Design and Disaster: Kon Wajiro’s Modernologio at Parsons
Kon Wajiro, Household of a newly-married couple #3, Inside of the closet, 1925. © Kon Wajiro Archive and the Kogakuin University Library, Tokyo.
Fifteen years ago, I first discovered the work of Kon Wajiro (1888-1973) at a library in Tokyo. I was immediately captivated by the intimacy of his meticulous ink drawings. Looking at his work felt like peeking into someone's closet and being afforded a view of their most intimate belongings. Illustrations of what a man in Futagwa wants and Illustrations of what a woman in Futagawa needs are two of his drawings. On the surface, you see an array of everyday items, from kimono and gloves to baskets and brooms, annotated and arranged with their names and price tags, a chronicle of objects from ordinary life. But Kon Wajiro's interests were not confined only to visions of private life and domesticity. He was equally concerned with the public realm. What were the paths of young modern girls in the fashionable Ginza district? What kinds of dogs roamed the streets of Tokyo? What were the postures of laborers napping on outdoor benches?
Kon Wajiro, Illustrations of what a man in Fukagawa wants (with costs), 1925. © Kon Wajiro Archive and the Kogakuin University Library, Tokyo.
Such drawings might look idiosyncratic at first—outcomes of obsession or curiosity—or impulsive attempts to capture the temporal. But this is not what they were made for. These drawings are part of a more systematic study to record and analyze material culture in a rapidly changing society. Kon named this study Modernologio, aiming to leave a comprehensive record of the "present," the fleeting and rapidly evolving reality that Tokyo's citizens were experiencing after the great earthquake of 1923. Indeed, one of the paradoxical outcomes of the devastation was the creation of a sort of a tabula rasa (the modernist dream) where visions of a new society would be seeded. Kon recorded the sometimes slow, other times rapid replacement of traditional Japanese items by modern ones, and the fusion of the two in domestic and public spheres.
Kon Wajiro, Illustrations of what a woman in Fukagawa needs (with costs and department stores' window signs), 1925. © Kon Wajiro Archive and the Kogakuin University Library, Tokyo.
Besides its value as a historical record, Kon's work presents us with a great example of a marriage between design and ethnography. Having been trained as a designer who worked closely with ethnographers such as Yanagita Kunio and the Hakubōkai group, Kon was more than capable of drawing accurately from life. But not even photography would be capable of capturing what he drew by hand. His ethnographic accounts are not the predecessors of works like FRUiTS (a magazine featuring innumerable photographs of the quirky fashion of Harajuku). Instead, they are the products of hours of mindful observation, paralleled by quantitative analysis and pattern recognition. His work could be compared to that of Owen Jones or Christopher Alexander. Rather than illuminating the singular and the idiosyncratic, Kon attempts to reveal the deeper structures of human practice and the way they reorder the material world: the unity of making do and making sense. In that respect, Kon’s work presents to us a method of design analysis at its best.
Jilly Traganou is Associate Professor at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City.
Visit the show Design and Disaster: Kon Wajiro's Modernologio, curated by Jilly Traganou and Izumi Kuroishi, at the Aronson gallery at Parsons The New School for Design, from March 13–27. The opening reception will be on March 13, 2014 from 7:30-9:00, preceded by a lecture from 6:00-7:30 by Izumi Kuroishi as part of the Inside (Hi) Stories lecture series. For more information please visit: http://www.newschool.edu/parsons/currentExhibitions.aspx?id=100078
Kon Wajiro, Traces of ants, measurement per 50 centimeters, 1925. © Kon Wajiro Archive and the Kogakuin University Library, Tokyo.