The History of the Hot New Style in Designer Lighting

A bright contemporary living room with a Mosso Pro floor light from Koncept to the side of a reading chair.

The sleekly technological Mosso Pro floor lamp from Koncept accentuates the lines of this Japandi living room

Japandi is one of the premiere design styles in the worlds of industrial and interior design at the moment. Although typically described through some variation of the phrase ‘a combination of Scandinavian functionality and Japanese minimalism,’ this simple yet expressive design style is, indeed, the result of collaboration between the design styles commonly known as Japanese and Scandinavian, these reductive descriptions do Japandi a disservice.

What is Japandi?

Japandi is not so much, as it is so often described, a combination of styles as it is a celebration of where those styles align. Japanese design includes vast offerings that do not fall within the Japandi style, as does Scandinavian design. Within both, however, there are areas where they are extremely similar. These areas are where we find the foundation of “Japandi.”

A list of characteristics common to Japandi design style.

In many ways, Japandi is as much an offshoot of modernism as it is Japanese and Scandinavian design. Japandi is marked by simplicity, minimalism, the alignment of form with function, and the derivation of beauty from utility. Above all–Japandi rejects the age-old enemy of modernism: ornamentation, or art for art’s sake. These essential principles are expressed in Japandi through elements in theme and form such as nature, comfort, tranquility, and warmth. This is where the influence of Japanese and Scandinavian design are most felt, and provides a solid foundation from which other elements of both design styles can be integrated to accent the core.

These essential principles are expressed in Japandi through elements in theme and form such as nature, comfort, tranquility, and warmth.

If we are to do justice to Japandi, we must first do justice to its forebears. What are Japanese and Scandinavian design? Where did they come from, how did they develop, and how do they contribute to Japandi? In this extra-special two-part article, we are going to delve into these remarkable design traditions in the interest of better understanding their heir.

The Seeds of Japanese Design

Kyudo floor light from Kundalini illuminates a moody living room.

Kyudo, designed for Kundalini by Hansandfranz, bears a name meaning “the way of the bow,” a discipline rooted in Zen Buddhism

The story of Japanese design begins between 1853 and 1868, with the end of two centuries of isolationism known as Sakoku (“locked country”) and the return of imperial rule during the Meiji Restoration. Established by the Tokugawa shōgunate to defend Japan from European colonialism, Sakoku limited foreign trade extremely–indeed, out of all of Europe, only The Dutch East India Company was granted permission, and remained restricted to a single Japanese port in Nagasaki.

Unfortunately, aside from some Dutch medical and science texts attained through trade, the (relative) peace of this period was purchased at the expense of technological development. The Japanese could clearly see their feudal weapons were at a disadvantage before the fleet of American warships that forced open their ports. This weakened the Tokugawa shōgunate enough that, in 1868, it fell during the Meiji Restoration, which, for good and ill, established the foundations of modern Japan.

East Meets West

Santa & Cole's Tekio Circular P8 suspension light by Anthony Dickens, suspended in a workshop.
A close-up of the Tekio diffuser from Santa & Cole.

Anthony Dickens’ Tekio collection of lights from Santa & Cole evokes traditional Japanese lighting in new and intriguing forms

The Meiji Restoration reestablished the Emperor as the ruling political power in Japan. At its core was the Charter Oath: five essential principles which were designed to simultaneously promote the growth of Japan as a world power and entrench the Emperor’s power as foundational to Japan’s very existence. 

The first three principles established (in theory) something approaching a democratic system of public involvement in their government, and are–aside from the general democratizing influence this granted the previously stratified Japanese society–irrelevant to our purposes here. For Japanese design, far and away the most important principles were four and–more so–five. 

The fifth principle of the Charter Oath declared that “knowledge shall be sought all over the world, and thereby the foundations of imperial rule shall be strengthened.” Scholars and students in all fields were encouraged to leave Japan to study around the world, so that they might return and revitalize their home country with new technology, philosophy, and techniques. Among these students were Hirayama Eizo and Matsuoka Hisashi.

