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2 Jun, 2021 / by Ikko Yokoyama

The Tale of Tawaraya: From Sketches to Centre Stage

Photograph showing a group of nine people sitting in a square structure with black-and-white striped edges and a tatami mat centre surrounded by multi-coloured ring ropes, which are attached to four ring posts topped by adjustable lamps. The people are dressed in business casual and posing in a relaxed manner. Several are looking amusedly at two people on centre-left, who have their hands on each other's faces.

Memphis Group members in Umeda Masanori’s Tawaraya in 1981. Photo: Fabio Cirifino; Courtesy of Studio Azzurro

Forty years ago, on 18 September 1981, the design and architecture collective the Memphis Group held its first exhibition in Milan. The group’s bright decorative objects and flair for plastic laminate would come to dominate the European design scene over the next several years, until the group’s disbanding in 1987.

One of the most notable objects in this first exhibition was Umeda Masanori’s Tawaraya, a boxing ring-like structure that would become the site of one of the Memphis Group’s most quintessential portraits. Ikko Yokoyama, M+'s Lead Curator of Design and Architecture, shares the origins of Tawaraya and its layers of cultural associations, drawing on her past conversations with Umeda and his original sketches in the M+ Collections.

An Idea Is Born

The story of one of the most iconic photos of the Memphis Group starts with Japanese designer Umeda Masanori.

Born in Japan in 1941, Umeda moved to Milan in 1967 and worked with Italian designer Ettore Sottsass at the manufacturer Olivetti for almost ten years. He returned to Tokyo in 1979.

In 1980, Umeda received a letter from Sottsass inviting him to join a group exhibition, which was to be the launch of a provocative new design movement: the Memphis Group. Sottsass—who had participated in an earlier experimental design movement in Italy—wrote that this new movement would emphasise what he called a ‘new international style’. The letter included a list of other participating designers, such as Michael Graves and Andrea Branzi, and example sketches drawn in Sottsass’ signature style: geometric, colourful, with laminate surfaces.

While Umeda didn’t fully understand what ‘new international style’ meant, he immediately intuited from the sketches what Sottsass was aiming for and began developing his response. He interpreted ‘new international’ to mean a blend of Sottsass’ colourful surfaces with traditional Japanese crafts and architectural systems—a combination that he hoped would prove entirely unique.

Design sketch showing a square structure modelled after a boxing ring. The structure has black-and-white striped edges and a tatami mat centre surrounded by multi-coloured ring ropes, which are attached to four ring posts topped by adjustable lamps. Five cushions with gradient, multi-coloured surfaces are scattered around a red and black serving dish in the centre.

Umeda knew Sottsass preferred isometric sketches and submitted his concept drawings in this two-dimensional style

The result was a reconfigurable space ambiguous in function, housed in a small boxing ring covered with tatami mats. Room sizes in Japanese housing are often defined according to how many tatami mats fit inside. Umeda’s structure fit four and a half tatami mats—equivalent to the standard minimum flat size in Japan—lending the work its original title, Furniture 4½. Umeda wasn’t familiar with any similar modular systems in Europe and wanted to use this piece to convey the rationality and flexibility of tatami-based design for a European audience. The combination of this traditional material with the cheap laminate border was intended to create hybridity with Sottsass’ style.

Umeda sent four sketches to Sottsass in response to the invitation. These reflect four iterations that the reconfigurable space could be transformed into, each serving a different purpose.

Configuration One: Conversation and Entertainment

One sketch and one design drawing showing a square structure modelled after a boxing ring. The structure has black-and-white striped edges and a tatami mat centre surrounded by pink ring ropes, which are attached to four ring posts topped by adjustable lamps. Five cushions with gradient, multi-coloured surfaces are scattered around a red and black serving dish in the centre. The sketch on the left shows doodles such as colour tests and size markings on the margins of the paper. The design drawing on the right is surrounded by four words in Japanese and Italian for 'festivity', 'dialogue', 'intellect', and 'fun'; written in the bottom right is 'Mobili "4 1/2" Maggio 81 Umeda'.

Sotsass’ polychrome style was an important influence on Tawaraya, leading to a range of colour experimentations throughout the sketches. The gradient colours on the final silk cushions were achieved through hikizome, a traditional Japanese dye technique

The first iteration, seen above, was intended to be a space for conversation and entertainment. Umeda was inspired by the spirited debates that he would see in Italy’s public squares. The Memphis Group was a collective of intellectual designers and architects, so he wanted to create a space for them to relax, drink, and have stimulating discussions. He included four words around the sides of the sketch in both Italian and Japanese that embody these qualities: festivity, dialogue, intellect, fun.

