A conversation between Colani and Albrecht Bangert on Japan and the relationship of technology and nature.

BANGERT: Did Japan influence Colani or Colani influence Japan?

COLANI: European artists such as Toulouse Lautrec, van Gogh, Vallotton or Americans Frank Lloyd Wright and McNeill Whistler were fascinated and stimulated by Japanese culture. Their vision and oeuvre was strongly influenced by Japanese art. By the same token there were also many Japanese artists who were profoundly influenced by European modernity – by Le Corbusier and some Cubist painters to name but a few.

This cultural exchange has been going on since Japan opened its doors to the outside world in the middle of the 19th century and

I am proud that I was able to contribute to this process of mutual influence with my Biodesign. The connection between myself and Japan is thus of a very special nature. The invention of biodesign in the broadest and traditional sense in Japan derived from the roots of Shintoism and the Japanese notion of "kimochi", that is to say a sensibility for the atmospheric. Western culture considers ratio to be the nucleus of all human activity. By contrast in the Far East, the belief is that nothing endures unless created through kimochi as the manifestation of the universal energy or ki in our own psyches. For only this marriage of the emotional and the world of things will create something lasting that is likewise in line with our spirit. Apparently I seem to have had a not insignificant influence on the radical and deep-rooting revival of these ideas in Japan – particularly when it comes to biodesign combined with the most modern technology and production methods. The connection between my design philosophy and Japan is thus very close, in both practical and in-tellectual terms.

On the one hand, I was deeply influenced by Japan through its people, its culture and its design. On the other, I was able to in-spire many Japanese young people with a European style biodesign. The idea of an organic biodesign was enthusiastically received in Japan. Influenced by their own roots in Shinto religion and the Japanese “kimochi“, the atmospheric, an amalgam developed from the Colani-minded fund which continues to have an affect in Japan today and which in my case too, has remained the main vein of my activity.

Asian people whom I met in those days were fascinated by a mixture of high tech and emotion. This remains a precarious balancing act for all major designers constantly balance. We have to work emotionally on integrating technology, and this is just as strongly required as it was in those days. Japan has understood this better than the rest of the world, that it is about more than just pure technology, but about a feeling for technology. Sometimes more technology and less form is crucial while at other times, more form and less technology is required.

BANGERT: What did you find most fascinating in Japan?

COLANI: The dialogue between Japanese writers and scientist, the discussions with aircraft makers, shipbuilders, electricians and of course the large corporations. It was a lucky break to be able to influence such an important company as camera manufacturer Canon with my ideas on biodesign. The single lens reflex camera developed in teamwork between myself and Japanese engineers was voted “camera of the year” and in that year it had a truly staggering influence on camera developments all over the world.

Overnight, all camera companies had to follow Canon‘s example if they wished to retain a foothold in the market. And for Canon it was indeed a giant step forward from the view of a camera as a stiff robot to a camera which could be grasped properly in the hand. The device has to fit in the hand and not the other way round.

These are developments which were born of dialogues with the large Japanese corporations and which today, historically speaking, had an irrevocable impact and have de-finitely remained relevant through to the present.

BANGERT: What is the difference between Japan and Europe in terms of design culture?

COLANI: There are enormous differences. Take the very elevated concept of quality the Japanese have and their exquisite

way of dealing with small things. Here, for example, cameras and the smallest electronic devices feature a great variety of textures such as polished or brushed metal, not to mention the mirror-smooth inclusion of plastics and finishes. This virtuoso way of dealing with small things has set trends globally. Today, the whole world consists of copies of Japanese design which we developed together in these years.

Today, European carmakers copy the qua-lity of Japanese cars. It used to be the other way round. In the early days of Japanese design, the Japanese walked around the car fairs in New York, London, Paris and Frankfurt with cameras in their hands and copied. Today the tables have turned, today the Europeans come with their European cameras, if they still have any, to Japan and copy Japanese design. Because in the meantime the Japanese have introduced such an emotional and imaginative interplay of colors and textures into design – something which no European company can do. Only Japanese designers are able to do this and this is what makes the difference.

BANGERT: Have the Japanese rediscovered their own tradition in modern design?

COLANI: That is what I postulated at the time. When I arrived in Japan I held keynote speeches in Matsumoto, and they were attended by the entire Japanese design scene. At the time I claimed that there was no other way than to extract ideas from the large array of insanely good Asian handicrafts, in other words to extrapolate things for modern design. And the Japanese, when it comes to up-to-date design, are streets ahead of the rest of the world because they continue to incorporate this fund of fantastic craftsmanship into objects of modern design. You see it again and again. They are prominent as wood and ceramic and metal craftsmen. I can only remember Japanese knives, Japanese scissors, Japanese ceramics, Japanese wood work – handcrafted products that can only be described as incredibly good. And we find them repeatedly in the most refined details in the smallest camera parts. It is unbelievable.

BANGERT: Did you also have the opportunity to familiarize yourself with traditional Japanese culture?

COLANI: Yes, I participated in tea ceremonies and visited Kabuki theater in order to soak up the culture as if I were a sponge. There was so much that was so totally different for me to discover that as a designer in Japan I experienced a very profound change in my entire design activity, just as I had an influence on Japan, a radical one. It was one of the most wonderful encounters in history. Colani turned Japan upside down while Japan did the same to him. Japanese culture turned me inside out like a glove revealing the seams.

BANGERT: Are there a few special occasions you like to remember most, perhaps with craftsmen or designers or large corporations or staff members?

