Wieki Somers chats about her latest lighting collection, Mitate

Eastern Light

By Anna Carnick

Studio Wieki Somers has built a career on the concept of magic realism, bringing magical elements into their work, and their world, as a matter of course. Inspired by custom and ritual, Rotterdam-based cofounders Wieki Somers and Dylan van den Berg add a sense of wonder to everyday objects. In their hands, a common coat rack is transformed into a merry-go-round (Merry-go-round Coat Rack, Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, 2009) and a bathtub becomes a boat, ready to set sail (Bathboat, 2005).

Over the past few years, the pair has developed a love affair with Japanese culture, aesthetic, and craftsmanship, travelling to the country on several occasions and even relocating their studio to Tokyo for a few months between 2011 and 2012. This month, they debut Mitate, a collection and exhibition based on their experiences and research, at Galerie Kreo in Paris.

In Japanese, “mitate” signifies a multi-layered, comparative approach to otherwise familiar objects—allowing observers to contemplate an item with fresh eyes in order to renew one’s experience of it. In the case of Galerie Kreo’s latest show, we encounter seven ethereal, massive lamps (each measures approximately six feet tall) inspired by different element of Japanese samurai culture—specifically 16th-century samurai flags, with all their associated splendor and pageantry—standing guard over the gallery. The series is composed of a spectrum of materials, ranging from washi paper and metallic fabric to glass fiber, gold foil, magnets, tulipwood, and brass tubing.

Beyond the samurai influence, Mitate reveals a variety of additional cultural references, such as designs inspired by the fabric used by geishas to protect their skin from the sun (Black Hole Lamp), stone gardens (Cord Lamp), and even the traditional geisha or “Hat Girl” doll (Three Shields Lamp). And while the designers revel in the layered nature of each piece, Somers notes that it’s best to leave some of Mitate’s components hidden behind the proverbial curtain—giving us space to reinterpret the familiar for ourselves, and room to let our imaginations run.

Wieki Somers spoke with us a few days before the opening.

Wieki Somers © Heidi de Gier
Anna Carnick: How have your recent experiences in Japan inspired or informed your work?

Wieki Somers: We’ve visited Japan several times over the past few years. We came to Japan hoping to explore the significance of the rituals of our time and to give them a new form and meaning. The Japanese culture and its traditions and customs always fascinated us: the extent of the manmade landscape, the ambiguous love of nature, the refined and highly considered design of products and interiors, the attention to craftsmanship, the celebration of the seasons, not wanting to leave anything to chance, people’s awareness of their customs and environment, and so on. We recognize many of these aspects in our own working method.

...the way the light falls on the lacquerwork can remind us of great craftsmanship Everything in Japan is done with precision and attention to craftsmanship, even if it is only of a temporary nature. This is evidently able to exist within an overpowering consumer society. The craftsmanship can be seen in how people prepare and serve food, in product design, the architecture, in everything. In contrast to The Netherlands, where many crafts have been lost, they are nurtured in Japan as part of their culture.

Given our love of craftsmanship, we studied various crafts. We attended a bamboo workshop; we visited work places in Wajima, the Valhalla for lacquer work; we visited a workshop in the north of Japan that is famous for the old cedar trees that are turned into bento boxes and other products. On our way north, we spent hours walking through a forest of age-old cedar trees. Then we climbed to the top of the mountain where we stayed the night with monks, and bathed in a remote hot spring between mist and snow... Not bad for a research trip!

Sketches © Wieki Somers
AC: Have you always been fascinated by Japanese culture and history, or is this a relatively new passion?

WS: Before visiting Japan, a few stories sparked my curiosity about Japanese culture. One of the books I read during my time at the academy in Eindhoven was the nostalgic essay of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. In his book, In Praise of Shadows, he describes in a conservative, sympathetic manner everyday things from Japanese culture that are increasingly polluted by the influences of modern Western society, such as the excessive amount of electric light. It is his conviction that people in the East attempt to derive pleasure from the things that surround them, whereas Westerners derive pleasure from constantly improving and changing their environment. Drinking soup from a lacquerware bowl is a very different experience from drinking it from white, Western-style porcelain.

And after I came back from the first trip to Japan, and operated again in an environment where every square meter has been designed, I also began to increasingly understand what Kenya Hara wrote in his book White about the importance of ‘emptiness’ in Japanese design. In his opinion, this is the origin of the Japanese aesthetic, which is well known for its simplicity and subtlety: ‘Emptiness emphasizes the power with the potential to be filled.’ An empty bowl that is not in use does not have to be empty for the viewer. There is always something. That can be an imaginary interpretation, but, for example, the way the light falls on the lacquerwork can remind us of great craftsmanship.

AC: Your work often embraces and reinterprets cultural customs. Where do you think this inclination comes from?

WS: We always ask ourselves what the things around us are, and what they could be. We observe ordinary situations and customs; how people relate to things, and the associations different things carry. And we get more excited when these customs become rituals.

Dozens of apps, messages, machines, advertisements, and other media are screaming for our attention. Our focus on what is really important to us is easily lost within this cacophony. Rituals might bring back focus and attention to our hectic lives. They enable a stronger connection with ourselves, each other, and our environment. The repetitive nature of rituals makes them stronger over time. We like to explore and transform them.

