditional crafts that are slowly fading away along with their makers. I want to expand the accessibility of the traditional crafts and create new possibilities for collaboration among makers of all fields. Most importantly, I want to preserve the evidence of the past, not as an imitation, but as an inspiration for the creative spirit of the present, so that I too may keep growing as a contemporary designer shaping objects of equivalent value in my own way, in my own time, making the best use of industrial processes and materials available at our disposal.
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