Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Plan

My Proposal and Personal Statement are available online on the RISD Career Services website, feel free to check them out!

Also, here they are in full:


Material Objects and the Significance of Cultural Aesthetics

Japan’s cultural and aesthetic heritage is deeply threatened by globalization and modern development. Two hundred years of Japanese seclusion, which ended in 1858, made Japan the definitive case study of the enduring collision of eastern and western schools of thought. Japan’s current position at the cutting edge of technology and modern living obscures a rich past steeped in an unyielding reverence for nature. A resulting clash between past and present ways of life has given way to a precarious discord. This becomes apparent in the subtleties of everyday aesthetics. Often overlooked nuances in the worn texture of old, yet trusty objects give life and meaning to the mundane. Through this project, I will collaborate with a traditional Japanese woodworking school, a Zen monastery, local artisans, designers and design firms to learn traditional skills and study modern Japanese design under the context of profound cultural and historic immersion. By studying the material goods and design objects being produced today in addition to exploring Japan’s cultural and aesthetic background, I will examine how Japan’s heritage has infiltrated today’s modern globalized world and attempt to see if it can still apply as an appropriate philosophical and aesthetic outlook.

Wabi Sabi, one of ancient Japan’s primary aesthetic and philosophical world views, is a cornerstone of traditional Japanese art, culture, and life. It is an aesthetic expression which translates the values of Zen Buddhism into artistic manifestations. Like the Zen principles of spontaneity and living in the moment, Wabi Sabi utilizes natural processes resulting in objects that are irregular, humble, imbalanced, and indistinct while reflecting an impermanence that is nonetheless pleasant and inspiring. Through Wabi Sabi one learns to embrace both the beauty and the melancholy found in imprints of passing time. Wabi Sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. Accordingly, objects that are worn by overuse or have certain sentimental qualities are appreciated most. A brand new bowl is not as valued as an older one, despite the older one’s mended cracks and obvious flaws. These weathered objects, although being visually and often physically crude, speak strongly at an emotional level.

Wabi Sabi best describes the world as “either devolving toward, or evolving from nothingness”, illustrating an unwavering reverence for impermanence and constant change. This, perhaps, is what is most pertinent to today’s society, which is in a state of constant and increasingly rapid flux. The lengthy historical prevalence of Wabi Sabi and its permeation into nearly all Japanese art forms through the years has left an indelible mark on Japanese aesthetic appreciation. In recent generations, Wabi Sabi has been relegated to a novelty and has little bearing on the design of new objects. Production costs and deceptive marketing schemes play the predominant role, resulting in designs that lack intimacy. Objects produced today are made to be defunct or perceived as undesirable within a very short time span; this planned obsolescence creates so much unnecessary waste and is entirely unsustainable. As an ideology removed from the commercial world, Wabi Sabi offers an alternative to these poorly designed and mass produced objects.

There exists little doubt over the gravity of the environmental crisis. I believe that in the near future, as companies are ever more pressured by consumer awareness and government intervention to make products sustainable, the main issue will be to find a way to seamlessly align the interests of business, product, and sustainability. My goal is to prove that Wabi Sabi ideals and their application in daily life can serve as a fitting solution to the ecological predicament. I will demonstrate this by implementing traditional Wabi Sabi principles into modern life via the creation of functional objects designed with a strict adherence to these precepts. Though it is impossible to design Wabi Sabi into something, as this is an essence derived through use, my line of objects will be designed with the capacity to become Wabi Sabi, predisposed to essential Wabi Sabi ideals. Through this fusion of old and new, the philosophical and the practical, I will take into account new materials that fit into Wabi Sabi ideology, as well as new processes, technologies, and applications to satisfy the needs of today’s consumers.

Through my connection with Shinrin Takumi Juku, a renowned woodworking school in Takayama , as well as with local artisans and designers, I will design and fabricate functional objects that will not only pay homage to Japan’s history, but merge it together with modern needs, practices, and concepts to forge a working relationship for the future, ensuring Japan’s rich heritage is not lost, but fully embraced and appropriately integrated into today’s ever changing high tech society.

At Shinrin Takumi Juku, I will engage in a rigorous traditional woodworking experience, learning new skills that will bolster my existing knowledge of woodworking. Approved by Osamu Shoji, the head professor of the school, I will enroll as a fulltime student during the upcoming school year. As the learning process revolves around demonstration and then implementation by students, any language barrier can be overcome; additionally, most professors can communicate effectively in English and there have been many successful English-only speaking interns in past years. My intention at Shinrin Takumi Juku is to learn a traditional skill set that will enable me to craft my line of objects in a culturally sensitive way, and to dynamically examine the aesthetic values of traditional Japanese woodworking. I will augment my year of academic study with frequent trips to Tokyo and Osaka to meet with practicing designers and design firms, and to grasp a divergent yet relevant point of view. Concurrently, I will have access to an extensive woodshop and will execute the tangible part of my project using the tools and machinery at my disposal.

