Mind & Matter


Finding Meaning in Nothing

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Hasegawa Tohaku, "Pine Trees," Tokyo National Museum


One of the most fascinating aspects of Japanese design is its seemingly perennial ability to maintain strong philosophical connections with age-old traditions. These traditions may be defined by particular, measurable techniques, or—as we see in most cases—deeper concepts that relate to core Japanese values. One such set of traditions is unearthed in Shiro, or “White,” a new book-length essay by graphic design icon Kenya Hara.

Shiro attempts to tackle one of the most abstract and least understood elements of Japanese design. “This book is not about color,” says Hara, “Rather... I have attempted to find the source of a Japanese aesthetic that produces simplicity and subtlety through the concept of white.” Hara makes direct connections between white and emptiness, which he argues is an essential element of design. As opposed to the concept of nothingness or valuelessness, emptiness in this case implies a condition “which will likely be filled with content in the future”—a container suspended within a transitional state, awaiting substance to enliven it.

Using white as a conceptual vehicle, Hara uncovers meaning in a wide array of significant Japanese artifacts and customs, such as the Japanese flag, Ise shrine, and Japanese tea ceremony. One of the most culturally insightful passages relates the notion of emptiness to the intentional “blanks” placed within Japanese conversation (in which the subject and object are often implied rather than stated)—thus operating as empty containers to be actively filled by the receiver.

Hara would no doubt describe an “open mind” as an empty vessel waiting to be filled, as opposed to a closed one in which decisions are all predetermined. In this way, the creative process requires shiro—in the sense that it relies upon the latent, undeveloped potential in things. “Creativity and ‘questioning’ are made of the same stuff,” claims Hara. “A creative question is a form of expression—it requires no definite answer. That is because it holds countless answers within itself.”




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.