In our publication What I've Learned, 28 world-renowned designers and architects shed light on the experiences that have influenced their lives and work. Below we share an interview with Tokujin Yoshioka, in which the Japanese creator reflects on a life dedicated to producing poetic designs. What I've Learned is available for purchase here.

TOKUJIN YOSHIOKA: ‘I was brought up in a region called Saga. It’s part of Kyushu Island, the most southwestern of Japan’s four main islands. I spent my childhood in an environment far removed from the design world and the material cultures found in metropolises. If I had a pencil in my hand, I would get swept up in drawing.’

‘I was absorbed by the art and science classes at school. At a young age, I was thrilled to discover that when you draw on paper with citrus juice and then apply heat, colour appears on the paper – it’s like something a spy uses to send coded messages. Exploring how to manipulate such natural phenomena fascinated me. It gave me great delight to see my classmates mesmerized by what I was doing; that’s the reason I was driven to continue making things that people enjoy. Besides that, I was a quiet boy.’

I research the past and envision the future

‘When I was young, I couldn’t imagine there being such a profession as designer. Back then, I associated the word with fashion designers, not furniture designers. I didn’t think it was possible to make a living out of drawing and making things – activities that gave me pure joy.’

Top: Honey-Pop Chair, 2000-01. | Bottom: Venus Chair, 2008.

‘I went to Kuwasawa Design School in Tokyo when I was a teenager. While there, I heard about designer Shiro Kuramata. His works gave me a new perspective on furniture design; they enlightened me. I wanted to become a creator with an attitude similar to Kuramata’s. I was fortunate enough to work under him for a year. Then I was introduced to Issey Miyake, and I started working for him. Mr Miyake is also an unconventional designer. He encouraged me to explore new ways of making and allowed me to design the scenography and installation for his exhibition. But the design was for the Issey Miyake brand, so I thought: what if Issey Mikaye were designing this? It was about his identity, not my own self-expression.’

I always try to create something that doesn’t yet exist

‘My career changed course in 2000, when I established my own office. I had been nurturing some of my own ideas while working at Issey Miyake. My first project was the office itself, which I built from scratch rather than renting a furnished space. I brought in wooden beams and poles from a 150-year-old demolished rice granary in Shimane Prefecture in western Japan. I combined them with industrial materials, and at the time it was quite rare to mix old natural materials with modern industrial ones. The use of both was a statement to myself – the statement of a man looking towards the future while also being aware of the history of design. My work is firmly rooted in what I’ve learned from the past.’

‘Honey-Pop, a chair I designed in 2000, represented a ground-breaking moment in my career. Realized in 2001, it was an exploration in making a chair with a honeycomb structure. Layers of two-dimensional paper unfold to form a three-dimensional object. I wanted to find out how to make a chair in a brand-new way. It was my challenge to the chair and its history. I initially presented it at Milan Design Week, and it kick-started my career.’

Top: Rainbow Church, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 2013-2014. | Bottom: Kou-An Glass Tea House, 54th International Art Exhbition of the Venice Biennale, 2011-2015.

‘My work falls into two categories. One is for the industry and involves a client; in that case, my objective is to meet the client’s needs. The second is personally initiated work; no one asks me to make it. I have stacks of drawings and sketches of ideas long in the making. They don’t necessarily have to be realized.’

‘I always try to create something that doesn’t yet exist. The idea for Pane came about when I was considering how to make a chair without a conventional frame of wire or wood. Ultimately, I used bundles of thin polyester fibres to form the structure and to distribute the user’s weight, while also offering comfort to the sitter. The chair was realized in 2006, but it took three years to develop.’

Being told something is impossible can be the shortest way to get a project going

‘I research the past and envision the future. But to realize my vision, I need craftspeople, engineers, manufacturers – the hands and skills of many. Because my designs are unprecedented, people don’t know how to realize what they’re looking at – they tell me what I’m trying to do is impossible. Earlier on in my career, people didn’t want to go out on a limb for a young designer with no credentials. I couldn’t direct them to do what I wanted, so I started by using my own hands. In a way, being told something is impossible can be the shortest way to get a project going. Gradually, people began to understand my passion and my ideas; they challenged themselves to overcome the obstacles and make it work.’

‘My career as an independent designer spans more than 20 years. During that time, I’ve come to the conclusion that compromise doesn’t help my work to be actualized. A trade-off may be important at some stage if you want your designs to be produced commercially. But for my personal work, no. Because there are already enough objects in the world, I always think about the significance of bringing out a new product – about whether what I’m making is really a milestone. Pursuing a project is the consequence of long reflection about its implications. I need to be insistent, almost obstinate, to achieve my intention, because a trade-off is a trade-off. Compromise results in a different outcome.’

‘I look into many methods for realizing my products. The larger my stock of methods, the better chance I have of making what I’ve designed. My past experiments can be modified and applied to different projects.’

I always think about the significance of bringing out a new product

Why am I doing this? I’m not doing any productive work: a thought that sometimes comes into my head when I’m deadlocked. I feel hopeless.’

‘I don’t necessarily intend to make new forms; I intend to evoke emotions, to touch people’s senses and make them joyful. I like to think that design is a good way to do this.’

Blossom Stool for Louis Vuitton, 2016-2017.

‘As I designer, I’m not content to wait for clients to come to me – or even for someone to say that I can make whatever I want if it’s also something for them. I don’t want to face the ifs, ands or buts that go with the inability to realize an idea just because I wasn’t commissioned to do it. I will do it myself if I think the idea is significant. That’s why I proposed a plan – which includes stadium, logo and torch – for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. I’m not an architect, so my concept won’t be selected for the design of a new national stadium. But the Olympics aren’t just a sporting event; they will change the social system. I simply wanted to present my idea for such an epic event.’

‘In the end, I guess that more than mesmerizing others, I want to see the unseen myself.’