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Is Japandi the interior design style the world needs?

Maxed out on maximalism? A marriage between the imperfect beauty of Japanese design and the simplicity of Scandinavian hygge, Japandi could be the perfect antidote.

Minimal, simple, cosy, modern – these are just four ways to describe one of the most talked about emerging interior design trends of the past year, affectionately coined Japandi thanks to an elegant mash-up of Japanese ‘wabi-sabi’ and Scandinavian hygge design. Defined by muted tones, natural materials and laid-black clean designs, each element works seamlessly together to deliver schemes that are all-at-once warm and inviting as well as clean and uncluttered.

And while it’s been waiting in the wings, this could be the year it becomes mainstream thanks to a push-back in certain quarters against maximalism and a renewed interest in simplicity, natural tones and sustainability.

“The Scandinavian and the traditional Japanese design traditions are bound by a shared understanding of embedded qualities of simplicity, functionality, refinement and attention to detail,” says Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen, architect and founding partner of the Copenhagen-based Norm Architects, which is currently working with Tokyo native architect, Keiji Ashizawa and Japanese brand Karimoku Case Study on several exciting new projects. “There is a mutual understanding and respect in both Scandinavia and Japan for the use of natural materials in design and architecture, a fondness of muted colour palettes, and a humble approach to expressivity through genuine craftsmanship.”

It may have taken a while for the Japandi trend to find its place in spotlight – the Nordic fascination for all things Japanese was actually established soon after the mid-19th century when Japan opened its borders to the west – but fast-forward almost 200 years later and now a number of carefully-curated projects are sprouting up all over the world.

Scandinavian and Japanese design traditions are bound by a shared understanding of simplicity, functionality, refinement and attention to detail.

Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen, founding partner, Norm Architects

An example of how the two cultures can marry in harmony is seen in the Azabu Residence, just one of the many collaborations between Ashizawa and Norm Architects, located in a building from 1988 that sits on a green plot on a hill in Tokyo.

Azabu Residence by Norm Architects and Keiji Ashizawa

Playing with texture and materials, the design teams chose stone, dark wood and tactile textures for the interiors to create a dwelling that feels a world away from the bustle of the city. “Its calm and embracing interiors allow for contemplation and private family life, and while we often work with bright white walls to enhance daylight in Scandinavia, we were inspired by the writings of Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki for the Azabu Residence,” explains Frederik Werner, designer and partner at Norm Architects. “They helped us to understand the value of dark, dim places, enhancing the nature of the site and resulting in a dark, monochrome colour palette.”

A collection of bespoke furniture was created for the project that is the epitome of the Japandi trend, including an oak table and bench for the combined kitchen and dining room designed by Ashizawa together with Japanese brand Karimoku, while for the living room, Norm Architects teamed up with the latter to design an armless modular sofa with a simple geometric shape.

Outside of their own designs, however, Keji credits Ariake, a furniture brand founded by Legnatec and Hirata Chair, two factories from the furniture-producing town of Morodomi in the Saga prefecture of Japan, for specific pieces to invest in, while Werner advises opting for furniture that you can see yourself living with for many years. “Look to pieces where genuine craftsmanship has gone into production and where the materials used make it possible for you to maintain and repair them for the years to come,” he adds. “It’s all about furniture that is of high quality, responsibly produced and crafted from natural materials. This is not just for the monetary sake of your investment, but for your wellbeing too.”

The importance of nature is another theme that connects both Japanese and Scandi design, and while many projects bring the outside in by adding greenery and house plants, Azabu Residence was lucky enough to be built on a spacious and airy plot rarely seen in Tokyo today, and the greenery surrounding its entrance welcomes visitors in a harmonious way that establishes a sense of calm and connection to nature in the middle of the city.

Another notable collaboration by Ashizawa and Norm Architects is Tokyo’s Kinuta Terrace – a pair of formerly light-starved apartments that now boast concrete walls, wooden floors and simple furnishings, with timber used to craft several fixtures such as the kitchen cabinetry and tall, book-lined shelving units that appear in the studies. Elsewhere, sheer, sand-coloured curtains are suspended in front of vast windows, while earth-toned ceramic plant pots are dotted around as decor.

“By combining a balanced industrial and natural look and feel,” says Bjerre-Poulsen, “each space has been designed to let air and light pass through, creating a natural flow throughout the apartment. Nature feels integrated into the apartment as most rooms look out into the courtyard, making you forget that you’re in a city as immense as Tokyo.”

“Japandi places a strong emphasis on high quality items that are built well,” enthuses LA-based designer Amanda Gunawan of OWIU Design. “People are now paying more attention to their homes, so they will naturally look to this trend for inspiration. From furniture to fixtures, decorative items to ceramics, people are appreciating and looking to quality over quantity.”

Championing projects that embrace the natural imperfections in materials and careful craftsmanship while paying homage to functionality, she is the brainchild behind Biscuit Loft, a Japandi-inspired apartment design in Downtown LA’s burgeoning Arts District. Here, tatami mats, Japanese futons, Noguchi Akari pendant lights, neutral white walls and biscuit-toned accents such as buttery blonde wood, plus natural linen and rattan materials, define the space. Elsewhere, the main dining table comes in the form of a large concrete slab that doubles as a kitchen island.

“Despite veering towards slightly different focuses, we married Japanese and Scandinavian styles naturally within this project as they emphasise high quality, long-lasting and sustainable designs,” adds Gunawan. She cites classic chairs such as the Eames lounge chair for Japandi-inspired pieces that will never go out of style, adding that the Marcel Breuer-designed Wassily chair and anything by Hans Wegner should also take pride of place. “I also like to invest in quality ceramic pieces to populate the space with.”

In a world still ravaged by a global pandemic, it seems a design trend that strips everything back to the core, is powered by sustainability, celebrates minimalism, and exudes an ordered sophistication is one that is set to stay. “What we surround us with will ultimately impact our mood and behaviour,” concludes Bjerre-Poulsen. “Working with natural materials in architecture and design is a way to enrich our surroundings and enhance quality of life in a simple way.”

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