AC: Why samurai—and samurai flags—specifically?

WS: The concept inspired by samurai formed spontaneously, although their ideas and aesthetics still have a great influence on Japanese culture. We visited samurai houses, and in a museum we came across illustrations of 16th-century samurai flags, whose intriguing designs identified different clans and served as a means of communication. They demonstrated their power with these objects. The samurai produced flags from unconventional materials, using impressive craft techniques, and the colors and shapes have symbolic meanings. Battle preparations involved a lengthy ritual of dressing, and the battle itself was a like a spectacular performance.

Eventually, we decided to create a contemporary equivalent of these flags by translating them into ‘light poles’—a family of lamps—that symbolize the period in which we live; a critical period, in which the developments of globalization and individualization are being questioned, and in which power relations, identification, and communication are more relevant than ever before.

The final collection consists of seven light poles, referring to the seven principles of the samurai. The installation at Kreo has a mysterious, peculiar character; it will communicate and reflect. The shapes mislead and absorb.

AC: Will you please explain the Mitate concept for us?

WS:Mitate’ means to look at an object in a different way than how it is intended. It means looking at an object as something else, so that it is experienced in a completely new manner. There are various, hidden layers of meaning to be discovered in Mitate, and these combinations sometimes have a surprising and humorous effect. Well-known examples of Mitate are ikebana and chado. Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arrangement; it is symbolic of the entirety of nature and its construction tells a story. Chado is the tea ceremony in which an everyday event is transformed into art. These customs are of enormous importance for us to understand Japanese culture.

AC: What was the overarching rationale behind Mitate’s material selection?

The materials of each lamp are chosen with care. Whether reflective or mirroring, absorbing or translucent, each material creates a distinct lighting style. For example, we incorporated a velvety-soft surface that does not reflect light; instead, it seems to absorb it like a bottomless black hole, as the texture generates a mysterious depth. And we selected some ordinary materials, like reflection foil, which is normally used for traffic signs. The samurai were masters in elevating common materials by using special finishings or techniques.

All the lamps have poles made of tubes that are tied with rope in a decorative and functional way. We designed two different kind of bases in which the poles are pinned. The first is a base resembling a traditional tokonoma altar, creating space for the organization of different objects. The second is made from polyester concrete with carefully sliced edges that reveal the stone’s texture.

AC: I understand the light forms evoke quite a different feeling from a distance than they do up close. Will you elaborate please?

WS: From a distance, the simple contours and shapes dominate, and the light plays with them in a certain way. But if you come closer, you see the details of the crafts and the special finishings, especially when the lamps are not lit. But when they shine, they really come alive.

I don’t know yet how people will experience them. Clément Dirié [editor of JRP|Ringier] describes it as follows: ‘The Mitate collection brings the pleasure of its evidence and oddity. As we move closer to the collection, the glowing figures become familiar—a familiarity in which we recognize the other. This sensation is not conjured by our everyday lives or background, but by our imagination and fascination for the otherness of a foreign culture, which seduces us as well as subdues our judgment. It is not the easiest form of seduction.’

AC: The lights each have their own strong, individual identity, inspired in large part by the seven principles of the samurai code of honor.  Can you explain how these principles were expressed in a few of the individual pieces’ material selection and construction?

WS: Yes, each of the light totems illustrates one of the seven principles of the bushido, a Japanese word for the samurai way of life, for which they are named. When the first seven prototypes were standing, we looked at them and felt they each had a very strong personality, with their own characteristics and habits.

Each name is given intuitively by the image every lamp represents. For example; the serene, circular tube lamp Gi (Cord Lamp) means ‘right decision’; the Makoto (Reflection Lamp) stands for truth; and the absorbing and mirroring YUU  (Mirror Lamp) is about bravery. 

...we hope that each piece challenges the user to adopt a closer relationship to it, and that each object celebrates the production process that led to its conception. AC: Collectively, what do you hope the light forms evoke for onlookers?  And, ultimately, what do you hope people take away from the exhibition?

WS: We hope they promote an enchanted observation of our everyday life, between two cultures. First a visual surprise, and subsequently the layers of meaning that hide underneath come to the fore.

But finally, like in all our works, we hope that each piece challenges the user to adopt a closer relationship to it, and that each object celebrates the production process that led to its conception.

In our view, the responsibility of a designer resides first of all in his or her sensibility for the signs of an era, and a sensibility for the way people interact with their daily surroundings. What is the use that is implied by things, and which feelings and references do they evoke? Based on what we observe, we start to fantasize about what things might become, in order to enhance daily life.

How can we subtly turn the usual into the extraordinary? How can we turn the insignificant into the remarkable? Neutral functionality transforms into a poetic gesture, enabling a meaningful dialogue between users and objects.

We think beauty is of one of the primary forces to create this bond. Sometimes it hides in the special atmosphere a material evokes; sometimes it hides in the tactile quality of the skin; sometimes in the unconventional application of materials; sometimes in the ingenuity of the system — and often in a combination of these aspects.


Mitate runs through September 21, 2013 at Galerie Kreo, Paris.

  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.

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