Born 1915, Tokyo
Practised in Japan
Studied Art and Architecture at Tokyo School of Fine Art
Sori Yanagi was born in Tokyo in 1915, to Soetsu Yanagi and Kaneku Yanagi. His father, a philosopher and critic, was the founder of the mingei (folk crafts) movement, and eventually also founded the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Mingeikan.
Yanagi’s father campaigned tirelessly on behalf of handcrafted wares at a time when mass production was threatening to convert Japan into an industrial giant. Sori Yanagi therefore grew up in the company of many of Japan’s leading ceramicists and craftsmen, many of whom were the beneficiaries of his father’s work. He remained appreciative and conscious of the importance of Japanese artisanal traditions throughout his life, and made sure to honour them in his designs.
From 1934 to 1940, Yanagi received his tertiary education at the Tokyo School of Fine Art where he studied both architecture and art.
After graduation, he worked in the office of legendary designers Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier, and was deeply inspired by their work. It was from this inspiration that his interests moved from painting to design.
In 1954, he founded the Yanagi Industrial Design Institute, through which he produced a prolific number of items of daily use and furnishings.
Yanagi’s most famous design is the Butterfly Stool which he designed in 1954. The conceptualisation of this iconic design was discovered when Yanagi was folding and shaping pieces of paper, and in its gentle and fluid curving was reminded of a butterfly’s wings poised for flight. The stool is made up of two identical pieces of plywood seamlessly joined using only a metal rod and screws. Although simple in appearance, the Butterfly Stool took over three years to create, with the assistance of a famous furniture maker and plywood researcher Inui Saburo. Almost 70 years later, the Butterfly Stool remains an international style icon which can be found in many major collections such as that of the MoMA, the Louvre, and Miami’s Rubell Museum.
The Elephant Stool, which was designed in 1954, is another famous Yanagi design. It is a three-legged stacking stool, whose classic design and versatility has survived the test of time. Produced originally in fibreglass, but in more modern times out of recyclable polypropylene, it is suitable for indoor and outdoor use.
In addition to furniture, Yanagi dabbled in the design of lighting, glass objects, cutlery, kitchenware, children’s toys, metro stations, cars, and motorcycles. Famously, he designed the torch holder and stadium seats for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Yanagi’s successful union of western industrial designs and Japanese artisanal traditions lead him to be described as the pioneer of Japanese post-war industrial designers. His style can be described as simple yet practical, drawing on elements of traditional Japanese crafts. His pieces are timelessly sophisticated, with his passionate philosophy for the incorporation of organic beauty coming forth predominantly in his work. Yanagi once said ‘true beauty is not made, it is found’, and this sentiment is profoundly reflected in his work.
In 1957, Yanagi won an award at the Milan Triennale for his Butterfly Stool. In the same year, he won another award at the Milan Triennale for his kettle. His kettle also received the G-Mark award in 1958. In 1998, Yanagi won yet another award, the Good Design Award, for his redesigned stainless-steel kettle. In 2008, he was awarded Britain’s highest honour for design, the title of “Honorary Royal Designer for Industry” by the Royal Society of Art.
Yanagi played an important role in the consolidation of the emerging design profession as a founding member of the Japan Industrial Designers Association in 1952. He also played a role in Japanese design education, teaching at the Women’s Art College in Tokyo, Japan, and at the Kanazawa University of Arts and Crafts in Ishikawa, Japan.
In 1977, Yanagi took over from his father and became the director of the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Mingeikan.
He has authored a book called Sori Yanagi’s Works and Philosophy, which was published in 1983.
Sori Yanagi passed away in 2011, at the age of 96.
- 1954 Butterfly Stool
- 1954 Elephant Stool
- 1960 Stainless Steel Bowls
- 1964 Torch Holder for the Tokyo Olympic Games
- 1974 (onwards) Kitchen Product Design Series (includes cutlery, cooking utensils, kettles, pots, pans, bowls etc.)
- 1974 Stainless Steel Cutlery
- 1994 Stainless Steel Kettle
- 1999 Punch-pressed Strainers