While Yuichiro Katsumoto uses cutting edge technology to develop his playful gadgets, his inspiration comes from ancient Japanese traditions and nostalgic forms of media.
Yuichiro Katsumoto’s design ethos hinges on his ability to see the potential for joy and exploration in mundane objects. The result is a collection of light-hearted and fun creations that turn everyday life into art for the people who use them. “My gadgets are like the craft of ancient eras,” he reflects. “Japanese people see tea bowls and tea ceremonies as forms of art. So, in this context, everyday things are not only commodities, but also artistic masterpieces.”
The best example of a gadget that puts Katsumoto’s vision into practice is his Amagatana, an umbrella that responds to the owner’s movements by making the sound of clashing swords. “I made it in the summer of 2006, just before the Nintendo Wii was released,” says Katsumoto. “I had been to an orchestral concert, and I was inspired by the movements of the conductor. He didn’t make any sounds himself, but he controlled it with his movement. I thought that I’d like to transfer that relationship between movement and music into our everyday lives.” The inspiration for how to implement this idea, however, came from a much less glamorous setting than the concert house in which it was conceived. “I found a broken umbrella in my studio, and I began to wonder how I broke it,” Katsumoto explains. After realizing that the umbrella’s demise was probably due to being absentmindedly swung whilst walking home, he decided that this was the perfect object to customize with sound in order to make post-rain fidgeting more interesting.
As well as reimagining household objects, Katsumoto also aims to give new life to outdated technologies, such as CDs. “As a Buddhist, I believe that everyday objects—including CDs—are a gift from the gods, or Buddha,” he explains, revealing a white keyring like charm decorated with Japanese symbols, which he takes everywhere with him for good luck. “Now we’re not using CDs anymore, but we all still have a lot of them in our homes.” As a result, in 2017, Katsumoto set about creating his CD Prayer, a portable CD player that stands the disk vertically behind a buddha statue so that it resembles a halo. “When I visited Italy a few years ago, there were so many pictures where the subjects had these golden disks on their heads,” he explains. “Buddha is also sometimes represented with a disk, and I was shocked by the similarity between the Eastern and Western cultures. After that I became really interested in these expressions of halos, and I thought about how media is recorded by light, brightness, and lasers, indicating that there’s some connection between religion and technology.”
“My gadgets are like the craft of ancient eras.”
Despite Katsumoto’s mission to transform people’s everyday lives with his gadgets, until now his creations have largely remained in art galleries and exhibitions rather than domestic spaces. This is something he is seeking to change: “When I was in Singapore, I had to follow my visa regulations, so I couldn’t sell my artwork to people directly,” says the Japanese native, who worked at the National University of Singapore for eight years. Thankfully, there are more possibilities for Katsumoto to reproduce his products for consumers now that he has returned to the Greater Tokyo Area, where he set up his own studio. Although he’ll go back to teaching soon, the past six months have felt like a “gap year” for the inventor, and he has taken the opportunity to brainstorm ideas for how he wants to take his practice forward. One of the things he’s been working on, for instance, is how to develop his CD Prayer concept to work with other outdated media players. He also continues to work on his Robotype invention which he began researching in 2016. An exploration of typography, the kinetic robot morphs itself to form different letters, and aims to highlight the potential for them to embody time and space rather than being restricted to existing as two-dimensional, static symbols on a page.
Although many things are easier for Katsumoto now that he’s back in his home city, the gadget maker admits that he will miss Singapore. While Tokyo might be perceived by many as the world’s tech capital, Katsumoto doesn’t think that the Japanese capital is developing at the same rate as some of China’s mega-cities. “There are so many crazy buildings in Singapore like the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, by architects like Moshe Safdie, OMA, Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito, and also local talents,” he says. “The city is very rich, and also doesn’t have that many historical buildings, so as a result it has developed very quickly. I only lived in Singapore for eight years, but during that time it totally changed,” he continues, referencing the developments in infrastructures, such as the city’s mass rapid transit system, which is considered one of the best city metro networks in the world. “This dynamic transformation is one of the main things that inspires me to create,” says Katsumoto.
Looking to the future, Katsumoto is excited by the prospect of democratization through the invention of new technologies. “It used to be only the rich who could own cars, but now everybody does. So, in the same context, now only Elon Musk can go into space, but maybe everyone will be able to in 100 years from now.” Alongside going into space, Katsumoto is hopeful that in the future we might be able to reduce housing prices by 3D printing full residential structures, but he is notably skeptical about developments in artificial intelligence. “I don’t really think you can call it intelligence,” he says. “[In current AI products] there is no humor, there is no patience, and there is no kindness or tenderness. If it doesn’t have those things, I don’t really think you can call it intelligence. AI is just new computers,” Katsumoto continues. His sentiments reflect his motivation to adopt a more personal and lighthearted approach to technology, which is admirable considering the benefits he could enjoy by jumping on the bandwagon of the latest industry crazes. “I could make a lot more money using blockchain, AI, or supercomputers, but I’m more interested in making blue sky, dreamy things.”
Yuichiro Katsumoto is a Japanese artist and gadget maker currently based in Tokyo. After teaching for eight years at the National University of Singapore, he has now returned to his native country to pursue the creation of his own studio. You can see more of his gadgets on his website.
This portrait was originally produced by FvF in partnership with Serviceplan Innovation as part of a larger brand campaign for Singapore based skills sharing platform Indorse. Through FvF’s worldwide community of creative talent, we sourced and produced three stories featuring professionals with different skill sets including gadget innovation, culinary education and fostering communities.