Shin + Tomoko AzumiProduct + Furniture Designers (1965- + 1966-)
Designing Modern Britain - Design Museum Exhibition
Until 26 November 2006
SHIN and TOMOKO AZUMI design furniture, products and stage sets in an elegantly playful style. Born in Japan, they have lived and worked in London since studying at the Royal College of Art in the early 1990s.
When most product designers cite the inspirations for their work, they mention a Bauhaus hero or two, maybe a Bauhaus heroine. Shin and Tomoko Azumi cite those too: Oscar Schlemmer for Shin and László Moholy-Nagy for Tomoko. Yet their influences also range from the female contortionist cast as Puck in the Canadian theatre director, Robert Lepage’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the methodical manner with which the hero of Night Train, one of Masayuki Izumi’s Japanese comic books, plans the process of eating the contents of his bento box on an overnight train.
The Azumis describe their work as being about "changing people’s behaviour in a subtle way". In practical terms, this ranges from placing the holes in their 1996 Upright Salt & Pepper Shakers a little lower than is usual, so they only need to be tilted slightly – rather than shaken aggressively – for the contents to come out, to designing a compact, versatile 1995 Table = Chest which can be quickly converted from a low table into an equally elegant cabinet.
Both the Azumis were born in Japan: Shin in Kobe in 1965 and Tomoko in Hiroshima in 1966. They met at Kyoto City University of Art, where they studied product design and environmental design respectively. Their first collaboration was a group sculpture project in their first year in Kyoto.
After graduating in 1989, Shin worked in the personal computer department of NEC, the Japanese electronics group, and Tomoko joined Kazuhiro Ishii’s architectural practise. In 1992, Shin won a place on the industrial design course at London’s Royal College of Art. Tomoko moved to London with him. She started the RCA’s furniture design course in 1993 having spent the previous year studying english and art history at Goldsmith’s College.
With a group of students from Goldsmith’s and the nearby Laban Centre, they formed a performing group which put on an original theatre piece, Breath, at the 1993 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Shin later observed that the experience of collaborating with their fellow performers made him more "attentive to picking up and reflecting the movements of daily life in a work." The couple also credits Breath with enhancing the "theatrical quality" of their designs.
In 1995, they formed Azumi and started establishing themselves in the design world by putting limited editions into production and gradually winning commercial commissions. They concentrated on pieces which could be economically produced in small quantities such as the apparently simple, but conceptually ingenuous wooden Table = Chest and 1998 Wire Frame chairs and benches made from a ready-made industrial material inspired by supermarket baskets and 3D wire frame computer images.
Both Table = Chest and the Wire Frame series are light, compact and versatile: qualities which are often described as typically Japanese. Initially, the Azumis resented – and rejected – this interpretation, but later accepted it as inevitable. An equally striking characteristic of their work is its playfulness. Their 1999 Snowman Salt & Pepper Shaker, made by Authentics in Germany, is a snowy white bone china replica of a comic book snowman. And the cartoonesque images brought to life by the rotation of their 2000 Zoetrope Lamp are animations of their own furniture, including Table = Chest.
By enlivening everyday objects, such as lights and salt shakers, with elegantly executed wit, the Azumis entertain us in our daily lives, just as they did on the Edinburgh stage with Breath. When invited to create an installation for the Design Museum’s Design Now – London exhibition in summer 2001, Shin and Tomoko arranged a conventionally elegant display of their design work on their pièce de résistance, a witty grassy green sheet of astroturf. Shin and Tomoko were divorced in 2005 and professionally separated at that time also. In April 2005, Tomoko launched her t.n.a. design studio and Shin officially launched his solo practice.
"Above all their work focuses on the manner of using objects and suggests new ways of interacting with them," wrote Claire Catterall of the Azumis in her catalogue for the 1999 Stealing Beauty exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. "Objects should always give us pleasure – not just when we look at them but when we use them."
Since 2005, Shin Azumi and Tomoko Azumi have been operating individual design studios; the partnership has now disolved.
© Design Museum, 2009
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