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July 2009

Simplicity, complexity, and the wagasa

Simple_complex I think of complexity and simplicity not as opposites, but as ideas that have a harmonious relationship. In fact, relationship is not even the right word for this implies that they are different things all together. Yet, what is complex may also be simple, though it may not seem apparent until the complexity is well understood. Complex (or complexity) is often used interchangeably with complicated. And while this is a matter of semantics to some degree, when I think of the idea of complexity, several associations come immediately to mind such as patterns, interconnections, systems, links, and ultimately simplicity and beauty. With complexity there is a feeling that it is knowable, even if we don't yet know it. On the other hand, complicated (or complication) seems — even feels — like the opposite of simple. When I think of complicated, at least from the point of view of design (and therefore man-made), different associations come to mind such as randomness, convoluted (as in much legal language of the day), unnecessarily layered, confusion, and so on.

Umbrella My definition here is not scientific but far more intuitive: there is just something more appealing and positive about the word (and idea of) complexity. The problem today is not the complex but the complicated. In everyday life we encounter more complication than complexity. An afternoon at the DMV, for example, is a good place to experience complicated designs (systems, procedures, rules, etc.) and frustration. There you'll feel far removed from simplicity. Yet, if you were to take a class in, say, astrophysics or otherwise take it upon yourself to study astronomy at your local library — astronomy being something far more complex than even the most mysterious bureaucracy — you'd begin to learn from the hard work of others of the complexity of the universe and also of its profound beauty and simplicity. Our personal and business lives may be filled with the complicated, but the depth of meaning and clarity within art and science — and indeed the cosmos — shows us that simplicity can be found when the richness and clarity of the complex is finally understood. The natural world is quite complex yet simple, and it has a lot to teach us. Nature's complex systems remind us that parsimony, for example, is a good rule of thumb for artists, designers, and even scientists, at least as a general guideline. As Issac Newton said:

"...Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain, when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes."
                                                   — Issac Newton

Simplicity doesn't necessarily mean removing the complex; it means removing the superfluous. One reason I'm so attracted to the Zen arts in Japan is that within them there are classic lessons in the natural, the simple, and the complex all living side by side as if they share the same essence.

Wagasa_master There are lessons in simplicity and complexity everywhere, especially in the Japanese traditional arts such as Ikebana, sumi-e, sado (tea ceremony), and so on. There is no room here for the superfluous. Another example of a uniquely Japanese traditional art form is the wagasa (traditional Japanese umbrella). Wagasa craftsmanship uses all natural components which creates a finished product that feels closer to nature. The wagasa is a perfect example of a beautiful man-made product with natural components that embodies elements both of simplicity and complexity. Wagasa is an inspiration for me and is a subtle visual theme running through the PZ Design book (hence the cover). There is definitely a fine art to creating wagasa, yet very few master craftspeople exist today. Last week while still in Japan I had the honor of spending time with the only master of wagasa remaining in Kyoto, the surprisingly young Nishibori Kotaro. In our discussions Nishibori-sensei said that wagasa craftsmanship was indeed a good example of the simple and the complex. Read Nishibori Kotaro's short bio.

The wagasa: simple and complex
Wagasa_kyoto Creating a perfect wagasa is hard and it's an item with its own complexities. For the user, the wagasa is an item with function and great beauty; it's easy to use and easy on the eyes. The making of a wagasa requires specialist knowledge and skill not just of the master wagasa craftsman like Nishibori-sensei but also of several master craftspeople who make many of the individual components upstream. There are several steps in the process involving bamboo craftsmen, woodwork craftsmen, washi paper craftsmen, and the final adjustment craftsman. The components are natural — Japanese washi paper, bamboo, wood, linseed oil, lacquer, persimmon tannin, and tapioca glue, etc. — and the entire process from start to finish involves a few dozen difficult, time-consuming precision craft processes. Below are a few snaps from my time with the wagasa master in Kyoto last week. I'll return to spend more time with him — and try my hand at making a miniature wagasa — when I return to Kyoto in a couple of weeks.

Nishibori explains the long history of wagasa using PowerPoint (ironically).
He's very good at explaining its history and significance.

Nishibori shows me their new product based on the art of wagasa,
the award-winning KOTORI lamp shades. (These are fantastic; a few of the rooms will feature these in our new house in Nara).

The ribs of Japanese umbrellas are made by splitting bamboo into very thin strips.

Nishibori shows me the different kinds of Washi paper used for their designs.

A wagasa in the middle of production. Nishibori-sensei points out the different sizes of washi used and the seams (though it's hard to see the seams; beautiful work.).
The woman on the left is a wagasa designer who is training a younger, aspiring designer (not pictured).
So you can see the senpai and kōhai relationship within the Kyoto shop, overseen by the master craftsman, Nishibori-sensei.

The precision of the final rib structure and the washi paper glued to it work together to fold away simply and elegantly (after you own a wagasa you will usually store it with the handle down).

Wagasa_designers    Owners
kōhai and senpai work to perfect their craft as wagasa dry in the rafters above. On clear days the wagasa are placed in the temple across the street to dry, creating a beautiful scene (note the temple through the window). Right: Mr. and Ms. Nishibori — 5th generation master wagasa craftspeople and owners of Hiyoshiya — pose for the camera in the front of their store.

The front of Hiyoshiya. The workshop is above the store.

Learn more
You can learn more about wagasa and Hiyoshiya by visiting their website in English or in Japanese. If you plan on being in Kyoto, drop by their shop (directions). You can even make an appoitment for a tour and a lesson if you have a small group.

We can learn a lot by studying the richness of Japanese culture, especially its culture of art and refinement. Many of the lessons you can even apply today to your own work and life. It just takes opening your mind and thinking a little differently.
The more "high tech" we become, it seems the more the past has to teach us about the fundamentals of design...and of life. It's important to preserve those fundamentals.

"To respect and preserve tradition is more necessary today than ever before… Bringing old traditions and materials into the lives of the next generation is what we can do and that is the challenge that inspires me and others of my generation."
                                                                 — Nishibori Kotaro

Typefaces give us signals

I'm a big fan of Eric Spiekermann (see this older post on Helvetica). So I was happy to get a tip from Thorsten Happel in Germany about this cool remix below called Typefaces Give Us Signals. Watch it below or on Vimeo.

Typefaces give us signals from erik spiekermann on Vimeo.

Below is the original video made for the BBC nearly 25 years ago from which the audio clips from Eric Spiekermann were remixed to create something more appropriate for our time. Although elementary, the video below is still good stuff even today. So, are you a typomaniac? If you are, you will surely enjoy the documentary Helvetica.

"If letters are the clothes that words wear, then it surely follows that there must be as many typefaces as there are voices, languages, and emotions."

                    — Erik Spiekermann