Western countries have always been intrigued by the East. From the culture to the food, Asian influence has been felt in all aspects of life for decades. But few places have had as strong an impact on our homes as Japan. The country has been leading the way for the contemporary rethinking of many classic styles while staying true to the core principles of creating homes that allow for a deep connection to nature.
With such a rich history, it’s impossible to cover the entire evolution of Japanese residential architecture in just one post. While the style of homes may have changed over the centuries (and millenia even), the core principles that drive the designs have remained unchanged. It’s these core principles that inspired early American architects in the start of the 20th century and, in turn, impacted home design here in the United States for decades to come.
Frank Lloyd Wright was highly influenced by several visits to Japan in the early 1900s. Calling it “the most romantic, artistic, nature-inspired country on earth,” Wright’s deep admiration for Japanese culture was reflected in his creation of the prairie style home and later his Utopian homes. While Wright may have been one of the first architects to embrace Japanese principles, he was far from the last. The importance of using the home as a bridge to build a deeper and more meaningful connection to the natural environment has influenced nearly every style of the modern era.
Respect for nature isn’t just about creating a symbolic connection. Japanese design also focuses on honoring the materials used. This means using natural materials whenever possible and employing techniques that enhance those materials. From scorching wood through the Shou Sugi Ban method to incorporating stone and concrete in creative ways, nature always takes precedence in modern Japanese design.
It may seem that Japanese architecture is easy to spot. After all, the country is filled with iconic temples and shrines with the upturned roof corners or homes in the countryside with shoji screens doors. But those structures are the Japan of the past. Just like you can’t compare the temples of Rome to the modern houses throughout Italy, you can’t compare historic Japanese architecture with the buildings of today.
While the core principles driving design in Japan may not have changed for centuries, the style certainly has. Here in the U.S., incorporating modern Japanese design means creating a calming space, made from natural materials, filled with natural light, and incorporating a minimalist aesthetic.
Modern homes have the luxury of being larger and more open than homes of the past, allowing the designer to go beyond pure functionality, enhancing the experience of the people living there. Open-plan spaces create a sense of flow through the home. The rooms are defined by different floor levels rather than walls. The living room is often the lowest point in the house with the dining and sitting areas on an intermediate level and the bedroom at the highest level. This allows for the living room to be the largest and most open space while the bedroom, with its high floor closer to the ceiling, becomes a more intimate area.
Many contemporary Japanese-inspired homes resemble modern minimalism. Geometric forms are stacked unevenly to create visual interest. The roof is usually black to create contrast with the solid white walls. Like minimalist homes, the roof line is often flat to continue the geometric form, although a very slight pitch is sometimes used to put a contemporary twist on the traditional hip roof of ancient Japanese homes.
Symmetry and visually balanced structures are an important aspect of modern Japanese architecture. This doesn’t mean perfect symmetry such as what one would find in classic American colonials, but rather a balance of positive and negative space. An outdoor patio will often have the same size footprint as the home, creating a harmony between indoor and outdoor spaces in a reflection of yin and yang, or Onmyōdō as it is called in Japan.
The principle of nature being a driving force behind the design of homes comes from the religious beliefs of Japan. Both Shinto and Buddhism place importance on worshipping nature. This means homes must have an easy connection to the outdoors. Large windows let natural light filter in, and homes will incorporate a veranda or outdoor garden space that is accessed via a meditation or “calm” room.
With origami being a big part of Japanese culture, many contemporary architects have found ways to incorporate this into home design. Fold-out items like shelving, desks, sofas, and beds help to increase functionality in smaller homes while origami-inspired lighting is a popular choice for creating a dramatic focal point in areas like the entryway or dining room.
Furniture, Colors, Patterns
Keeping with a strong focus on nature, wood — especially cedar and bamboo — is a predominant material in modern Japanese design. From exposed ceiling beams to flooring to furniture, raw wood is used everywhere it can be. To add strength and visual contrast, the wood is sometimes treated using the Shou Sugi Ban method, although most often this is reserved for exterior uses. In minimalist Japanese designs, the blackened wood can be used as a focal point in an otherwise all-white room.
To balance the wood, stone is also used in abundance. Stone flooring in “wet areas” like the kitchen and bathroom represent the natural relationship between earth and water. The running of a faucet reminds occupants of the power of water and the way it can shape stone over time. It is important that balanced elements like this be used throughout the home as a way to honor nature.
The colorway of modern Japanese homes is – no surprise – inspired by the colors of nature. Everything from tans and browns to grays and whites can be used to represent the trees, the earth, and the mountains. Shades tend to lean softer, creating a welcoming space that is brightly lit. Pops of bright colors are usually kept to a minimum, similar to Scandinavian decor. A few plants add life and greenery to the space while things like cushions and throw pillows are done in deep red – an important color in Japanese design that represents strength, energy, and luck.
Geometry and symmetry play just as important a role inside as they do outside. Tall ceilings and windows are balanced by low furniture pieces. The idea behind platform beds and floor cushions is to keep people grounded. It’s also a great way to allow as much light into a space as possible — low profile furniture doesn’t block the windows as much as other pieces like high-back wing chairs or a tall headboard.
The shoji screen trend of the 1990’s may have passed here in the U.S., but their beautiful geometric lines are still in fashion. Today, the pattern is often replicated in window mullions – a style that is used in everything from urban lofts to rustic mountain cabins. The geometric shape and symmetry of this style of window is thought to bring calmness to the mind, creating a more zenful vibe throughout the home.
Frank Lloyd Wright may have been one of the first architects to bring the principles of Japanese design to the West, but it was Tadao Ando who brought the aesthetic of modern Japanese design to the rest of the world. Ando was the first to bring contemporary Japanese architecture into the mainstream and in doing so, gave the rest of the world insight into just how beautiful simplicity can be. His work has influenced everything from Danish minimalism to the brutalist revival trend.
Where to Shop
Japanese furniture design shares much in common with Danish design. Both styles focus on natural materials, aesthetically pleasing forms, and simplicity. Overstock has a variety of platform beds, stylish futons, and Danish-style furniture, all at cost-effective prices. Including “Danish” or “Norwegian” in your search will bring up the perfect pieces to include in a modern Japanese space.
Middle of the Line
Floyd has been slowly making a name for itself in the modular furniture market, starting with the debut of “The Shelf” and building from there. The Platform Bed offers the beauty of the low profile modern Japanese aesthetic with the ease of assembly we all wish Ikea could provide. Made in the USA from real wood, the bed frame with headboard is a quality product that won’t break the bank.
For true modern Japanese pieces, head to the source. Ookkuu, a Tokyo-based furniture company, offers everything from stylish lantern lights to beautifully sculpted chairs. The company will even make custom pieces specific to your space. While the price tag may seem high, the products from Ookkuu exhibit superior quality and craftsmanship, hand-made in Japan, and their timeless design means these will be investment heirloom pieces.
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