Prior to the start of the school year, I will spend a month living at Sogenji Monastery, a Rinzai Zen temple in Okayama, Japan. The Rinzai school of Zen is marked by the emphasis it places on “kensho”, seeing one's true nature through enlightenment, as well as the rigor and severity of its training methods. As I take part in serious monastic practice, I will experience firsthand the way of life most akin to Wabi Sabi. Since its inception as a distinct aesthetic mode, Wabi Sabi has been linked with Zen Buddhism as it embodies many of Zen’s core philosophical principles. My connection is Daichi, an English speaking nun at Sogenji, who is also an artist trained as a potter. I will utilize her connections to local potters and visit the workshops and studios of these traditional craftsmen, and to become acquainted with their artistic pursuits. I believe this experience will deeply affect my perception and understanding of a true Wabi Sabi lifestyle, as essentials are eliminated and I enter, even though for just a short while, a life not requiring any money, training, knowledge, or special skills. I hope that by the end of this month, I will be open enough to understand unconventional beauty, willing to accept things as they naturally are, and be able to focus on appreciating rather than perfecting.

Material Objects and the Significance of Cultural Aesthetics is a celebration of Japan’s cultural legacy. As a young designer fascinated and inspired by the uniqueness and relevance of cultural aesthetics, I am fearful that they are becoming lost amidst the cheapness and convenience of modern times. My investigation proposes ways of ensuring cultural survival and recognizes the profound solutions this facilitates to problems brought on by globalization and industrialization. This is a project of experience, understanding, expansion, and a passionate objective that would forever shape my view of the importance of objects and the role they play in a greater discourse of design.

Personal Statement

Thumbing through old family photo albums, I see familiar images of my grandmother in the same dresses and sweaters she wears today, clothes neatly maintained for decades. Her furniture and appliances have functioned unchanged since my grandfather built their house in 1950. Though nothing is unkempt, everything is worn, evocative, and nostalgic. Unlike an antique showroom, her home is a lively space: diffused lamps, bookshelves containing thirty-year old encyclopedias rendered useless by the Internet, a mottled coffee pot. The rooms are free of clutter, apart from the occasional picture frame and small ceramic figurines occupying end tables. My grandmother unknowingly, or perhaps due to financial reasons, resisted defining herself, her living spaces, and her life through the lens of style, trend, and accumulation of material goods. She at once carved a pleasant existence for her and her family intrinsically rooted in the appreciation of what is basic and essential.

My grandmother is ninety-seven years old. She was born in a tiny village in the mountains of Sicily, a month after the sinking of the Titanic. Due to difficult conditions there, she immigrated to the United States at the age of nineteen, living for a time in a four room apartment with her family of seven; she never had the opportunity to get an education and is mostly illiterate. Her husband, my grandfather, passed away in 1957 when my father was three. My grandmother spent twenty years of her life working over sixty hours a week, while raising two children. Inured to a stoic life of hard work and privation, she rarely buys new things. Still, she is content.

Growing up in American society, I have become aware of the desire and pressure to accumulate. Materialism of the moment has the potential to dominate a person as well as a society, particularly in the United States where Americans consume 24% of the world's energy, yet constitute only 5% of the world's population. I look to the simple nature of my grandmother with envy. Why do I need so much to be content? I readily admit that I live a very fortunate and sheltered life, free, for the most part, of the tragedies and hardships my grandmother faced. Perhaps without these I can never truly realize the essence of her humble existence. I look to the Japanese world view of Wabi Sabi to provide a means of understanding this modest way of life. While Wabi Sabi is quintessentially Japanese, its values are inherently universal. These values are exhibited in bold quietude by my grandmother.

Two years ago while pursuing my education at Rhode Island School of Design, I traveled to Japan as part of a study abroad project through the Ceramic Department. During this month, in tandem with ceramic studies, I worked on an independent study project focused on Japan’s cultural and philosophical identity. With the guidance of Yuriko Saito, RISD Philosophy Professor and published scholar in the fields of Environmental Studies and Japanese Aesthetics, I formulated a project that incorporated my scholarly interest in traditional Japanese culture as well as an in-depth hands-on study of Japanese material goods, particularly Japanese pottery. As I soon discovered, these interrelated areas complemented each other in ways I did not ever expect. My experience in making traditional material objects in a culturally sensitive way, in conjunction with my study of Wabi Sabi principles, allowed me to holistically observe present day Japanese culture. It became clear to me that Wabi Sabi is ideal to a world in urgent need of a sustainable revolution, as our time living and consuming as we do now, seems ever more fleeting.

Working this past summer with Uhuru Design, an environmentally friendly furniture design company based in New York, I became skilled at designing and fabricating sustainable products for mass production. These products, objects that strive to be timeless, practical, and innovative, inspire me. In contrast, I looked at the immensity of products sold today; ones that adhere to market trends and look increasingly dated as seasons pass are discarded prematurely. These short-lived relics are meant to lose value with age, are poor metaphors for living, and increase superfluous consumption in our market driven society. This is fundamentally destructive and creates a surplus of unnecessary waste.

Design has the potential to rouse and cultivate fresh ways of interacting with the world. As a designer, I hope to make a positive contribution to not only the field of design, but also to the way people live their lives. My intentions are transcendent of arbitrary aesthetic decisions, which seem to be the paramount attribute of many mass produced objects manufactured today. I hope to articulate the Wabi Sabi world view; integrating sustainability with the power of relevant and poignant aesthetics. I believe there exists in everyone a yearning for something deeper than the fastest cars, latest clothing, and flashiest cell phones. What if we could learn to be content with our lives, just as they are now? It is a lofty idea, but one that I find worthy of entertaining.