The Birth of a Japanese Design

Inn Side outdoor floor lights illuminate a lush patio.

Inn Side outdoor floor light, designed by Gemma Bernal for B.lux, is ideal for Japandi-themed indoor and outdoor lighting plans

Hirayama studied applied art at the School of Applied Arts in Vienna from 1874 to 1877. At around the same time, Matsuoka studied with Italian painter Antonio Fontanesi in Edo–by then renamed Tokyo–and went on to study fine art at the Royal Institute of Fine Art in Rome. Both men would return to Japan steeped not only in training and experience with European art and design techniques, but also the rich philosophical movements that were taking hold in the European art and design communities at that time.

In addition to working and teaching in Japanese design institutions, Hirayama also translated seminal texts in European art and design for the Japanese market. Both Hirayama and Matsuoka would teach in and head the Department of Industrial Design at the Higher Technological School of Tokyo, and their writings would help set the course of Japanese design to the present day. However, before we discuss that, we must first take a quick step back.

Natural Influences

Kundalini's Kushi Mobile portable table lamps illuminate a minimalist walled garden.

This indoor green space enhances its natural tranquility with a pair of Kushi Mobile portable table lights from Kundalini

According to the fourth principle of the Charter Oath: “evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.” The ultimate purpose of this principle is to subtly centralize power with the Emperor, but it had side-effects that have lasted to the present day. The Meiji Restoration removed the rigid stratification of Japanese society, but maintained the elevation of the Emperor and figures within the imperial government. They did this by appealing to traditional Japanese beliefs and nature-worship, including the deification of the Emperor and his ancestors, in a state-defined form of Shinto. 

Nature, Shinto, and Japanese Design

Like much of Japanese history, Shinto’s origins trail off into unrecorded history, caught between Chinese influence and the folk beliefs of tribal Japan. The word “Shinto” is of Chinese origin, meaning “the way of the spirits,” describing Shinto’s worship of kami (spirits). 

Arihiro Miyake's In the Wind Vertical suspension light hangs to the side of a sofa in a bright living room.

Japanese designer Arihiro Miyake draws much of his inspiration from the natural world, often through a lens of scientific precision. The In the Wind family of lights (Vertical suspension variant above) for Nemo was inspired by the whirling flow of air

Kami inhabit all natural things, though most who are worshipped inhabit prominent natural features, such as waterfalls, streams, forests, mountains, or even boulders. Shrines, either in the home or near distinct natural forms such as old trees or waterfalls are common. And, through a blending of Shinto with Chinese Buddhism around the sixth century, Shinto temples both proliferated and took on distinct aesthetic touches from Buddhism, especially the value of tranquility, simplicity, and organic order

Shinto and Buddhism–within a wide range of blended forms–would become the primary spiritual influences in Japan over the next twelve centuries. The ubiquity, accessibility, and regional adaptability of these belief systems would cause key elements of their temples to spread into the architecture of common homes.

Nature and Japanese Architecture

Chamber 3 Piece cluster suspension light from Lee Broom.

Chamber 3 Piece cluster suspension light from Lee Broom features marble inner diffusers, making it useful for Japandi spaces looking for a natural material with a cooler presence than wood

Most traditional Japanese homes and temples include features based on the concept of liminality–spaces that exist between worlds. These buildings are built so as to connect the civilized indoors with the natural outdoors through design elements such as the engawa, a veranda that surrounds house exteriors and thus serves as a civilized space in nature, and the genkan, the interior lower level where shoes are removed so as to respect the home as a distinct space.

Of course, practicality also played an extensive role in the forms that Japanese homes took through history. Wood was abundant and so became the primary material used, with different woods having different favoured uses. Pine’s strength was relied upon for structure, while cypress was favoured for roofing. Cedar’s beautiful grain made it ideal for decorative purposes and any structural wood that remained exposed. 

An installation of Momento lights, designed for Wonderglass by Nao Tamura, seen from above so as to show the distinctive shadow effect.

