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The KOUBA principle: The fundamentals of Japanese design in the Tsubame-Sanjo region

Special exhibition
20 October 2023 – 21 January 2024

When Steve Jobs set out in 2001 to manufacture the first iPod, designed by Jonathan Ive, he couldn’t find any high-tech forges that were able to create the mirrored metallic back cover of the device. Eventually, in Japan’s Tsubame-Sanjo region, almost 300 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, he stumbled upon craftsmen with the skills to polish the metal surface to get the high-gloss finish he wanted.

Now, from 20 October 2023, the Red Dot Design Museum in Essen will feature a special exhibition entitled “The KOUBA principle: The fundamentals of Japanese design in the Tsubame-Sanjo region”. The exhibition will focus on knives, tools and other metal products crafted in precisely those workshops (in Japanese: ‘KOUBA’) in an industrial region steeped in tradition. These everyday objects that take shape in the hands of the industrial craftsmen in the KOUBA have all of the features of good design: simplicity, functionality, appropriate use of materials as well as durability. As a result, they set standards for functional and aesthetic quality, both in Japan and far beyond its borders.

The exhibition will be on show from 20 October 2023 to 21 January 2024.

The KOUBA principle – top manufacturing quality through collaboration

When experts in different fields come together and contribute their knowledge and expertise to master a challenge, the process can result in something entirely new. The master smiths and small metal-working businesses in the Tsubame-Sanjo region in the northern Japanese prefecture of Niigata experienced this phenomenon repeatedly over centuries. Still today, they are successfully exploiting the competitive edge that stems from the fact that specialists for each work process can be found in this centre of Japan’s forging industry. Again and again, they join forces to form new ad hoc work groups to work through larger orders or solve problems together in an innovative way. In this way, the metallurgy technologies have been adapted and refined to meet the needs of a changing society.

Design classics from the Tsubame-Sanjo region

Consequently, everyday products are created in the Tsubame-Sanjo region that remain current across the decades thanks to their simplicity and manufacturing quality. One example is the kettle by the famous Japanese designer Yanagi Sōri (1915–2011), which has been produced in the same KOUBA workshop for more than half a century and is still a best-selling product today. The exhibition will show all of the kettle process models outside of the factory setting for the first time.

Some other classics manufactured in Tsubame-Sanjo and on display in Essen will include cutlery by the well-known Danish designers Kay Bojesen and Ole Palsby, who worked closely with the workshops in Tsubame-Sanjo, hand-forged Japanese knives from Tadafusa, special cutting tools for caring for Bonsais from the Suwada forge and the legendary copper kettles by Gyokusendo, which have been hand-hammered for more than 200 years and can be considered part of Japan’s cultural heritage.

Four other exhibited products were also recognized for their high design quality by receiving a Red Dot Design Award: From Tsubame these are the "Wakisashi" steak cutlery by Tojiro and the "Eda" cutlery by Yamazaki Kinzoku Kogyo, from Sanjo the enameled cast-iron pot "Unilloy" by Sanjo Special Cast.  

Design exhibition with award-winning exhibition design 

The exhibition combines the metal products with video material on the manufacturing techniques to provide a fascinating insight into the metallurgy industry in the Tsubame-Sanjo region. The exhibition was already shown in Tsubame-Sanjo in a slightly different form, and the exhibition design of the Tsubame-Sanjo Factory Museum won a Red Dot: Grand Prix in last year’s Red Dot Award: Brands & Communication Design 2022, the highest distinction a project can receive. The current exhibition in the Red Dot Design Museum is being organised and curated by the same project team – KOUBA, the special committee of the Tsubame-Sanjo Regional Industries Promotion Center, while the graphics for the exhibition title stem from Tokyo-based agency SPREAD, which is already the winner of many Red Dots.

Further links to the participating KOUBA (workshops and factories):   

» Metal Carpentry Tools
» Metal Household Items
» Metal Hardware
» Metal Crafts
» Metal Ultrafine Polishing
» Wood Crafts

Admission: 9 Euro (Reduced: 4 Euro)
Children under 12 years: Admission free

Fridays: Pay what you want

» Exhibition brochure