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What does it mean to think about product design architecturally? Our architecture minds are drawn to strategy, function, and concept, while product design calls for a focus on immediate use and usability. But as Japanese architecture firm Torafu goes to show, a certain way to marry the two in a single project is to design a product that is also a space.
Architects Shinya Kamuro and Koichi Suzuno formed Torafu in 2004, after a fortuitous introduction during an architecture competition. They found common ground in a design philosophy based on problem solving and architectural thinking, which they have come to apply across their entire portfolio, from architectural and interior design to exhibition spaces, installations, books, film, and some very thoughtful, playful product design.
“In designing products, we always try to think architecturally,” says Kamuro. “We try not to change our methods according to different project types. But, every project has its own specific aspects to be considered—site conditions, problems, usage situations—so we proceed with each project carefully, considering and addressing each aspect one by one.” That’s their method. And it’s carried out with a dexterous division of labor, in which Suzuno generally nails down the concept and conceives of the initial phase, and Kamuro tackles the stage of realization. “And throughout a project, we both support each other,” says Kamuro.
Torafu’s brilliant Koloro-desk—designed for for Ichiro-ilo, a furniture line by decorative plywood company Ichiro—best highlights the duo's all-out application of architectural thinking. “We were asked to work with Ichiro when they set out to launch a new furniture line. Koloro is color and ilo is tool in Esperanto. We wanted to create the universal tool, ” says Kamuro.
The Koloro-desk, happily paired with the Koloro-stool.
We’ve all fallen victim to office sprawl. Papers, utensils, trinkets, the occasional potted plant, and a desk can easily take over an entire room. The Koloro-desk is the desk that is the room. Traditional Japanese and Zen design principles guide us to go minimal, shun symmetry, and avoid clutter. But if clutter you must, this asymmetrical vaulted box-desk serves to contain it.
Koloro-desk’s windows can open it up to its surroundings, or close to create a private space where one may work (or play) undisturbed. Their magnetic latches allow for sleek operation, and their sills serve as shelves, inviting lamps, potted plants, the occasional ornament. There are hooks for bags, and a cord manager for laptops and the like.
Ichiro is so obsessed with the quality and vibrancy of the colors used on the polyester plywood they manufacture that they create in-house blends for their paints, and go so far as to custom-tint even single sheets to exact the perfect hue. The Koloro line is meant to accentuate that strength. After deliberating over a spectrum, Torafu landed on the beta offerings of yellow and sky blue for the Koloro-desk, recently adding pink, white, khaki, and navy to the roster. The partner stool—vaulting horse-inspired, with discrete storage tucked beneath the seat cushion—comes with a grey, dark grey, light-blue or green cushion, and a choice of two heights, 430 mm, and 530 mm for the kids.
Beyond furniture, Torafu’s collaboration with Ichrio has begotten several more playful products, Koloro-magnet, Dowel Blocks, Koloro-stand, and fresh from the studio, Koloro-wagon. More are in the oven.
While Torafu’s other notable projects, like the House in Kohoku (below), seem worlds away from their product design work with Ichiro-ilo, it’s not hard to trace Koloro-desk’s conceptual origins to the firm’s earlier work. Take their 2004 project, "Template in Claska.”
Template in Claska, 2004
Torafu was approached by the CLASKA Hotel in Tokyo to design a rather compact room for long-term guests, to the tune of just under 200 square feet each. The room’s function and concept is drawn from a template wall of laser-cut holes replete with solutions for storage, display, lighting, and even a doghouse for the hotel’s in-house fleet of pet robots—no surprise in Tokyo.
House in Kohoku, 2008
On a small plot in a residential neighborhood of Yokohama, Torafu’s sculptural, cast-concrete House in Kohoku manages to maximize both natural light and privacy from its nearby neighbors with its barnacle-like roof, and to feel spacious and open while meeting the clients’ wishes to have a one-story home. It may seem like a far cry from the architects' polyester-plywood post-cubicle, but its elegance, simplicity, and compactness share the same design DNA.
All photos courtesy of Torafu