Learn Product Design and Traditional Craft in Japan with SVA Destinations
January 22, 2019 by Michelle Mackin
making a craft in Yame

Calling all product designers: This June, SVA Destinations is offering an intensive two-week program in Yame, Japan, a small city on the island of Kyushu that is home to a remarkable concentration of traditional Japanese crafts. SVA Made in Yame accepts applications from all interested participants—not just SVA community members. Selected attendees will study traditional craft techniques and apply those methods to contemporary product-design challenges. They will also have the opportunity to pitch their product ideas to MoMA Wholesale, a manufacturer and distributor of design-centric products operating as part of The Museum of Modern Art.

A stage decked with paper lanterns and set with a scene of a Japanese garden complete with cherry blossoms and a Japanese-style bridge.
A traditional puppet theater in the Yame Craft Museum. Photo by Sinclair Smith.

Led by industrial designer Sinclair Smith, a founding faculty member of MFA Products of Design at SVA and director of the SVA GroundFloor Incubator, Made in Yame will provide hands-on study of material, form, color and product-design technique through visits of factories and workshops representing a dozen traditional local crafts, including woodworking, lacquerware, textile weaving and lantern making. Participants will then use those experiences to design and develop their own original products for today’s marketplace.

<p "="">A series of images depicting the manufacture and painting of wooden crafts.
<p "="">A series of photographs depicting the manufacture of silk lanterns.

Above: The process of creating Koma, or wood spinning tops, at the Kumamoto Woodworking Studio. Below: The process of creating silk lanterns at Shiraki Kougei Lantern Craft. Photos by Sinclair Smith.

Last October, Smith took five professional designers on a 10-day pilot version of this. ”Meeting the craftsmen of Yame was a humbling experience. … All of them have accumulated a depth of knowledge about a material or process that allows them to produce exquisite artifacts,“ says Sigi Moeslinger, co-founder of Antenna Design in New York City and one of the trip’s attendees. ”This is in such contrast to our fast-paced, low-cost, throw-away culture and an inspiration to take the long view on whatever we design and make.”

Scenes from a textile factory in Yame, Japan.

Kasuri weaving at the Shimogawa Orimono Weaving Studio. Mr. Shimogawa explains how a two-dimensional mechanical drawing of the weaving pattern is turned into the warp and weft on the old Toyota looms. Photos by Sinclair Smith.

Another participant, Alexandra Dymowska, lead designer for brand strategy at Cadillac Design, General Motors, was similarly inspired: ”It is the honed-over-time know-how and ritual-like care taken by the Yame craftsmen that [is] especially attractive in the context of contemporary design,“ she says. ”This intersection is a possibility for the emergence of simple products, rich in meaning and warmth, and which help us to slow down, delighting in their subtleties.“

Ideally, Made in Yame will foster an exchange that benefits both attendees and Yame-area industries. ”This program can help generate interest from a younger generation in traditional arts and crafts and how these may be applied to contemporary sensibilities and needs, thereby ensuring the survival of these special skills,” Moeslinger says.

Sketches of new designs at the dinner table
A lantern sketch made at the dinner table with the craftspeople while discussing possibilities for new designs. Photo by Sinclair Smith.

Though the pilot group has been back in the States for several months now, the MoMA Wholesale portion of the program has only just begun. ”They are currently developing mechanical drawings for the sketches that MoMA liked,“ Smith says. ”Then, those drawings will be sent to Japan so prototypes can be made and returned to MoMA for further review.”

Two photographs of designers working on drawings.

Made in Yame participants work on final drawings of their product designs before their final presentation to the craftspeople. Photo by Sinclair Smith.

MFA Products of Design’s relationship with MoMA Wholesale goes back four years. Through a unique collaboration with the SVA graduate program, the brand has produced and distributed a number of household products created by students, including stackable coasters, a credit card-sized bottle opener and a coffee mug that is marked with measurements of espresso drink ingredients. Made in Yame allows these parties to extend their partnership; but this time, the products will be influenced by the participants′ experience with Japanese craftspeople.

A group of 3 men and 3 women stand hip-deep in a green field of crops with a blue sky, green hills and dozens of utility poles behind them.
Made in Yame’s pilot group in the green tea fields in the hills surrounding Yame City. Photo by Sinclair Smith.

The June trip itinerary also includes a number of recreational outings: Participants will spend time in nearby Fukuoka City, explore Yame’s hills and tea fields, visit local shrines and museums and, of course, enjoy the local cuisine. Smith notes that the preliminary group’s response to this well-rounded schedule has been overwhelmingly positive. ”Some significant outcomes were high confidence in the program structure, clarity of delivered instruction and total awe and joy by the participants,“ he says. ”It was hugely rewarding to see that the program we have assembled can be such a success.“