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Eye candy 

Japanese designers find the whimsy in mundane objects

It's like being a child at a petting zoo where every cage sports a "Do Not Touch" label.

That's the sensation pro-duced by the highly tactile, visually delect-able survey of Japanese Design Today 100 at Atlanta's Museum of Design. Visitors are warned to look but not touch the nearly 100 examples of designer eye candy, including a Tokujin Yoshioka Design chair made of countless honeycombed layers of paper, and a "Hope forever blossoming" vase of magnificent ingenuity that transforms from a flat piece of plastic to a freestanding vase when water is added.

Japanese Design Today is a crowd-pleasing, thought-provoking show that, along with the Museum of Design's recent lunch box show, illustrates how design can point to deeper cultural truths. The Japanese designs on display accommodate the national concern with living in small spaces, seen, for instance, in the bubblegum pink portable washing machine for small loads. The dainty, lightweight furniture on view offers a refreshing antidote to the overstuffed enormity of American household designs.

Though the show's focus is on contemporary design, there is also a small sampling of products from the post-war era that suggests a consistency of vision where lightness, portability, utility, compactness and delight seem to be Japanese design bylaws.

Living in a culture where so many consumer objects are designed and built for obsolescence, it's refreshing to see objects like the classic, functional, glass-and-red-plastic-topped soy sauce decanter that can still be found on any Chinese restaurant table. Designed by Kikkoman in 1961, that ever-present condiment caddy epitomizes the maxim: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The one element lacking in the exhibition is indication of price and the kind of consumer for whom these objects were manufactured. That would help viewers determine whether these are truly accessible, mass-produced consumer goods, or more high design, high-end objets d'art like those found at the Museum of Modern Art design store.

It's easy to get lost in the sheer aesthetic pleasures of the show and the satisfying sense of novelty and delight at work. Much of the work looks like the output of some parallel universe defined by different needs and body types. Viewers can play a game called "guess the function" for any number of the objects on display, such as the white disc with a hole in its center, which resembles an enormous polyurethane cutting board but is in fact a seating cushion that can be hung on the wall. Shape-shifting, origami-style design makes wall text essential for objects like a piece of felt that somehow transforms into a "Pen?" as the box design itself queries, or a Miyake Design Studio piece of rectangular cloth in a punchy citrus color that, with a pair of scissors wielded by the consumer, becomes a dress.

Objectified cheerfulness in form and color is a consistent link between the objects, connecting an Isamu Noguchi 1950 pumpkin-orange paper lantern with white graphic elements and the charming, vibrant, industrial safety helmets designed in 1996, which must make Japanese workers look like an army of Legoland toys.

Whimsy, in Japanese design, is treated as something of a holy sacrament. Japanese designers clearly believe that a desire for aesthetic pleasure does not end in childhood and that adults want to find a sense of delight in their kitchen gadgets, cars and clothing. Anthropomorphized shapes are just as common in items designed for adults, like salt and pepper shakers that look like inquisitive ghosts manufactured by AZUMI (reminiscent of ceramicist Eva Zeisel's mid-century designs). Viewers may be surprised by strange desires to cuddle or affectionately greet inanimate objects like a cheery yellow and lime iron manufactured by Panasonic and designed -- brilliant! -- to iron clothes while still on the hanger.

America is not a design wasteland. Our nation, after all, bequeathed aesthetic history with masterworks such as industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague's Texaco stations and Brownie cameras, the Ford Thunderbird and the Chrysler building. But in recent decades, design innovation seems to have atrophied. Contemporary design lacks the visionary excitement and future-looking scope of America from the '30s through the '50s.

Contemporary Japanese design appears to still embrace such utopian principles, believing a better society is created by the objects it uses. And that belief and investment in the future extends to the environmentalism of many of these designs: hybrid vehicles, portable ashtrays and the incorporation of recycled materials into elegant tableware or furniture.

Audiences will find not only untold delight in the inventiveness of Japanese designers, but may come away with a desire to see their own material world feel relevant and engaging again.

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