Configuration Two: Rites and Celebrations

One sketch and one design drawing showing a square structure modelled after a boxing ring. The structure has navy-and-white striped edges and a tatami mat centre. In the place of ring posts are a Japanese flag, three carp-shaped wind socks hanging from a pole, a small tree with paper hanging from its branches, and a vase of purple flowers. A folding screen with gradient blue-and-pink surface and an altar with two dolls are in the back-centre of the structure. Both sketch and drawing are labelled with the Japanese and Italian words for 'joy', 'ceremony', 'season', 'festival'; written in the bottom right corner is 'Maggio 81 Umeda'. The sketch has additional arrows pointing to the screen, windsocks, and tree and labelled with the names of various holidays.

In his early sketches for this configuration, Umeda annotated which festivals could be celebrated here, including Boys’ Day, Girls’ Day, and Tanabata

This second iteration is about rites and celebration. Umeda emphasised how this room could be changed to suit different festivities with four words: joy, ceremony, season, festival.

In a separate sketch, he wrote labels indicating which festivals could be celebrated in the space. A set of dolls in front of a folding screen is labelled ‘3 March, Children’s Festival (Female)’ in Italian. This refers to the Hinamatsuri, or Girls’ Day, during which ornamental dolls are displayed on platforms. The arrow labelled ‘5 May, Children’s Festival (Male)’ points to a row of carp-shaped windsocks, traditionally flown during Kodomo no Hi, or Boys’ Day, in Japan. The final arrow, labelled ‘7 July “Tanabata”’, points to a bamboo wishing tree used during Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival.

Configuration Three: Death and Ritual

One sketch and one design drawing showing a square structure modelled after a boxing ring. The structure has black-and-white striped edges and a tatami mat centre. In the place of ring posts are a large black-and-white striped curtain and either two candelabras (on the sketch) or two potted plants (on the drawing). In the centre is an altar with plants, incense, and offerings on it. The sketch on the left is surrounded by a colour tests and labelled 'MOBILI CEREMONIALI "FUNELARI"', with an arrow labelled 'black and white curtain' in Italian points to the curtain. The drawing on the right is labelled with the Japanese and Italian words for 'emptiness', 'heaven', 'life', and 'sorrow'.

Umeda experimented with different placements of the altar in his early sketches for this configuration, labelled 'Funeral' in Italian. The arrow pointing to the backdrop reads 'black and white curtain'

This third iteration is designed for a ceremony that is part of every person’s life: a funeral scene. This version features an altar for mourning and worshipping against a black and white curtain. Again, the sketch is surrounded by four keywords: emptiness, heaven, life, sorrow.

Configuration Four: Love and Dreams

One sketch and one design drawing showing a square structure modelled after a boxing ring. The structure has a tatami mat centre topped by a futon bed and surrounded by ring ropes, which are attached to four ring posts topped by adjustable lamps. The sketch on the left is plain and monochrome; there are no decorations on the structure. The drawing on the right shows a dotted border on the structure, which is labelled with the Japanese and Italian words for 'night', 'love', 'heart', and 'dreams'.

A four-and-a-half tatami mat room is equivalent to the flat size a young couple may have when they are just starting out in Japan

The final iteration is a sensual space: a bedroom with a futon. The designers in the Memphis Group were young, and Umeda, inspired by the relatively open sexuality of 1960s–1970s Italy, wanted to create a rich space even for love and dreams. This sketch is labelled: night, love, heart, dreams.

Some erotic cultural references are embedded in the size and conception of the work itself. The four-and-a-half tatami mat room had been evoked, for example, in Nagai Kafū’s famous 1917 short story The Inside Lining of the Four-and-a-Half Mat Room—a tale so explicit that when a Japanese culture magazine republished it in 1972, the editor-in-chief was arrested. The work’s original title, Furniture 4 ½, also alludes to Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½ and the erotic fantasies of its protagonist.

Tawaraya at Exhibition

Two design drawings showing a square structure with striped edges and four-and-a-half mats in the centre. The drawing on the left has no other design features; the one on the right has four ring posts connected by ring rope.

