The advantage of Japanese design is oozing elegance and harmony

2013.04.14 Updated


Photo: Rama Gheerawo

Rama Gheerawo

Deputy Director, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art: UK

Interviewer: Hideki Akiya (Toyota Boshoku Corporation)
Interview date: Oct. 12, 2012 PM 18:30-


— First of all, next year, it will have been 10 years since IAUD was established in 2003. What do you think of the progress of Japanese universal design in the last 10 years?

Rama Gheerawo: I think IAUD has been achieving dynamic growth. They began their activities with a powerful start and have been continuing without letup. In other parts of the world, we usually start with something small, and then progress gradually to gain momentum.

130 Japanese companies have participated in IAUD thanks to the encouragement of Prince Tomohito as well as members’ efforts.
This is a story I hear when I travel all over the world; people in other countries said they admire Japan’s achievement in Universal Design. They wonder how this happened and I think it’s a couple of things. One is that the Japanese have strong organization, strong commitment, and strong values. As the result, many external organizations wanted to participate. I think having the government, the prince and now his daughter, Princess Yoko support the work is admirable. I think that royalty, government, and business working together is a very strong formula for success.

— How do you feel about what is our Japanese role to progress universal design in Asian area?

Rama Gheerawo: I think there is probably a global role, not just in the Asian arena. There are many things that I see here in Japan that are good design, great design. I think one of the challenges perhaps for Japanese companies is to showcase these globally. I see it in vehicles, in bathrooms, in kitchens. I think because the world is a more global place, I meet many people, Europeans, who talk about wanting a Japanese bathroom. I think Japan’s role is for the world rather than just the Asian market. The challenge is how does Japan communicate these great technologies and products and make it kind of useful and marketable to the US, to Europe, to Africa, India, Russia.

Could I add just one or two sentences just to say, I think there is a leadership role perhaps to play. I have been coming to Japan to the Congress for three or four times now. When you see the growth of ideas from the functional to the emotional, I think there’s a Japanese design flavor that you can see very strongly emerging. I speak as a designer here. There is a Japanese identity for design that I think is attractive and it’s emerging on the world stage.

— I am very, very proud as a designer. This is very personal, but your comment will give my colleagues great courage and pleasure.

— I think we Japanese and many people who live in Asia have changed our sense of security since Japanese met the tragic earthquake and tsunami last year. Now we have two points: first is saving our life from the future natural disaster; second, getting back our safety daily life after disaster. These two issues are very serious problems for us. Then, I have a third question. What do you think of how do we have to do to realize sustainable society in terms of saving life and recovering our daily safety life after disaster?

Rama Gheerawo: I think sustainability has three components. One is environmental, the next is economic, and the final one is social.

I think the environment during natural disaster is very difficult to control but what can be planned for is the social and the economic re-growth. I believe universal design has a really strong role to play in managing that social growth.

This builds on some core values that I feel when I visit Japan, things like respect, valuing other people, their life, their property. The Japanese flavor of design which I see as ‘elegant simplicity’ is also important. I think of Lexus, I think of Panasonic. I feel that those kind of values when brought into human context, can help set a framework for recovery.

— Can I ask very personal question? Now, I am living in Milano. I think in Milano, elegant and simplicity, many, many designs in car exist there. What is different from Milan, Italian elegant simple from Japanese?

Rama Gheerawo: Sure. It’s a good question. I think for me Italian design has an emphasis on extrovert beauty. The products make us feel great beauty the moment we saw them; the beauty is obvious and is recognized instantly. Japanese design is about elegance. It’s a bit more restrained, a bit more subtle. It’s the sort of restrained dignity that you feel when you enter an airport in Japan. The fact that when we flew in, the ground staff lined up and bowed. I think there’s this kind of cultural value which is about elegant restraint whereas I think with Italian design, it is about making a statement. Sometimes there is a lot of beauty but it’s a powerful statement.

Photo: Rama GheerawoI suppose another way of describing it is if you look at an Alfa Romeo. An Alfa Romeo is what you may call ‘achingly beautiful’. You may feel as if you were shot through your heart the moment you saw it. If you look at a Lexus though there is something complete, right, solid, dependable. When you look at it, you feel a lot of harmony with the car, but I think it takes a little time to notice the beauty compared to that for Italian cars. You notice more and more each day you look at it, which is the charm of Japanese cars. Whereas with an Italian car, you love it or you hate it. It’s either Ferrari or Lamborghini.

— Finally I would like to know your expectation or request to the activities of universal design in Japan.

Rama Gheerawo: I think my humble request would be to grow it with Japanese values but to connect it globally. I think we all have local cultural values but actually, globally we want to improve life, improve society, improve humanity. I think in trying to make it global we shouldn’t lose the local flavor or national flavor. This is my humble suggestion.

— Thank you very much.


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