Garden furniture in the office is the twist behind Japanese designer Shin Azumi’s first office collection FlowLounge, which he presents to the UK market this month. Kerstin Zumstein checks it out
It’s not often when planning an art exhibition that an office furniture collection would spring to mind as an ideal installation. For Jane Won, curator at Chelsea Space in London, Shin Azumi’s famous adoration for Scottish-Canadian film-animator Norman McLaren bore an inspiring link between music motion and static furniture. So when Japanese manufacturer Itoki announced it wanted to introduce Azumi’s FlowLounge (launched in Japan last November – see onoffice issue 03) to the UK market, Won jumped at the opportunity to exhibit the collection – by sticking it to the wall. “Shin has a fascination with anti-gravity, so we decided to show the furniture seemingly floating in the room,” she says.
The connection between McLaren and Azumi lies in the perfect balance of entertainment and experimentation that the designer admires in the animator’s films. Fun and play have always been part of Azumi’s designs, like his recent Shower of Light (2006) while the necessity to appeal to mass audiences never restricted his drive to experiment with materials, shapes and concepts. Azumi’s work is strongest when dancing on the line between humour and sophistication, and with FlowLounge he seems to be retuning to old form.
Born in Japan in 1965, Azumi studied product and environmental design at Kyoto City University of Art, where he met wife-to-be, designer Tomoko Azumi. He went on to work for Japanese electronics group NEC. In 1992 the couple moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art, Shin doing an industrial design course and Tomoko specialising in furniture design. Many design successes followed, each with an individual quirk, such as the Snowman Salt & Pepper Shakers in 1999 with the holes lower than usual so you only need to tilt them slightly, and the Wire Frame Chair in 1998, inspired by shopping baskets. The Azumis liked creating multifunctional products such as the Table = Chest, designed in 1995, which transformed from a low table into an elegant cabinet – quick, easy and fun.
Their products had a certain elegance and lightness about them, but essentially the Azumi leitmotif was that of play. Their designs always seemed to be made for a museum rather than mass production, and they often developed objects that were economically viable to produce in small numbers. But after more than a decade of working together, the Azumis split at the end of 2004, and while both started their own studios in London soon after, the industry is still quizzing the “who did what” of their union.
So how has it been since the split? “Initially it was hard. People would try to take our work apart,” says Azumi. He looks across the courtyard of the Chelsea College of Art & Design, deep in thought. He seems a very private person, very humble – not someone who would want public attention for a private matter. How did your design change when you started your own practice in 2005? “Tomoko was naturally aware of space, that is something I had to work on. How does an object look from a distance? But I guess the biggest difference is that we used to develop ideas in conversation. It was a quicker process, while now I have that dialogue with myself!” he laughs. “Stepping away from my ideas and trying to see them objectively is something I’ve learnt over the last few years. But I also have a great team. We’re four people in my office and I’m gradually getting used to digesting my influences directly.”
With FlowLounge Azumi’s spatial awareness seems to have materialised. To present the collection in the context of McLaren’s films – Blinkity Blank (1955), Neighbours (1952) etc – takes his career full circle, back to the roots of his inspiration. Azumi’s love for animated films goes back to his childhood and he distinctly remembers an exhibition at Kobe University when he was 15, showing McLaren’s work and “how the synchronisation of sound and visual image shocked me. I instinctively absorbed it. But I didn’t have the patience to become an animator, so I became a designer instead.” What he has taken from film is the importance of the audience, ie the end user and their reception defining the success of the film. The same concept is applied to his products. “Only if people use a product the work is complete,” he says.
Azumi sees his objects as stage props and during our photo shoot set up at Won’s installation, the entire space with its large glass window turns into a stage for the passers-by. Visitors are astounded that the furniture is made for the office, which echoes Azumi’s approach to design: “You need to throw a pebble in a pond to create a wave.” For FlowLounge, he researched people’s habits in the office and to demonstrate the results he whips out his laptop and talks me through a PowerPoint presentation of his observations and findings. “Ultimately, I was looking for a space that frees staff from the usual office scenario that to me equals a chicken cage. That rationalised environment simply doesn’t comply to our contemporary context anymore.” The results of his research prompted a clear theme: FlowLounge is based on the quintessential English garden.
“People like relaxing in the garden, alone or in a group. It can be a stage for the casual, informal or social get-together, under parasols, on open lawns … the flexibility of the space intrigued me.” Itoki’s brief was to create office furniture that encourages informal communication. Its product portfolio – consisting mainly of conventional office furniture – was missing a collection that filled the gap for those trendy break-out areas all interior designers want to fit out. Itoki’s choice to commission Azumi was clearly a quest for instantly recognisable products, an ambition that Azumi’s unusual shapes promise to deliver. Looking closely, what he does is take an object that is conservative in one surrounding and plant it into an unrelated environment. So while FlowLounge resembles garden furniture, in an office it is refreshing.
