Tokyo Designers Week got off to a rocky start, with an earthquake tremor and torrential rains transforming the Aoyama site into a mud bath. It was a bad omen: now in its 28th year, the event that purports to gather 'excellent design from all over the world' appeared to be more of a commercial exercise directed at the local market than an international celebration of design.
This may be because the event (which takes place over ten days, turning the name into even more of a misnomer) has been rebranded by producer and founder Kenji Kawasaki as a 'creative festival'. This year he added large doses of art and music to a somewhat bewildering mix of Halloween-themed events, contemporary art (with the unfortunate motto 'Let's buy art!'), musical workshops and a British Beer Festival.
Happily there were still a few design gems to be found, albeit in such unlikely quarters as the booth for Japanese toilet manufacturer Toto. Its collaboration with Torafu Architects, Noriko Hashida, Asao Tokolo and Mai Miyake marked the 20th anniversary of the popular Neorest loo.
As in recent years, eco-design featured strongly with a return of the Sekisui pavilion and its vision for compact living. Smaller-scale products included Tokyo designer Shige Aoki's Fresco Garden, a multifunctional dispenser-container cap for plastic bottles.
There was significantly less furniture on show this year, but the Pikku birch wood range by Outofstock stood out for its simple, practical compact design with Nordic style. The autumn 2013 series features an expandable desk and sofa in an understated grey and white colour scheme.
Other interesting takes on form following function include Bordbar's reimagining of the classic airplane trolley as efficient storage for the home; Norwegian designer Bjorn Bye's travel-friendly hook; and Takayuki Kawai's dual-purpose emergency helmet and modern chair, perfectly timed given the opening-morning earthquake.
Usually a creative highlight, the show's trademark cargo containers, featuring visions of the future by emerging designers, was a mixed bag. One must-see was Slack Circuit by Alex Knezo and Akinori Hamada of Tokyo based studio_01. Their ethereal, curtain-like space was enveloped in transparent string that could be easily manipulated to change the size and shape of the space.
One of the highlights of this year's satellite shows, which popped up in galleries and department stores across the capital, was Elephant in the Grass by Klein Dytham Architecture at Dover Street Market Ginza, an installation celebrating the 80th anniversary of Alvar Aalto's iconic Stool 60. Founders Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein reinterpreted the classic lightweight stool in five new heights (the tallest at over 2m) and ordered them like blades of grass around the store's permanent Elephant sculpture, by British artist Stephanie Quayle.
Other strong offerings included 21-21 Design Sight's meditation on the role of design museums, with its retrospective of Japanese designs by Akiko Moriyama, Taku Satoh and Naoto Fukazawa; designer Kenya Hara's 'Architecture for Dogs' at Gallery Ma; and architect Ryuji Fujimura's Midtown Dungeon, an outdoor maze based on the Manhattan grid, complete with 'skyscraper' representing Central Park. And in the upmarket shopping area of Aoyama, close to the main Tokyo Designers Week site, there were many treasures to be found in the 'Any Tokyo' exhibition, including a series of glass vessels by Outofstock, and a 'Layered Wood' bench by Fumie Shibata and Sakai Sangyo.