COLANI: Actually it were the discussions. Canon is probably the most prominent product which I made in Japan to great international effect, and I remember many profound philosophical discussions on design with engineers all the way to top management. These were discussions from which I always learnt a lot and to which I was always able to give a lot. In 1983, in Japan we worked together on the idea of the digital camera in talks with Canon engineers and with my accompanying sketches. But it took 15 years until it reached the market.

BANGERT: You are a great illustrator. Did the Japanese drawing style have a big in-fluence on you?

COLANI: I never got that far. The Japanese illustrators are way ahead of me. Japanese artistic style is so unusual and appealing and extraordinary with its very different understanding of perspective and the neglect of the emotional aspect in drawings in order to show a lot of emotion that I never dared to copy it. But I allowed it to have a strong influence on me.

In Europe, this influence can be easily seen in the great lithographs of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He, too, copied mercilessly in the beginning before translating this experience into his own lines. But the Japanese also needed time, and in the beginning, contact with the western design mindset which I brought with me, until they understood how to translate their own art and crafts into an independent product and design language. Suddenly, this longer period of contact with the Western design approach led to an independent design approach.

Yes, in Japan we kicked off something fantastic. I always pointed out to the Japanese and that they incorporate their own culture in design, something I always fought like a lion. And that is what happened with such a lasting effect which radiates today onto international design. The new Neo-Design was born in the Asian region. It comes from Asia. And it is absolutely correct to say that in this century we are marching into an Asian period, one hundred percent. It is no longer Europe. Europe is old, Europe is a museum with attached old peoples‘ home. If you return here from Asia, and this is quite different in Japan today, and in the Asian region in general, you can fully observe a new departure, a departure into the new millennium.

BANGERT: Back in the 1970s you already sketched robots and showed in YLEM how deep-sea robots set up and maintained algae cultures. In the 1980s, you also drew robots in Japan. What is the relationship between man and robot?

COLANI: That is very easy and concise to explain. At the time I received the assignment from the Fuyo Group to develop a robot theater, robots were rationalizing jobs away in Japan. And there was a first wave of animosity towards the robot. And then I was asked, “Colani, make the robot friendly. Bring the robot back into play as a companion and not as a foe who takes away jobs!” And I received a contract and the great opportunity of making a two-hour robot theater wihtout any people. There was a single woman who played around with it but there were many more dozen robots which were built and which were the big sensation at the Tzukuba Expo ‘85. They immediately improved the image of the robot in Japan, also a wave of imitations was launched with the cute smallest robots which were also shown in this play – from little Tamagochis to the ear-wagging Sony dogs – and today we have a wave of copies. The friendly robot image is a Colani invention from the Tsukuba Expo ‘85 where we won the first and second prize.

BANGERT: I believe that you created your greatest affinity to Japan with the robots because they look like Japanese comic figures and they really match the Japanese mentality and their love of such cute things. How is it that you were able to create such a range of Japan-like figures with so much fantasy?

COLANI: My task was to make robots cute. And this succeeded in a perfect form against the backdrop of my profound observations of Japanese design, old Japanese graphics, and the Japanese tri-vializing of forms which can be found in all aspects of life in Japan. In the ‘nezukes‘ you have these wonderful, almost sculptural brilliant depictions made with scant means, and these robots are made so succinct with extreme economy of form.

The task I was given by the large group I worked for was something really astonishing: We wanted a queue of people in front of our theater which no one could overlook. A queue which was so long that we could justifiably claim we had made the robot socially acceptable again. And this was absolutely successful. Such masses of people as those who stood before our Fuyo Robot Theater, could not be seen anywhere else in the whole Tsukuba exhibition.

BANGERT: Today, robots are once again the big attraction in Japan. The entire World Expo in Aichi appears to live from a revival of these robots. How do you think robots should be designed today?

COLANI: Today, of course, you can see signs of abrasion and wear in the robot world. The robot once again has become overly technoid in Japan and this is a mild mistake. It has to be high-tech of course but the design side is somewhat lagging behind.

And we are right now on the point of showing the Japanese again with our Baby Robot which is supposed to learn to walk, which has fallen on its nose 75 times and on the 76th try stands up quietly, attempts a first step, falls again, and then takes a second and a third, that we have to start from the very basics again. We have to go the whole way and take a profound look at the external design of robots to rid the robot of its aggression. After all, the robot takes away from us, from humans, large areas of life. From craftsmen, too. And like in the Art Nouveau period when the applied arts, sculptors and designers revolted against mass industrialization, today we have to create a Neo Art Nouveau again, we have to work on making machines much closer to nature so that we can bring Yin-Yang into computers and into robots. Once again we are too far removed from the nature-like image of the robot.

This is something we have to work on again and I would like to introduce new stimulus again about which we will have to speak at our exhibition.

BANGERT: Does this mean that the observation and analysis is almost the most important starting point for a designer when designing something?

COLANI: The Asian Buddhist philosophy of observing forms in nature is actually the wider perspective I have always preferred, onto which everything technical should be grafted. Not simply alongside each other. Form and technology belong together and this is missing in the appearances of very many of today‘s robots which are simply too technical. And also their performance, this is another important aspect which suffers from the fact that sufficient attention has not been paid to observing nature in the last 10, 15 years. It has to become part of the process again.

BANGERT: Can you imagine being an impulse-giver again for Japanese design and its industrial products?

COLANI: Yes I can only describe this in images. A couple of months ago, one of the major editors in Japan wrote me the following sentence: ‘Since you left Japan, the sky has filled with grey clouds.‘ That‘s all he said. But it says it all! There has to be another cloud-breaking Neo impulse to get Japan back to where it already was. There has to be another uprising by the craftsmen and artists against the over-technologization of button-pushing computer users.

Then we will have a chance of creating a harmonic world image.

April 6, 2005