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Designing Air

Context Designer Kotaro Watanabe shares his thoughts on the “possibilities of air”

Kotaro Watanabe plays an active role as a context designer at Takram, a design innovation firm with studios in Tokyo and London. Context design refers to initiatives that produce small “stories” of individuals through manufacturing. We asked Watanabe, who has engaged in a wide variety of projects, his thoughts on air.

Defining air

Cordial wooden floors and walls textured in stainless steel create a simple, comfortable space for Takram’s Takram Omotesando studio in Omotesando, Tokyo. A smiling Watanabe carries a tablet PC and notebook and enters the room where large windows usher in bright sunlight. As we begin talking, he shows interest in the title of this website.

“I was thrilled to see Inspire for the name of the series on the Daikin design website and thought that it truly expresses the nature of the content. Inspire comes from the Latin word inspirare, meaning to breathe or blow in, and consists of the two words in and spirare, which means to breathe. The word later evolved to mean to give knowledge and stimulation. Since the term evokes both air and inspiration, it is very suitable for the title of these pages.

In thinking about air, let’s examine the word air first. The English word air has three origins: Ancient Greek αηρ (gas), Latin ager (field), and Italian aria (song, air). All of these words indicate that air is something that fills space. In the Western way of thinking, the focus is placed on something that already exists in space.

On the other hand, the Japanese term kuuki (air) consists of two kanji characters that mean, respectively, atmosphere and a thing that brings something to life. The first character also means emptiness. In other words, it is something with the possibility of being filled by something else. The word represents an empty space to be filled. In the Japanese way of thinking, the emphasis is placed on the absence of something that may fill space.

This empty space can be filled by imagination of people. As a designer, I like the Japanese word kuuki, which leaves room for the imagination.”

Tea ceremony and air

The fact that air is empty creates the possibility of it being filled, and I feel that this truly epitomizes Japanese sentiment. Watanabe enjoys participating in the Japanese tea ceremony which embodies the traditional culture of Japan and talked of the relationship between tea ceremony and air.

“A building used for a tea ceremony is called ‘sukiya,’ and it is also described as an ‘empty house’ because the teahouse has only the minimum number of tools—hanging scrolls, kettles, vases, tea bowls—that are necessary for enjoying tea ceremony. The house is purposefully left unfinished to leave empty space for the imagination of the tea recipient to complete. The concept is reminiscent of the word kuuki (air) which also leaves room for the imagination.

Okakura Tenshin, who actively worked as an art critic in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), stated in his book The Book of Tea that Teaism ‘is essentially a worship of the Imperfect.’ Imperfection does not mean deficiency but instead represents a multitude of possibilities. The word kuuki implies Japanese unique aesthetics that avoid telling a whole story and allow our imagination to roam.”

The world of context design

The idea of being filled by something else reminds us of context design that expects users to add a final touch. What do you think about context design?

“The term context originally means to weave together. Context design describes design activities for manifesting the weak context added by users with respect to the strong context embedded by the author. Aside from the meaning intended by the author, users can find various meanings of their own. In this regard, context also includes the stories of anonymous individuals.

Reviews on Amazon and other websites can also be said to be stories of individuals, but these differ from the creativity that context design strives for. Reviews are used to find an average or create a uniform evaluation indicator. The greater number of samples to average, the better. However, a large sample size leads to increased anonymity of the individuals, and measuring things based on a single value standard is not fun in the first place.

Provided that the story told by that person stimulates the imagination, the sample of only one person would be enough for the world of context design that I seek. Such a story would offer us a more interesting perspective on the world than an average rating since this story holds the power of an individual. As consumers become artists and users become authors, I hope that the individual stories which have remained unspoken until now in the hearts of each person can be revealed to the world.

Creativity is not the sole domain of a few people like designers. If a basic income is initiated and AI becomes more established in the future, people will have shorter working hours and more free time. If that happens, the world would become a fun place where everyone could be creative and expressive. Because air also has the ‘possibility to be filled,’ people may find stories and meaning from it.”

Designing air

Watanabe finds stories and meaning from air. We asked him about the meaning of air and what it is like to design air.

“When thinking about air, I first think about the ‘possibility to be filled’ and spend ample time researching and delving into concepts and words other than air. Before designing air, my team and I try to depart from the conventional thinking for air that we may have. This is similar to crouching down low before jumping high. The quality of questions determines the quality of solutions. Thinking deeply is imperative to refining questions. We need to establish a firm foothold before jumping toward a solution.

One of my favorite quotes is from a Japanese philosopher prominent in the Edo period (1603-1868) named Miura Bien who said, ‘What is really amazing is not a flower on a dead tree, but a flower on a living tree.’ He explained by saying, ‘While people may be surprised at the miracle of a flower growing on a dead tree, a flower blooming on a live tree is no less miraculous and should never be taken for granted.’ The same can be said for the air that naturally exists around us.

Usually, we don’t have many chances to think about air. However, what is ubiquitous is worth contemplation. I think true intelligence lies in finding something extraordinary from ordinary things. Such findings would entirely transform our worldview.”

Air and communication

Watanabe says thinking about air is enjoyable. In conclusion, he shared his thoughts on the possibilities of air.

“I like collecting perfume, but I rarely use it. I like the subtle fragrance that I smell when someone wearing perfume passes by. It need not be my favorite fragrance. The term perfume is derived from Latin per‐fumum, meaning through smoke. Rather than smelling a scent, I feel the presence of the person through perfume.

Speaking of smoke, information communication is said to have started from smoke signals. Smoke signals were used for long-distance communication to transmit signals to allies and pray for rain in rituals. The relationship between smoke and communication even connects information communication to the mythological world. It would be exciting to materialize the new possibilities of air by using such ideas as a clue.”

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