A Chair That Knocks You Off Your Feet

Tokujin Yoshioka's
Tokujin Yoshioka's "Honey-Pop" paper armchair is at the Japan culture center. (By David Yoder For The Washington Post)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

The most astonishing thing about Tokujin Yoshioka's paper chair is not the unlikely material. Far more breathtaking is the discovery of this museum masterpiece -- which ranks among the most original furniture designs in a century -- on the basement level of a Washington office building.

Without fanfare and nary a spotlight, the Japanese designer's marvel has come to rest -- fleetingly -- at the Japan Information and Culture Center on 21st Street NW.

Go down the escalator, past an empty atrium and through the metal detectors. That's where visitors to "Japanese Design Today 100" will find Yoshioka's layered puff of cellulose -- if they are not distracted by the 103 other objects in this exceptional, far-too-brief exhibit, which closes Feb. 17.

The paper armchair, called Honey-Pop, is worth the effort. Since 2004 it has been on a pedestal at the Museum of Modern Art, where it holds its own among the finest innovations of the previous 100 years, from bentwood to cantilevered steel to the ubiquitous modern plastics. As sculpture, Honey-Pop is also utterly beautiful.

How this chair came to be included in an exhibition of "everyday" objects is a minor quibble. The biggest issue for visitors is that such a magnificent, precedent-shattering work isn't explained at all.

I first saw the chair in 2002 at the Milan International Furniture Fair, where Yoshioka, then 35, was making his -- and Honey-Pop's -- debut at the world's most prestigious design event after having trained under the late Shiro Kuramata and working for Issey Miyake, designing clothing stores and eye-popping exhibitions.

On that occasion, the powerful Italian design patron Driade provided a Renaissance palazzo, the floor covered with a foot of plastic snow. As pilgrims crunched past, Yoshioka showed off a thick roll of layered paper, which turned out to be his assembly line. Individual chairs needed only to be cut free and opened by hand.

There was -- is -- no hidden framework, only the strength of hexagonal honeycombs, which result from 120 layers of paper glued together and cut with precision. The paper is biodegradable.

As we talked, Yoshioka sat on a chair to show how the weight of the body fixes the folds. His weight also imparted a personalized shape, similar to how children make snow angels.

Museum curators were not the only ones to declare Honey-Pop a triumph. Driade took the essence of the paper chair as inspiration for a line of high-end furniture in durable white polypropylene.

Yoshioka never once mentioned origami, although everyone else did. Instead he explained his work as an experiment in "materiality." People in Japan would understand his chair as a work of art, he said. But Americans? He wasn't so sure.

During a recent lunchtime visit to the Japanese culture center (1155 21st St. NW), two earnest visitors raced past the chair without a glance. There was no arrow pointing toward the masterpiece, no hint that this design was perhaps more memorable than a group of very interesting Shiseido bottles, or that the designer might one day be as well known as Isamu Noguchi (whose paper Akari lamps are included in the show). If the women were drawn to a selection of orange neoprene handbags, who could blame them?

The Japan Foundation gathered something for everyone: sleek home electronics, minimalist housewares, soft toys, tough riot shields, quiet motorcycles, model hybrid cars.

A group wandered past a ledge holding a bright orange light fixture designed by Masayo Ave. The visitors did not stop to inspect the rough, contorted surfaces, which looked like friendly sea monsters.

Textile experts will recognize the textured plastic as the distinctive pucker of shibori , an ancient Japanese craft in which fabric is laboriously contorted into three dimensions.

Over the years, Ave's work evolved quickly from shibori silk to shibori synthetics. About the time that Yoshioka was working on his paper chair, Ave was adapting a spongy polyester used mainly for oil filters into stylish seating cubes. She brought them to the 2000 International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, and a design boutique called Totem tried to market them as alternative outdoor furniture.

This week, Ave offered perspective on Japanese design.

It's all about "peeling away preconceptions, carefully removing superfluous elements, filtering and sanding . . . then polishing until the life of the object starts to sparkle by itself," she said, e-mailing from Berlin's University of the Arts, where she teaches.

It also helps if people stop long enough to let the magnitude of a paper chair sink in.

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