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4 Nov 2019 / by Ellen Oredsson

From the Collections: 'Lamp (Oba-Q)' (1972) by Kuramata Shiro

Lamp with an acrylic lampshade that looks like a white cloth has been draped over the lamp. The lamp is lit, casting a warm yellow light, within a darkened space.

Designer: Kuramata Shiro, Lamp (Oba-Q), 1972, tinted acrylic and painted metal M+, Hong Kong. © Kuramata Design Studio

Lamp (Oba-Q) (1972) by Kuramata Shiro is in the M+ Collections, but what is it, who made it, and why did M+ acquire it?

What is it?

This pair of ghost-like lamps was designed in the early 1970s by Japanese designer Kuramata Shiro. Each Oba-Q light was made by draping a heated, pliable sheet of acrylic over a pole, allowing it to hang naturally, and then letting it harden. The finished lampshade was then placed over a light bulb inserted into a base, which sat on the floor. This creates the illusion of floating. It’s a prime example of Kuramata’s love of lightness and fluidity.

Lamp with an acrylic lampshade that looks like a white cloth has been draped over the lamp. The light is unlit in a white space.

Designer: Kuramata Shiro, Lamp (Oba-Q), 1972, tinted acrylic and painted metal M+, Hong Kong. © Kuramata Design Studio

The use of this type of process—letting shapes and design form through unpredictable natural forces—reflected Kuramata’s strong interest in ‘chance operations’, a creative process often attempted by avant-garde artists at the time.

The lamps are also an excellent example of how Kuramata incorporated pop culture into many of his designs. They were nicknamed Oba-Q by the artist Ishioka Eiko. She named them after Q-Taro, the popular 1960s cartoon ghost created by Fujiko Fujio. Q-Taro, an obake also known as Oba-Q or Q-chan, was the star of the manga Little Ghost Q-Taro. An anime adaptation ran under the name Q-tailong in Hong Kong.

The Oba-Q lamps were first shown to the public in a solo exhibition held at the Gallery Fujie in Sendagaya, Tokyo in March 1972.

Who made it?

A transparent plastic chair with purple legs. Red roses are encapsulated within the chair’s seat and arms.

Designer: Kuramata Shiro, Miss Blanche, designed 1988, made 2013, acrylic resin, plastic, and epoxy-coated aluminium, M+, Hong Kong. © Kuramata Design Studio

Kuramata Shiro (1934–1991) was arguably the most influential and widely‑known Japanese furniture and interior designer of the later twentieth century. From the mid‑1960s onwards, his explorations of materials, forms, and the conceptual understanding of the relationship between objects and spaces produced a unique design language. His work merged popular culture, Japanese aesthetic concepts, and Western avant‑garde design.

Kuramata was a member of the inner circle of the Japanese vanguard at the time—friends and collaborators included Issey Miyake, Yokoo Tadanori, Isozaki Arata, and Tadao Ando. He was also a founding member of the Italian design collaborative Memphis Group. He played a notable role in breaking Western modernism’s grip on design, while globally expanding his interpretation of the Japanese design vocabulary.

The Miss Blanche chair, designed in 1988, is Kuramata’s most iconic work. Named after the central female character in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, its defining feature is the artificial roses suspended in the clear acrylic blocks of its seat and arms. The chair evokes fragility and impermanence by capturing a moment frozen in time. It was created with great technical difficulty at the time.

Another iconic Kuramata design is the 1988 Kiyomoto sushi bar, a 720-square-foot restaurant space. Following the client’s request that the design be appropriate to the food being served, Kuramata sought inspiration in the Japanese sukiya-zukuri style of teahouse architecture, with its traditional emphasis on simplicity and natural materials. The long, rectangular interior opens up with asymmetrical vaults and Japanese cedar walls alongside granite-tiled floors and a long, blade-like sushi counter of granite. It is the biggest object collected by M+.

Why is this in the M+ Collections?

A bar with multiple bar stools along a granite counter. The ceiling is curved, with half of it in wood and half in glass windows. Seats and tables are placed next to the bar.

Designer: Kuramata Shiro, Kiyotomo sushi bar, 1988, steel, fabric, granite, Japanese cedar-veneered wood, glass, and acrylic, M+, Hong Kong. With partial gift by Richard Schlagman, 2014. © Kuramata Design Studio. Photo: Daici Ono

Kuramata is one of the anchor designers collected by M+, due to his role in shifting and forming ideas of design in the 1970s and 1980s.

During this period, the international design world rebelled against the notions of ‘good design’—most often expressed under the mantra of ‘form and function’—that had dominated mid-twentieth century modern design. What emerged was the movement now referred to as postmodernism. Postmodern design brazenly defied what was widely considered good taste with its outrageous forms, garish colours, and historical pastiches. Hugely influential, it came to be both derided and relished for its seemingly superficial excesses.

However, seen through its Japanese exponents, other readings of postmodernism come to the fore. In their own ways, designers like Kuramata Shiro brought not only playfulness, but also a sense of poetry and narrative to their work.

Seen in this light, another trajectory for postmodern design can be drawn that stresses how, in Kuramata’s words, ‘Enchantment should also be considered as function.’

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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