Sori Yanagi was a prolific designer right up until his death at the age of 96 on Christmas Day in 2011. Many of Yanagi’s pieces are still in production today, including a stainless steel tea kettle, which is one of Japan’s best selling products.
But it is the Butterfly stool for which he is chiefly remembered. Made in 1954 and continually in production ever since, the stool’s simple outline has been likened to the torii gates of a Shinto shrine. The deceptively simple construction is made by attaching the two identical halves with a brass rod underneath and using just two screws.
It was created with the plywood moulding techniques developed by Charles and Ray Eames, and was an unusual piece for a Japanese designer as the country had no tradition of seating, preferring instead the traditional tatami mat.
Yanagi’s interest in seating may have come from Charlotte Perriand. The French designer, who worked at Le Corbusier’s studio, travelled to Japan in 1940 as an official advisor on industrial design. She remained for two years and Yanagi, who was then studying French, accompanied her on her travels through Japan, learning about European modernity along the way.
In an interview with The Japan Times in 2002, Yanagi said: “I try to create things that we human beings feel are useful in our daily lives. During the process, beauty is born naturally.”
He preferred to work in a traditional manner starting with drawings and making prototypes by hand. “When you make an object that is to be used by hand it should be made by hand,” he said. His philosophy became known as think by hand.
The butterfly stool is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It won the Gold medal at the Milan Triennial in 1957.