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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.

Kuramata Shiro (Designer), 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?

About ‘Lamp (Oba-Q)’

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.

Kuramata Shiro (Designer), 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.

About Kuramata Shiro

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

Kuramata Shiro (Designer), 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+.

The place of ‘Lamp (Oba-Q)’ in the M+ Collections

The Kiyotomo Sushi Bar: A Journey from Tokyo to Hong Kong
The Kiyotomo Sushi Bar: A Journey from Tokyo to Hong Kong

How did curators, conservators, and craftsmen relocate an entire sushi bar into a museum? Discover their work on Kuramata Shiro’s Kiyotomo sushi bar

Video Transcript

RICHARD SCHLAGMAN: Once you walk into Kiyotomo, you know instantly that it could only be by Kuramata. It's really him working at the height of his powers. It's his language through and through.

IKKO YOKOYAMA: Kuramata's furniture works are more known internationally with his Memphis [Group] work and other products. He designed over 350 interior works, but [just] a handful of them is left.

ARIC CHEN: Kuramata was a designer that really brought notions of form and formlessness, lightness, transparency, objects that had an absence and a presence, objects as keepers of memories and tellers of stories. He was one of the designers that brought these ideas into design globally, starting in the ‘60s through the ‘80s.

DORYUN CHONG: It was very clear from the beginning that Kiyotomo sushi bar is a one-of-a-kind, remaining architectural example that would really be that very important piece in the foundation of the M+ Collections.

IKKO YOKOYAMA: Kiyotomo is [Kuramata’s] late work, designed in 1988. It is quite different than other spaces, which are more dreamy; the Kiyotomo is more subdued. He's using stone and wood and more natural material in order to create a more theatrical dining experience.

IGARASHI HISAE: [Japanese] Kiyotomo only opened in the evenings; there was no lunch service. The streets around Kiyotomo were dimly lit. Its entrance was a narrow, dark channel, until you slid the door open. Kuramata was trying to contrast the darkness with the light.

MIHOYA TOMOHIKO: [Japanese] Kuramata always showed a Japanese identity. Also, he loved magic. He would create illusions that people called ‘Kuramata's magic’. For instance, with its size, the restroom door could almost hit people between the eyes. He was mischievous and always surprised people.

RICHARD SCHLAGMAN: The original owner had got himself into financial difficulties after the Japanese [economic] bubble burst, and the landlord repossessed the property. I kind of had an impulsive reaction to say that I wanted to take over these premises even though I had no idea at that point at all what I could possibly do with it. And I eventually came across M+.

IKKO YOKOYAMA: Ishimaru was a contractor who built the sushi bar in 1988. Ishimaru has built and realised many of Kuramata's interior spaces.

KATSUMATA SHINICHI: [Japanese] When I first saw the plans . . . I thought, this was something unusual, even for Kuramata. It’s difficult to put into words, but it felt like suddenly stepping into a kind of wa, or Japanese sense of harmony. There is an impression of soft floating—that's what characterises Kuramata's design for this bar. Then, [Ingo Maurer’s] YaYaHo lights swam across the space. I think this is a delicate balance.

ISOZAKI ARATA: Carpenters never had the experience for this kind of joint. Every time, he had to design by himself every detail. Very carefully, he did work to eliminate traditional types of joint systems, or combined systems.

SHIMAZAKI HIROYUKI: [Japanese] It's definitely like he's setting up a challenge for us. All the craftsmen here experience that pleasure when we can respond to those challenges, like: ‘I did it! This time at least .’

YAMASHITA KIZAE: [Japanese] One of the most difficult tasks is dismantling the counter. The counter was constructed by gluing and pressing the stone onto a long, metal sheet lining that runs along the length of the counter. We will have to remove the glue from the stone slowly and with great care. Otherwise, the stone will crack.

IKKO YOKOYAMA: Two and a half years ago, we identified this as the moment, because we are ready to open a museum, ready to install the Kiyotomo sushi bar.

KATSUMATA SHINICHI: [Japanese] The first time, we had the stone skirting boards, then we built the framework and attached the wood panelling. But this time, we built the foundation first, attached the panels, and then the stone came. The process was completely backwards. I think that was the most difficult part.

IKKO YOKOYAMA: There is another key person who made this project possible: Sara Moy. She was M+’s first conservator.

SARA A. MOY: Well, I began the project in 2014 when the sushi bar was acquired. I had worked intermittently on it until we were leading up to its installation. Conservation work is detective work. You're always investigating how something is made. And that's how you learn about that particular material or that—or what's happening. There's some sort of history behind it.

IKKO YOKOYAMA: For example, in the entrance, there's a blue coloured wall; we found these three layers of different blue [paint]. I think Kuramata, he didn't like the first blue. He has changed the design while he's installing, and this type of discovery very rarely happens.

SHIMAZAKI HIROYUKI: [Japanese] Until yesterday, we had those blue tarpaulin sheets laid out. But after removing them and seeing that a piece of art was standing on top of the museum floor, I was quite surprised to find there was something quite emotional about it. Well, it feels like it's completed.

KATSUMATA SHINICHI: [Japanese] When I installed the wall panels from the beginning to the end, I was able to keep exactly a two millimetre gap around them. I think this has to be some kind of miracle. Yes. It's like Kuramata himself came down from heaven [to support us].

SUHANYA RAFFEL: I think of the museum as a place of nourishing the soul, the mind, learning. If people take away the idea that everyday experience is also very special, we're offering avenues for people to consider their relationships with objects—everyday objects, everyday experiences—but also design and architecture experiences.

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.

Ellen Oredsson is Editor, Web Content at M+.

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