ZEN DESIGN IN JAPAN
Thian Lim - 1260022
ZEN EN DE KUNST VAN HET ONTWERPEN - IO3025
Zen Buddhism 6
Opposites in harmony 6
Japanese dining 9
Twentieth Century 10
Preserving the past 11
AMERICAN ZEN 16
D.T. Suzuki 16
Loewy’s Streamline 18
Modernistic movement 18
The International Style 19
Christopher Dresser 20
Frank Lloyd Wright 21
Final words 22
SOURCE LIST 23
Zen has been around for a very
long time and has steadily been
making its way to the West. The men
and women of the modern world are
becoming increasingly busy and they
are multitasking away. Answering
the phone while typing an e-mail,
people are constantly in touch with
each other. After a while you realize
you have to get in touch with yourself
and create a moment of peace
and reflection. This might be the
Statue of Buddha. reason that Zen design has become
so popular in the Western world.
In this essay I will talk about Zen
influences in Japanese product design
and how this translated into American
product design. Eastern culture has
inspired and influenced the Western
world for a long time and in a lot of
different ways. It is more than natural
that the design world would notice
the arts and crafts of the East as well.
What is Zen? I have found that it
is very hard to formulate an accurate
and concise definition. I think Zen is
a philosophy which helps people to
get rid of the stuff you don’t need;
your worries, fears, preconceptions
and attachments so you can lead
your life without pain and sorrow.
What does Zen have to do
with design? Zen is a philosophy
which the Japanese artists and
people in common, all embrace Zen garden (karesansui) with typical
and express through their products rippling sand, which represents the
and actions. “No ceramic artist, can sea.
attain excellence without intense
concentration and complete
sharpness of mind. Technique is
important, but keen mental awareness
is the most important of all.” Quoted
from Hajime Kato, a potter who is one
of the 33 Living National Treasures
of Japan. This is exactly what Zen
is about. Sharpness of mind and
mental awareness are fundamental
elements of Zen philosophy. By
embracing Zen and it’s teachings,
artists are able to create works of
art which combine exuberance and
simplicity into a harmonious whole.
Traditionally Zen design always
has a sense of elegance and peace
around it. It is the harmony that the
design forms with its surroundings.
Zen inspired buildings for example,
always fit in the environment and
complements it, rather than occupying
it. Zen design has come a long way
and today it can be seen everywhere,
from architecture to electronics.
Creative Zen MP3 player.
Buddhism was introduced in
Japan in the sixth century. In this time
a lot of monasteries were made and
countless paintings and sculptures were
made. Zen Buddhism was introduced
in Japan during the Kamakura
period (1185-1333). The search for
enlightenment “in the moment” led to
the development of other derivative
arts, such as the “Chanoyu” tea
ceremony or the “Ikebana” art of Gonroku Matsuda - Lacquer box.
flower arrangement. This evolution
went as far as considering almost any
human activity as a form of art with a
strong spiritual and aesthetic content.
Handscroll: ink and color on paper.
Opposites in harmony Night Attack on the Sanjo
Palace from the Illustrated Scrolls
Its dedication to the beauty of of the Events of the Heiji Era.
simplicity had a profound influence
on the handicrafts arts of Japan.
During my literary research, I found
that although Zen is all about modesty
and simplicity, many Japanese designs
contained ornamental features.
You might think that ornamental
and simplistic design could never
coexist, but the Japanese prove us
otherwise. The products from Japan
always carry a sense of elegance
and simplicity, bringing the two
opposites together in harmony.
In the lacquer box, you can see
Raku, Shino and Oribe tea bowls. that the ornamental features are in
harmony with the rest of the box. You
can also see that only natural things
are portrayed on the lacquer box.
This is something you see throughout
Japanese design. Often things like
flowers birds and other aspects of
nature are used as decoration. This
love for nature can be attributed
to the Zen philosophy. A lot of Zen
principles concerning aesthetics,
embrace nature as inspiration.
“Shizen” (naturalness), “Fukinsei”
(asymmetry) and “Shin, Gyo, So”
(harmony between man-made and
nature) are principles based on nature.
