How to Turn the Familiar Into Something New

How to Turn the Familiar Into Something New

6 design lessons from a Japanese art exhibition that embraces the art of surprise
Yuriko Yamaguchi
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What separates a great cultural experience from a truly memorable one? An element of surprise. Unexpected brilliance sticks in your mind, and the memory becomes something you can return to for inspiration. Back in May, I saw an exhibition at the National Art Center Tokyo that delivered unexpected brilliance from start to finish. Hearing other visitors remark, “I really wasn’t expecting this!” as they walked through the gallery space, I knew I wasn’t the only one.

How do you go about creating something unexpectedly brilliant? What triggers that kind of experience? Here are some learnings I had from visiting the show:

1. Disarm your audience with familiarity

This installation was created between renowned textile designer, Reiko Sudo; exhibition designer, Adrien Gardère; and Seiichi Saito from Rhizomatiks. The creators are famous, but the exhibition title, Koinobori Now!, communicated something common and familiar, with a hint of pop. Koinobori is the Japanese word for the carp streamers that appear as part of Children’s Day celebrations in Japan every spring. Nau is the Twitter-bred Japenglish word used for anything happening ‘now.’ The title Koinobori Now! is so direct it almost sounds like a children’s exhibition; everyone thought they knew what to expect. It was also a rare instance where NACT hosted a show for free, welcoming an exceptionally diverse audience.

2. Reference conventions with disruptive edge

In reality, the show was much more than just a seasonal parade of modern carp streamers. Rather, the streamers served as inspiration and as a medium for presenting the textiles designed by Sudo and her company, Nuno. Gardère mentioned in an interview that as with any textile exhibition, the challenge was to showcase the works in a way that brought them to life in the absence of the human body. He looked for inspiration in the ways in which textiles lived and breathed in Japanese traditions—on this occasion, carp streamers. But instead of following the structure and styling traditionally used in koinobori, he reinterpreted it to be more structured. From the flat fish shape, he removed the fins, tails, eyes, and scales, and added backbones and rib cages so the carp would hold their shape. The resulting koinobori was something that looked familiar yet novel.

3. Give your audience the freedom to engage

This was the first time that the NACT took down all its partitions to create one large space for the installation. Everything was kept open between the work and audience.

A school of white carp streamers floated by the entrance like phantoms beckoning people into the exhibition. Following them in, the room opened up to reveal over 300 textile carp swimming through the air in a sweeping gradation of colors. The mesmerized audience was free to wander, take photos through the carp streamers, and lay down on Muji bean bags to absorb the show at their own pace.

4. Let your theme go beyond objects to permeate the space

A lot of thought also went into the less noticeable parts of the exhibition. Saito from Rhizomatiks contributed to the environmental design by leveraging air flow and light sources. Small fans were set up on the ceiling, with shifting spotlights positioned alongside to create shimmers and ripples on the translucent fabrics The lights also cast shadows of the carp streamers onto the wall and floor.

It was a subtle gesture that made the audience register a dynamic flow throughout the room, and gave the carp streamers a current to swim in. Together with the ambient soundscape by Softpad, the exhibit came to life.

5. Interlace sensory experience with informational storytelling to trigger curiosity and imagination

The exhibition could have easily ended here, but a small space at the back revealed the backstory behind the show. Video monitors played interviews of the three main collaborators as well as Nuno’s beautiful production videos. A make-your-own-carp workstation held fragments of patterned paper for people to craft their own streamers. And a long rack of textile samples lined the walls.

Here, all 300-something textiles designed by Sudo for the installation could be seen up close, touched, and read about in detail. Each textile had a background story. Here were two of my favorites:

I learned through reading these stories that Sudo is famous for reusing and repurposing unconventional materials to create textiles that challenge the existing conventions.

Once you uncover these stories and return to the larger exhibit space to make an exit, the same installation begins to take on different dimensions.

6. Work in collaboration with others

One final learning from this exhibition—what made it so unexpectedly brilliant—was the way the collaboration between the creators materialized as a sort of alchemy, elevating each individual contribution into a magical whole. Sudo’s textiles, Gardère’s exhibit design, Saito’s space design, and NACT’s curation reacted to and considered one another, orchestrating a holistic experience beyond single objects, addressing themes beyond individual expertise, and creating something relevant and surprising for everyone.

*Exhibition flyer taken from Studio Adrien Gardère. All other photos taken by the author with permission from NACT.

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Yuriko Yamaguchi
Design Researcher
Yuriko is a design researcher at IDEO Tokyo. Driven by her innate curiosity and love of observation, she is constantly swimming between the lines in search of insight and inspiration.
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