With Wonderglass’ Momento lights, Tokyo-born American designer Nao Tamura uses meticulously-worked glass and LED technology to create a visual shadow effect evoking the ripples created by a droplet striking the surface of still water.

Because glassworking was extremely limited in Japan until the Meiji Restoration, windows were almost unheard of. Instead, Japanese homes and temples used shoji, moveable paper screen panels for walls and doors. The paper would be translucent enough to allow light into the home, but still protect the room from the elements. Shoji were also exceedingly practical, as they could be easily removed to redesign floorplans or, along exterior walls, for exposure to the world.

Japanese Lanterns

As with most Asian design styles, the most popular element of traditional Japanese lighting that has influenced international lighting design is the lantern. Based on the same practical elements as shoji, lanterns could be functionally simple structures of wood and paper, or they could be richly ornate, decorated with metal or the small and simple glass products that Japanese glassworkers were able to produce. The meticulous structures and warm character of Japanese lanterns live on today in designer lights such as Fumie Shibata’s Bonbori for Brokis and the Denglong collection of lights from Parachilna.

Parachilna's Denglong P GR floor light, designed by Nahtrang Studio
Fumie Shibata's Bonbori outdoor floor lights for Brokis.

Left: Neri & Hu Design’s Denglong collection from Parachilna is Chinese in origin and inspiration, but still suitable for Japandi design plans. Right: Fumie Shibata’s Bonbori for Brokis was named for the ceremonial temple lanterns that inspired it

Japanese Design Goes Global

As we try to understand how Japanese art developed and, thus, influenced the creation of Japanese design, it is important to recall that the foundations were laid during a time of tremendous social upheaval. Art based on nationalistic Japanese themes, historic events, and artistic methods was heavily encouraged by the imperial government. At the same time, Japanese students and scholars were extremely active both learning and teaching in Europe, creating profound mutual sources of influence. These seemingly contradictory goals led to a tremendous amount of philosophical debate over the virtues of different styles, philosophies, and approaches.

Santa & Cole's Asa table lamp by Miguel Milá sits on the floor bedside.

Designed by Miguel Milá in 1961, Santa & Cole’s Asa table lamp offers a luxurious glow from its elegantly simple form

Meanwhile, Back in Europe

The novelty and beauty of Japanese arts and crafts enraptured a great many people in Europe. The emphasis of natural themes in Japanese art, combined with its inherent newness to European eyes, made it a major influence upon the developing Art Nouveau. As a style, Art Nouveau attempted to demolish the barriers between fine arts and applied arts, and favoured natural themes over the historic and religious ones popular among Europe’s elite. 

Modernism in Japanese Design

Perch Light Branch linear suspension lightm designed by Umut Yamac for Moooi.
Perch Light wall sconce, designed by Umut Yamac for Moooi.

Exploring the relationship between the artificial and the natural through the evocative form of origami birds, Umut Yamac’s Perch Light collection for Moooi embody elegant fun with a distinctly Japanese flavour

Whether due to its existing Japanese influences or just the alignment of its philosophical value with that promoted by the imperial government, Art Nouveau was quick to catch on among Japanese artists. Much like their European contemporaries, however, Japanese architects and industrial designers resisted the movement’s influence.

By 1904, Hirayama had come to believe that the perfect industrial product was one that united form and function, and derived its beauty naturally from its functionality. Similarly, Matsuoka Hisashi–despite having been primarily an artist at the start of his career–advised Japanese designers away from Art Nouveau. Matsuoka viewed the style as merely an ornate European interpretation of Japanese art and dismissed it and many other similar forms of ornamentation as “arts for art’s sake.”

Stickbulb's Middle Bang floor and table light.

Stickbulb’s Middle Bang floor light is a prime example of minimalism

Hirayama, Matsuoka, and their contemporaries exerted great power over the development of design as a concept in Japan. Their influence led to widespread adoption of sleek, efficient, and practical yet beautiful modernist design principles in Japanese design and architecture. Moreover, their defence of design as a discipline that–though it was related to it–was still distinct from art helped Japanese design survive a tumultuous century.