Along with Zen the custom of
drinking tea came to Japan. The
Japanese were introduced with tea
by China in the Nara period, but they
haven’t developed a passion for it
until the Kamakura period. This means
that tea-drinking had become more
popular now and so are the tea utensils
and equipment. This development
led to an encouragement
of the Japanese craftsmen.
In particular the potters and the
makers of iron teakettles improved
their techniques. Iron was considered
the plainest of metals and thus it would
fit perfectly into the Zen tradition. Traditional Japanese tearoom.
It’s texture harmonized with that of
the pottery tea bowls. The tea bowls
were the main accessories, but they
were no more decorative than the
teakettle or the room itself. So due to
the influence of Zen the bowls were
mostly sober of color. Also, perfect
symmetry was never a goal (Fukinsei),
the more rustic in fact, the better.
Tea ceremony utensils.
The Japanese tea tradition
exhibits a lot of Zen influences. The
traditional arts and crafts of Japan
reflect a sense of beauty and the
essential element of this beauty is the
harmony between the apparently
individual parts. The tearoom is a very
good example of this. There are a
lot of different separate things to be
seen in such a room; there may be
a painting, flowers, utensils and tea
bowls. All these parts are beautiful by
themselves, but they come together in
a broader and more spiritual design.
Another good example of this
kind of harmony is seen at a Japanese
Typical Western porcelain dinner set. meal. The primary attraction for
foreigners at such a meal is usually
the ritual of serving the food, and not
the food itself. At a traditional Western
dinner, all the dishes are of the same
pattern and shape. They unmistakably
belong to a set and any dish that
looks different will seem like an intruder
Typical Japanese dinner set. to the set. At a Japanese dinner
however, there is a variety of designs,
colors and shapes. The craftsman
adds a touch of richness and gives
the objects their own identity. The
harmonizing factor here is the “spirit”
of the craftsman that the dishes
express. The pictures seen on this page
show the difference between the two
styles. The Western style is very clean
and the dishes do not exhibit any
emotion or identity. The Japanese style
however is very rustic and full of spirit.
Japanese products always
possess a beautiful balance between
the exuberantly decorative and
the elegantly simple. This approach
of creating balanced products
has a strong connection with Zen
tradition. Zen is all about finding your
balance in life and living the middle
way. The Japanese have perfected
the expression of this idea in their
products. Sometimes they did tend Modern Tokyo.
to go towards decadence, but the
Japanese always found their balance
in the end and sought their true
refinement in quiet elegant design.
Twentieth Century Asakusa Shrine pagoda, Tokyo.
In the Twentieth century up till
now the Japanese design changed
with time. In the past you had the
more traditional arts and crafts which
were based on the strong links that
exist in Japanese culture between
aesthetics, religion and everyday life.
These traditional arts & crafts include
ceramics, architecture, paintings,
swords and many more. On the
opposite side of these more traditional
arts are the consumer products of
post-war Japan. These products are
the result of the enormous success
of Japan as a mass-producer.
Using imported techniques, they
developed a range of new products
which competed with the rest of
Sony TR55 transistor radio (first export
the world. These Japanese products
product from Sony).
were based on low costs and
functionality and this is exactly why
these products were so successful.
The appearance of these products
did not come from a specific visual
scheme thought up by manufacturers.
Instead, the technological and
economic effectiveness aimed
at foreign markets determined
the appearance of the products.
Preserving the past
Canon PC20 mini copier machine.
At first glance you might think that
these two periods can never come
from the same culture and share no
connections. But the Japanese kept
a lot of their beauty standards despite
influences from the West. This made
sure the link with the past has not been
broken and there can exist a cultural
continuity. This continuity is visible in
everyday Japanese life, for example
in the way traditional dishes are served
and the way small gifts are wrapped.
This is also noticeable in areas where
individual styling plays a big role,
like architecture, fashion, graphic
design and arts and crafts. This is not
so much the case with technological
products, where the designer is mostly
an anonymous member of a big
organization. Here, design is a part
of a very complex formula that also
consists of marketing and sales. But
even here the cultural values have
ensured the preservation of Japanese
aesthetic aspects, like compact Packaging: traditional (above) and
design (see picture Canon PC20), modern (below).
mobility, multi-functionality, attention
for the smallest details and decorative
use of functional components.