FlowLounge has numerous parts such as benches with multi-purpose cushions, sofas, chairs and stools, plus high, low or side tables with optional mesh pockets, and all these elements work in various constellations (layout samples include Relax, Lounge Meeting or even simply Meeting, then Browsing and Seminar-ing). “The key element of a garden that I wanted to introduce to the office is its open view. A garden is always open – open air, blue sky, looking across the lawn. It has a certain ‘see-through-ness’ about it, you can see through hedges, even through garden furniture, as it is typically designed to see what’s behind it.” This transparency is adopted in most of the collection. The hedge has become a partitioning unit. The soft seater has a mesh back for volume and richness. The tables have holes as if for a parasol but mainly to function as a handle to pick up the item and spontaneously move it into a new meeting constellation. The stools look like terracotta flowerpots. The furniture is light and easy to move. While interior designers are increasingly trying to fit out offices with open and inspirational elements, office furniture design lags behind, with its conventional, traditional products. Azumi wants to facilitate interior design’s ambitions to create a fresh workplace without boundaries.
“Nowadays most people work in isolation, communicating solely through their computers, via email and chat even if the other is sitting right next to them. But the real ideas get exchanged during a coffee break or in the smoking area, so FlowLounge creates an alternative space for colleagues to enjoy face-to-face communication.” The most obvious element of the FlowLounge is the rounded shape of each element. “Square shapes tend to define how and where to sit, whereas these curves get people to sit at different sides in different ways.” He claims his visual idea behind the shape was floating weed.
Azumi’s favourite product is the bench. “I like benches because their design hasn’t developed much. It’s such a simple object but sparks a multitude of usage,” he says. While still designing with Tomoko, the couple developed a few flexible products like the previously mentioned Table = Chest. Although the polyfunctionality of a bench does not lie in the object changing – it is about the multiple ways the user facilitates the object. “For instance, the FlowLounge bench can be a seat, a bed, a table, a worktop – like a grass lawn people use it as they please.” Which brings us back to the end user determining the product’s practicability.
“The fabric was specifically designed for this project,” Azumi points out. “We don’t have a name for it but I was inspired by moss and meadows and wanted to create a two-layer fabric. The hairs are long and allow you to look through the green threads onto a brown ground surface, like seeing the earth through the grass.” The feel of the fabric adds to the softness of the shapes. That softness is part of Azumi’s aim to ease the user psychologically, evoking that state of mind most people experience in a garden, a state of relaxation, comfort (ignoring the weed rage of course) and integrating that into the workplace. Not on show but part of the original collection are cushions that sit on the bench and have one hard-surface side that is perfect for writing on (like a pad/base) or can be turned to the soft side and placed as a subtle partition when you’re eager to keep a little distance from the person next to you. Always handy!
But office furniture aside, Azumi has also been busy designing chairs for the Milan furniture fair and a table for Bernhardt shown at ICFF in New York. In Milan he launched Chloe for Artelano, an upholstered chair with a minimalist structure due to the leg rod running between the seat and the back, creating a complete loop. “Then with the Dress chair for Fornasarig, I took inspiration from a woman in a cocktail dress, elegantly exposing her shoulder and slim legs,” Azumi explains. Tying in with the current movement towards designing furniture like folding paper (see Milan report in onoffice 08), Azumi’s Kai stool for Lapalma was created following the same concept: “Playing with paper provided the inspiration for Kai. If a piece of paper is folded a crisp edge is created, and if it is bent a gentle but tensioned curvature is formed. The beauty of these natural phenomena is fixed in the form of a chair.”
In addition, Azumi presented an extension of last year’s Nextmaruni Lounge Chair now with a side table, and Spiral Bag – a magazine holder for Pure China.
Also on show at the Chelsea Space exhibition was his Strings Chair (high and low stool) for Magis, which launched at Milan. “It’s tricky to design a wire mesh chair after Eames,” he says. “I really pushed for this project – the design achieves high production-efficiency by using just three patterns of bent wires to create the mesh structure.” So what was his overall impression of Milan? “There seemed to be a lot of computer generated sculptures turned into furniture, like Zaha Hadid’s designs.”
Azumi tends to reflect a lot on how other designers work, always questioning how they arrived at the end product, how he would have gone about it, how he would make it better. Even after a decade of his successful career he is still in awe of other designers, in some cases to a point of insecurity it seems. His friend Tokujin Yoshioka created Moroso’s candyfloss showroom during the Milan show week. “We’re the same generation and when ever I see his stuff I think, ‘Oh Shit!’ because he has such a talent for visual illusion. He used three million transparent straws for that installation to create a spectacular illusion of clouds, sea foam or candyfloss. I just thought, ‘Damn, I’ve never looked at straw that way.’”
I tell Azumi about Fukasawa saying to me in Milan (see onoffice 08) that he never looks at other people’s work because he believes that keeps him healthy. He laughs and says even though he agrees, in today’s information society it is impossible to ignore what is going on.
So what’s coming up? “I’ve finally got some product design projects on again, and will continue en route with office furniture as I enjoyed designing for that field.” Why? “Office product manufactures are prepared to invest in the tooling. I have always felt a strong connection with the engineering side of design. The integration of technology in furniture is what I am interested in. Those challenges simply aren’t given with a wooden table so I look forward to experimenting further with office firms that don’t shy away from investment.” So what’s in the pipeline? “Oh no, whenever I mention a name it gets jinxed. But I will say that some British manufacturers have been in touch.”
As we wrap up our day at Chelsea Space, our eyes get fixed on McLaren’s film Neighbours, showing on a horizontal screen. We laugh at the plot of two neighbours fiercely fighting over the boundaries for their properties. The film is amusing but at the same time expresses a pacifist message, calling for an end to all war. Azumi’s work may not have a political note, but he likewise creates that equilibrium between humour and sincerity to perfection, a balancing act he has once again mastered with FlowLounge.