A four-and-a-half tatami mat room can be a cheap space, but it can also be a spiritual one—a chahitsu, or traditional space for tea ceremonies, also uses this size. But Umeda rejected this association with a high-end, private place

Ultimately, Umeda’s original title didn’t stick. For the exhibition, Sottsass renamed every object after hotels from different parts of the world. Tawaraya was named after a high-end Kyoto ryokan—a traditional Japanese inn with tatami-matted rooms—where Sottsass had stayed before. Umeda found this amusing because for him, the work represented the simplest, cheapest type of room or a public square that belongs to everyone. Like the Memphis Group, he was interested in dismantling the modernist spell that had taken hold of design.

For Sottsass, it didn’t matter. The associations didn't have to make sense; they were meant to play with and open up the system of design.

The exhibition was a big success—almost 2,000 people attended the opening. But what Umeda remembers most from the event was the smell of the tatami mats. The mats had been fabricated by craftsmen in Italy according to instructions drawn by a Japanese mat-maker. Freshly made tatami mats have an intense, grassy smell that hints at starting anew. This smell, which many Italians had never encountered, permeated the exhibition.

Photograph showing a square, boxing ring-shaped structure with black-and-white striped edges and a tatami mat centre surrounded by multi-coloured ring ropes, which are attached to four ring posts topped by adjustable lamps. Five cushions with gradient, multicoloured surfaces are scattered around a red and black serving dish in the centre.

Tawaraya attracted a lot of attention at the 1981 exhibition in Corso Europa, Milan: due to its size (280x280x120cm) and significance, it was placed in the centre of the room. The configuration here is composed of a wooden base, tatami mats, silk cushions, and a wooden tray. Photo: Aldo Ballo, Guido Cegani, Peter Ogilvie; courtesy Memphis-Milano Collection

Umeda and Kuramata Shiro were two of three Japanese designers participating in the exhibition (alongside architect Isozaki Arata), and Umeda later modestly positioned their roles using a theatre analogy: if Sottsass and the Italian designers were the stars, Umeda and Kuramata were the jesters, adding some exotic spice but ultimately on the sidelines. However, the inclusion of Japanese designers, together with French, Spanish, British, and American designers, helped fulfil the Memphis Group’s aspirations of an ‘international’ style.

Thirty-five years later, at a Memphis Group exhibition in Seoul, Umeda was positively surprised by the crowds of enthusiastic people born long after the group was formed. He had always been a bit ironic about the Memphis style and felt that of all the hundreds of objects and interiors he designed during his career, only Tawaraya and his flower-shaped, velvet chair Getsuen were worthwhile. But seeing young people from Asia with no previous knowledge of the Memphis Group enjoying the exhibition made Umeda feel that maybe he did contribute something to design after all.

Photograph showing a brightly lit room decorated with colourful and atypically shaped design objects. In the centre is a square table surrounded by two chairs and two sofas. Also featured in the room are lamps, end tables, sculptures, and a wardrobe.

Memphis Group objects in the home of photographer Dennis Zanone, a former owner of Tawaraya. Celebrities like David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld were also avid collectors of Memphis Group objects in the 1980s. Photo: Zanone via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Memphis Group was one of the most energetic moments in postmodern design history. The fearless forms, individual expressions, reinterpretation of histories, and referential nature of postmodernism are still alive in many ways. This is especially true in Asia, where sociocultural development, design, architecture, and even visual art are often influenced by imported cultures, amalgamated and reinterpreted through local lenses, then exported to the world. Asia is a hub of exchange.

I am interested in this post-war Asian network of influences in design and architecture, as well as philosophies and methods of creating that can inform our current lives. Postmodernist design has been criticised as being too commercial, egoistic, and superficial. This, however, is where the Memphis Group can give us a great deal of insight. They introduced a new way of imagining that went beyond ideologies and was unafraid of the past. Even today, their approach can be seen as highly invigorating, critical of existing standards, and welcoming of diverse perspectives for cultural production.

As told to Ellen Oredsson (Editor, Web Content). The above interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Unless otherwise credited, all images by Umeda Masanori from Sketches, colour tests, technical drafts, and published material, Tawaraya, 1981. M+, Hong Kong. © Masanori Umeda. Pictured in image at top of post: Michele de Lucchi, Marco Zanini, George Sauden, Martine Bedin, Nathalie du Pasquier, Matteo Thun, Aldo Cibic, and Andrea Branzi. Ettore Sottsass is on the top right—the man with the mustache.

Ikko Yokoyama is Lead Curator, Design and Architecture at M+.

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