The Transcendent Designs of Tokujin Yoshioka

In the late 1980s, when he was in his early twenties, Japanese artist and designer Tokujin Yoshioka visited Vence, a historic village in the south of France. There, he was particularly impressed with the Chapelle du Rosaire, a small church built on the hillside that French painter Henri Matisse decorated between 1948 and 1952. “I experienced a space filled with the light of Matisse,” Yoshioka wrote on his website. “Being bathed in the sunlight of the Provence, the stained glass with Matisse’s vibrant colors suffused the room with colors. Since then, I had been dreaming of designing an architecture where people can feel the light with all senses.”

Tokujin Yoshioka’s Rainbow Church

Rainbow Church

Tokujin Yoshioka realized that dream in 2010, when he presented his own “Rainbow Church” at the Beyond Museum in Seoul, South Korea. For the exhibition, he installed a 30-foot-tall glass window, made up of 500 crystal prisms, which refracted the light and filled the space with rainbows. “I would say I am attracted to light rather than specific materials,” Yoshioka told the Financial Times. “I have always considered light as a very profound element; it creates a mysterious aura and changes the atmosphere of a space.”

Naturalistic design by Tokujin Yoshioka


His attraction to light and its metamorphic abilities also led him to create “The Invisibles,” a transparent furniture collection that includes tables, sofas, armchairs and benches. “For me, transparent objects symbolize light,” Yoshioka told the Financial Times. “They are invisible until they are touched by light—when they become visible and transformed.”

Tokujin Yoshioka also constructed “KOU-AN,” an entirely transparent glass teahouse beside a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. The walls, floor and roof of the teahouse are made of glass panels, designed to capture the essence of traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. “KOU-AN does not have a scroll nor flowers that are supposed to be provided in traditional tea houses,” Yoshioka said in an interview with Dezeen. “[But] at some point in the afternoon, there will be a rainbow light, which is sunlight coming through a prism glass on the roof, and it seems like a flower of light that decorates the tea house.”

The Saga Prefectural Art Museum’s clear drinking straws design

Nature is a central part of Yoshioka’s work, he said it was his biggest inspiration. “Nature never shows you the exact same thing twice, and that in itself is proof that it is alive,” he said in his self-titled book (Rizzoli, 2010). “That is the beauty of living things. The beauty inherent in flakes of snow can never be matched by any design. People are moved by the beauty of happenstance. I wish I could take a cloud home with me.”

Tokujin Yoshioka might not be able to take a cloud home, but he has re-imagined them in his works and exhibitions—in his Second Nature show, he made a cumulus-like sofa out of paper, and used overlapping transparent fibers to mirror floating vapor. In his 2015 retrospective at the Saga Prefectural Art Museum, located on the island of Kyushu, where Yoshioka grew up, he used more than two million clear drinking straws to capture the movement of a tornado. “It is possible that I am not making things, but rather just giving shape to emotional energy,” he said in his book.

The Saga Prefectural Art Museum’s clear drinking straws design


The undulating piles of straws oozed out of doorways and swirled around columns, but cleared pathways led visitors to view iconic works from his oeuvre. These works included “Venus,” a chair that Yoshioka grew from natural crystals inside a tank, and “Honey-pop,” an armchair made out of 120 accordion-style layers of paper. His aqueous “Water Block” bench, which looks as if it is made of flowing water, was also on display (and “Water Block” is now on permanent display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris). Yoshioka said that “Honey Pop” and “Water Block” are the works that have made him feel the “most fulfilled.” He also added, “Creating works that I’d never seen before amazed me as I’d never experienced.”

Tokujin Yoshioka’s Venus and Honey-pop designs

Experience is of paramount importance to the artist. He wants to create new experiences for both himself and the viewers of his work. “The most important thing about design to me is the experience, not the form or style,” Yoshioka told The Japan Times. He further believes a design is not complete when it takes material form, but that “it is completed instead in the minds of people,” he said in his book. His goal, in all of his works, is to inspire emotion. “Design should contain elements that excite and move people,” he told Inhabit.

Natural lighting design by Tokujin Yoshioka

Rainbow Church

His designs have been met with interest and acclaim. Yoshioka designed Swarovski’s shimmering flagship store in the Ginza in Tokyo, and a number of boutiques for Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake. Tokujin Yoshioka has won several awards, including Designer of the Year at Design Miami and Creator of the Year from Maison & Objet, and his works have appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. He has also been described by Newsweek as one of the “100 most respected Japanese by the world,” and Fast Company listed him as one of the “100 most creative people in business.”

“I want to create as much as possible with every step I take towards the future,” Yoshioka said in his book. “And I want to move the hearts of as many people as possible in my lifetime. Hence, I shall continue to design.”

All photos © Nacása & Partners Inc