This might sound like the West
has influenced Japan in a way so the
Japanese would produce products
that would fit in a Western setting. What
seemed like a Western influence on
Japanese culture, is in fact just another
way of Japan to put its traditional
culture in an international context.
One of the most important
trademarks of a Japanese house are
the standard measurements, which
originates from “tatami” floor mats.
These tatami usually measure 180
by 90 centimeters. In the time of the
Shoguns, one tatami was the surface
area that one samurai needed to put
his possessions away and sleep on.
Six-mat room with tatami flooring and The measurements and proportions
shoji. of each room are defined by these
tatami. This way of looking at design
and shapes, looking from inside to
the outside, from details to the bigger
picture, had a direct impact on the
products which contains a lot of
parts. This means electronics like hi-
fi equipment or cars for example are
designed from another viewing point
than the West was used to. Westerners
are used to look at the whole
product first and then the detailing.
These standard measurements
were also seen in for example the
Kimono. In this context decoration
is also important and in traditional
Japanese design it has a symbolic
function. The rules of color symbolism
is very structured, for example only
children and youngsters are allowed
to wear light colors. The patterns and
designs on the kimonos are always
derived and then stylized from nature.
They are used for decoration as
well as alternating the strictness and
uniformity of shapes and proportions
and accentuating attractive shapes
of women’s bodies. During the
Edo period (1602-1867), when the
merchants became powerful, the use
of decoration and color increased. Art
forms like kabuki theater and ukiyo-e,
which gave a suitable expression
to the “bourgeois” mentality of the Typical layout of a 4 1/2-mat tea room
merchants. Although the materialism with attached Tokonoma and Mizuya.
of these art forms contradict with
the asceticism of Japanese life, this Pachinko hall.
became a very important aspect
of the twentieth century aesthetic.
In the contemporary urban setting
this is seen in the vast varieties of
billboards and neon signs and
the complicated “technological”
appearance of electronic products.
The Edo period had two
important effects on the Japanese
cultural development. Firstly the
traditional aesthetic rules were coexistence of Western and Eastern
carefully preserved as a result from ideas. The existence of this originates
the strictly controlled lifestyle of the from the way cultural values are kept
majority of the people. The second and developed instead of replaced
effect is the new flamboyant style by others. When for example Buddhism
which came to blossom when the made its entry in Japan, Shintoism
West was granted access to Japan remained alive. Japan has always
for the first time. This new style was absorbed foreign elements and is used
typical for all available merchandise to make strange influences their own.
like fans, kimono’s, lacquerwork
and all kinds of luxury items. Today,
both the austere and exuberant
Japanese style directions are still alive.
The simplistic style stems from the
traditional culture; the exuberant style
from the more popular aspects from
contemporary Japanese urban life,
like the “pachinko” halls (see picture).
The contemporary Japanese
design is still based on the traditional
aesthetic. Although this is true, there
is not just one style visible today. For
centuries Japan has succeeded in
combining two contrasting styles.
One is very colorful, decorative,
exuberant and inventive, the other is
monochrome, contains straight lines,
austere and sophisticated. Japan is a
country of continuous dualism, which
expresses itself in for example the
In America, Zen is cool and it is
fashionable. The term is so frequently
used in popular culture, that it has
become part of the vocabulary of
the people. In 1983, Soyen Shaku
introduced Zen to America for the
first time. At the World Parliament
of Religions in Chicago, he among
some others talked about karma,
nonviolence, an end to war, and
tolerance of other religions. At this
conference, he met Dr. Paul Carus,
who asked him to send someone
knowledgeable about Zen Buddhism
to the United States. Shaku, asked his
student and Tokyo University scholar
D. T. Suzuki to go to the United States, Soyen Shaku (1859-1919).
where he would eventually become
the leading academic on Zen
Buddhism in the West, and translator
for Carus’s publishing company.
Since then, Zen has gone through
a Western evolution in America making
American Zen a unique kind of Zen.
One of the first and the one who would
shape the modernistic movement, was
Christopher Dresser. He succeeded
in applying the Japanese Zen
principles in the Western world.
Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966).
Raymond Loewy was born in
1893 in France, and he spent most
of his professional career in the
United States where he became very
successful. One of his best-known
designs, are the works he did for the
Pennsylvania Railroad. To the right
you can see a series of locomotives
Raymond Loewy designed for the PRR.