Japanese Design in Interesting Times

The first half of the twentieth century was one of turbulent–and dubious–success for the field of Japanese design. The Department of Industrial Design headed by Matsuoka would be closed by the government in 1914, leading to Matsuoka and his contemporaries launching the first dedicated design school in Japan with The Tokyo Higher School of Arts in 1921. 

Anita suspension light from Nemo, designed by Mario Barbaglia, hangs over a sideboard.

Though neither Japanese nor Scandinavian, lights with simple, fluid forms such Mario Barbaglia’s ANITA pendant light from Nemo are perfect for the clean, uncluttered nature of Japandi-based design schemes

Unfortunately, many of its graduates would apply their excellence to unworthy goals. The Japanese military gained an excess of political power during World War I, which would entirely reshape Japanese society for the next thirty years. The best Japanese artists, engineers, and designers would be assigned to propaganda and weaponry design–or, if suspected of dissent, might simply vanish. 

Arising from the Ashes

An indoor patio/sitting room in Moscow enjoys the light of Karman's Cell Wide floor light by Matteo Ugolini.

Karman creative director Matteo Ugolini was inspired by the frameworks of Japanese paper lanterns when he created the Cell family of lights, including Cell Wide floor light, featured above in a project in Moscow

Following its defeat in World War II, much of Japan–both physically and socially–needed to be rebuilt and demilitarized. This provided ample opportunity for Japanese cities to be based on a more modern infrastructure model with more contemporary design. One of the results of this process is the wonderful juxtaposition of traditional Shinto temples and ultra-modern high rises coexisting in many cities. Most of all, though, the technological horrors visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the form of nuclear weapons caused the relationship with technology to have a very different tone in Japanese culture. 

In America, enthusiasm for all things technological led to short-lived fads and light-hearted design styles such as Space Age and Googie. In Japan, technological innovation was tempered by regret and a certain amount of fear. As a result, Japan’s technological development was more deliberate and focused, with a profound respect for the effects technology could have on society. This, then, led to the dominance of Japanese engineering and design in the business, automotive, and technology worlds through the ’80s.

Anima floor and table light from Davide Groppi sits on a side table

Davide Groppi and Giorgio Rava were inspired by both Scandinavian and Japanese design when they created Anima table and floor light. Anima’s lithe form is a union of conceptual genius and technological triumph

Contemporary Japanese Design and Japandi

Formakami JH5 pendant light, designed by Jaime Hayón for &tradition, hangs over a wooden dining room table.

Jaime Hayón uses Japanese washi paper to create the diffuser of Formakami JH5 suspension light from &tradition, adding a warmth and expressiveness to this Japandi dining area

Today, most of what we refer to as “Japanese Design” continues to be marked by the elements we’ve discussed here. Minimalism and meaning are especially in vogue, thanks in no small part to Marie Kondo and new minimalism. Elements inspired by Shinto and Buddhist shrines and temples are also common–though we do not advocate using religious symbols that have no personal meaning to you as mere decoration. 

Where Japandi is concerned, though, the most important areas of Japanese design are those marked by the combination of a devotion to nature and restrained modernist forms. Natural materials, lithe, minimalist forms, and wide open spaces that encourage Zen-like reflection and tranquility are all elements of Japandi that come straight from the birth of industrial design in Japan and the work of Japanese design titans like Hirayama and Matsuoka.

Yet, of course, these elements are not exclusive to Japanese design by any means. Indeed, it is their presence in Scandinavian design that led to the identification of Japandi as a distinct style. Join us next week for Part Two of our look at Japandi, in which we ask the question “why do we say ‘hygge instead of ‘gemütlichkeit’?” despite the answer being pretty obvious.

If you’re longing to add a touch of Japandi or Japanese design to your lighting plan, visit us online or in one of our offices and showrooms in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Kelowna, and Winnipeg.