Review: The Newly Refurbished Toshiba Gallery At The Victoria And Albert Museum
‘Design is not for philosophy, it’s for life’ (Issey Miyake)
After the post Second World War attempt by the Allies in occupied Japan to disband the zaibatsu business conglomerates, which was partially successful, Japanese industry began setting itself strategies at regular intervals for the development and manufacture of products. Each revolved around particular group of five facets of design and manufacture – for instance a single strategic phase might involve something like: (1) innovation, (2) miniaturisation, (3) portability, (4) higher quality, and (5) more compact.
At first sight of some of the older smaller exhibits on display, such as the netsuke, one might be forgiven for thinking that these particular facets of manufacture and design in Japan have always been utilised. A wander through the gallery however brings into view later products which it would seem had just been waiting for Japanese manufacture and design to be reinvigorated with the injection of modern technology. A ‘classic’ example of this is the first ever model of a Sony Walkman ‘Stowaway TPS-L2’ which, for example, could quite possibly be perceived as a modern technological type of inro.
The popularity in the West of things Japanese is something which began with the arrival of the Dutch and the British in the 17th century, the Mazarin Chest for example. It is something which has continued ever since, especially after the opening up of Japan to the USA, French, Russians and British after the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships in 1853 after the Edo era sakoku, the enforced period of self-isolation.
With the importation of foreign technology and manufacturing processes the eminent émigré to Japan and commentator on things Japanese Lafcadio Hearn summed it up succinctly when he said that Japan’s modernization was a matter of survival rather than taste or fashion. The process of importation of non-Japanese ideas, their assimilation and transformation into peculiarly hybridised Japanese products began at this time. This included the ‘importation’ of non-Japanese people from whom ideas and instruction on non-Japanese ways of doing things could be extracted, who were referred to by Hearn as ‘human robots’. However, that being said, the trade-off was two way and the popularity of Japanese products and design from the Meiji Era, such as that of ‘Benkei and the Miidera Bell’ made by the Yokohama Miyao Company in 1887, through the fin de siècle period in Europe to today is in evidence in some of the exhibits.
With this in mind a wander through the newly refurbished Toshiba gallery, which opened on the 4th November 2015, gives the visitor a fascinating, broad ranging and insightful perspective into the perpetually innovative manufacture and design of Japanese products from pre modern through the Edo era and post Edo period of modernisation to today and it is with some relief that modern exhibits exemplify more modern and original Japanese design than that of the older hybridisations.
The precision and intricacy exhibited in some of the exhibits is astonishing. Yet this sometimes contrasts with and is juxtaposed by their minimalism, a reflection perhaps of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi; simplicity, austerity and naturalness. Go… …and prepare to be astonished!
Entrance to the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art, sponsored by the Toshiba Corporation, is free and is open daily 10.00 – 17.45 and until 22.00 every Friday.
A big thanks to the V&A for permission to use their photos.
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.