The story of Shiro Kuramata’s Nara Table

Debris of Memory

By Wava Carpenter

One of our motivations for creating this site was our desire to tell the stories that elucidate how our favorite objects of design came into being. Objects have biographies, just like people, that entwine with the cultural, social, and economic networks in which they were born and circulated. Nothing allows us to appreciate a design object’s true value, nothing makes it come alive, quite like the narratives it contains.

One of my favorite object stories lies in Shiro Kuramata’s Nara Table. It was a participant in the rebellious cultural shifts of the 1980s, but its creator was a free spirit who stood apart from group mentalities. Nara simultaneously embodies and transcends the iconoclastic postmodern sensibility through a quiet simplicity, which is not easily pinned down to any one movement or era.

The table is made from a material of Kuramata’s own invention: a special kind of terrazzo he named Star Piece. In contrast to traditional, marble-chip terrazzo, Star Piece contains shards of broken glass, which are embedded in a synthetic-concrete substratum before they are polished down to a silky smoothness. The exact circumstances of this invention are hazy, but in one article published in the magazine Shotenkenchiku (May 1983), Kuramata explained that the idea arose in 1982, while he was installing traditional terrazzo floors in the interiors he designed for Tokyo’s Roppongi Axis building. At the same time, he was experimenting with glass for another, unrelated project, which was generating a great deal of wasted scraps. When the notion to combine the two materials hit him, he loaded the pile of glass pieces into a truck and delivered it to some fabricator friends willing to transform his inspiration into reality.

Kuramata was so taken with the results that, through the course of 1983, he developed multiple terrazzo-centric furniture and interior designs. He even mounted an entire exhibition dedicated to the material at Design Gallery 1953 in Tokyo. He would give over entire spaces to the material, treating the floors, walls, and furnishings so that the glittering, bespeckled visual experience dissolved the appearance of three-dimensionality. Star Piece, which Karamata once said represented “the debris of memory,” eventually evolved into a graphic pattern that he applied to the surfaces of other products in different materials. It came to be seen as his signature motif.

Kuramata debuted his Star Piece terrazzo to the Western world in 1983 in a series of tables—Nara, Tokyo, and Kyoto—produced for postmodern pioneers Memphis Design Group. Ettore Sottsass, already a legend at the time, and a group of young designers masterminded the Memphis project in Milan in late 1980 as an antidote to what they saw as the insipid sameness and emptiness of design work that continued to follow outmoded modernist principles. By the 1970s, Italy was a hotbed of conceptually driven design collaboratives that aimed to overthrow the reign of functionalism, the persistence of Bauhaus-inspired dogma, in favor of a more expressive, more animated, and ultimately more human-centered design language. Memphis was not the first to rebel against modernism, but the project reached a wider audience and had greater influence than its predecessors. This was due, in part, to the fact that Sottsass enlisted the participation of a number of international designers, including Kuramata, who were well respected in design circles and whose work he believed to be aligned with the group’s conceptual underpinnings.

During the early years of postmodernism, Japanese designers attracted a cult following in the West. Kuramata’s work, in particular, resonated with the European design intelligentsia, who were wowed by the way he found new uses for industrial and mundane materials and introduced unexpected twists to minimalist forms. He earned a reputation for creating paradoxical objects—simultaneously rational and mysterious, reserved and joyful. Sottsass glimpsed the future of design in Kuramata’s alchemical work, and recruited him into the Memphis project right from the start.

Kuramata and Sottsass shared a mutual admiration for one another, and each claimed to have been influenced by the other. Kuramata and Sottsass shared a mutual admiration for one another, and each claimed to have been influenced by the other. Their bodies of work are equally important, yet distinctive in illuminating ways. During the 1980s, Kuramata’s work echoed the Memphis group’s interest in new, synthetic materials, their fascination with vibrant decorative effects, and their affinity for oblique references to design history. But even though Kuramata’s work embraced these emblematic features of postmodernism, it does not share the movement’s cynical foundation. Nor do his quiet creations share the loud aesthetic that tends to go along with expressions borne of criticality and protest. While other Memphis designs demand your attention, Kuramata’s wait patiently for you to notice them.

Rather than trying to destroy the rigid principles of modernism, Kuramata found beauty in imperfection and disorder; he sought not to renovate but to elevate everyday experience. I recently reached out to designer Johanna Grawunder, who worked with Sottsass during the Memphis era, to see if she had any insight into Kuramata’s work. This is what she had to say: “I remember how Ettore loved Shiro very much and saw himself in Shiro’s work—very expansive, very light and transparent. Ettore was gentle around Shiro, because Shiro was such a gentle person.” I take this as a lesson in the power of subtlety.

  • Text by

    • Wava Carpenter

      Wava Carpenter

      After studying Design History, Wava has worn many hats in support of design culture: teaching design studies, curating exhibitions, overseeing commissions, organizing talks, writing articles—all of which informs her work now as Pamono’s Editor-in-Chief.

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