His designs would set the
standard in American product
design. His streamlined design was
a hit in popular America, and you
would see it in almost every product
imaginable. I think it is this over
saturation of his streamline design, that
people wanted a new kind of design.
People often overlook the fact
that the modernistic movement was
largely based on essential Japanese
principles. These principles were for
example their love for unprocessed
materials, a preference for open
spaces without partitioning walls,
showing the supporting structure
and the use of standard parts.
The Japanese emphasis on a
standard unit as a base for repetition,
and the economic use of parts, was
of enormous value for the frontiers
of the modernistic movement. In the
Japanese culture they saw possibilities
for a new aesthetic. The techniques
that were involved with mass-
Above: Japanese shoji production led to a standardization of
Below: Seagram building with glass parts, which would fit the Japanese
windows resembling the Japanese methods of designing perfectly.
screens. What these frontiers overlooked
though, were the Japanese views
on the importance of materials,
craftsmanship and the spiritual and
moral context of these aesthetic rules.
The International Style
As soon the West was introduced
with Japanese Zen design principles,
they embraced it immediately. The
industrial revolution called for a new
aesthetic that would fit the new way
of making products. The term “less is
more” that everyone probably knows
about, comes from the Zen principle
called Kanso. This was very popular,
because people became more aware
of the environment and overdecoration
was put to a halt. Simplicity and
functionality became more
important terms in American design.
Christopher Dresser was one of the
first to really utilize the Zen principles
in a way it would fit in the Western
society. He was one of the fathers of
The International Style. Dresser was a
big fan of the Japanese culture and
has spread it’s principles in the artistic Kettle (above) and teapot (below) by
circles during the 1880s. In 1876, he Christopher Dresser (1834-1904).
became the first European designer to
be commissioned to visit Japan, which
had reopened its borders in 1854, in
order to view craft and manufacturing
techniques for the UK government.
Dresser stressed the importance of
function, simplicity and mechanical skill,
believing that industrial and scientific
progress would lead to an entirely new
design aesthetic. He showed a lot of
influences from Japan, for example,
he promoted a rational attitude
to design, based on appropriate
materials combined with suitable and
restrained ornamentation. He was
one of the first professionally trained
designers for machine production. Also
interesting is that Christopher Dresser
was for an equal status between the
designer and the manufacturer. He
was one of the first designers to imprint
his signature next to the maker’s mark.
Frank Lloyd Wright
House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in
1867 in America, in Wisconsin. His
mother raised him and wanted him to
become an architect, so she steered
him into a career in architecture. He
came in contact with engineering,
at the University of Wisconsin, without
finishing his high school. After he
worked for Joseph Lee Silsbee, he
joined the Adler and Sullivan firm,
where he worked under Louis Sullivan.
It is here that Frank Lloyd Wright
really developed his own style which
would be copied all over the world.
I noticed that when I was
doing my research, Japanese and
Western design are fundamentally
different. While Japanese more or
less always had the same aesthetic
fundamental principles throughout
time, the Westerners follow each
other up with “better” design. Also
the Japanese people think more
alike, while the Westerners show a lot
of diversity and individual designers,
who influence the design world
in their own way. The Japanese
show a stronger common design
aesthetic. This may be the reason
why it was more difficult for me to find
information about American design
as a whole than Japanese design.
Contemporary American design
and Western design in general has
all been influenced greatly by Zen
principles of Japan. It is a shame
that many people are not aware of
this fact and are oblivious to where
modern design came from. I was
also unaware of this, until I started
this course, and I am glad to know
about the origins of today’s design.
Penny Sparke. Japanse vormgeving in de twintigste eeuw. 1st ed. De Bilt:
Ger Bruens. Form / color anatomy. The Hague: Lemma publishers, 2007.
Gary R. McClain, Ph.D., and Eve Adamson. Zen Living. United States of America:
Marie-Butler Knight, 2004.
Masataka Ogawa. The enduring crafts of Japan - 33 Living National Treasures. 1st
ed. Japan: John Weatherhill, 1968.
Widar Halén. Christopher Dresser. 1st ed. Great Britain: BAS Printers Limited, 1990.