Simplicity, complexity, and the wagasa
July 20, 2009
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.
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:
— 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.
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
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).
LEFT: The 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.
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.
— Nishibori Kotaro
Nice post Garr
This is an angle looking at the simple, complicated and complex I hadn't thought about before.
Have to you seen Dave Snowden's work on complexity and the Cynefin Framework? It is well worth a look and Shawn Callahan over at Anecdote has done a simple video looking at the Cynefin framework here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mqNcs8mp74
Posted by: Geoff Brown | July 20, 2009 at 07:43 PM
What a wonderful post and thank you for opening my eyes to the beauty of of the wagasa.
I look at complicated as being able to be explain by looking at the parts (ie a watch mechanism is complicated - it can be explained by being taken apart). Complexity on the other hand cannot be explained that way. They have an inherent coherence as a whole which disappears when looking at the part in isolation. Jazz is a great example of that. It is complex but its coherence gives it simplicity.
I like to think of simplicity as being simplification + coherence. Simplification being the removal of the superfluous as you mention in your post and coherence being the ability to create one thing out of many (for example we tend to think of our cars as one object rather than many parts working in harmony what we call punctualisation and depunctualisation in networks).
Thank you again for your continued inspiration.
Posted by: Emmanuel | July 20, 2009 at 08:13 PM
I visit this site frequently, Garr, and you have transformed my life in many ways both simple and complicated to explain. Ironically.
This post was a lot more spiritual than your average post. Your respect and deep love of Japan, Japanese culture, and the Japanese people is obvious, but posts like this one make it clear how intimate and beautiful that relationship is. Thank you for sharing that with your faithful (and casual!) readers.
Your story about the art of wagasa makes me think about refinement more than anything. The dedication to daily improvement that is required to create such simplicity from something a human being could make so utterly complicated is awe-inspiring. With machines creating so much of the world around us, keeping touch with how the human soul creates through the human hand is so vital. Thank you for taking the time to drive that lesson home.
Posted by: Ricardo | July 21, 2009 at 12:16 AM