Rei Kawakubo and her clothing line, Comme Des Garçons, have been dominant forces in design and cultural circles across the globe for the last forty years. Founded in Japan in 1973, CDG relied on Rei’s strict creative direction and clear vision to drive development.
Kawakubo was never just focused on the clothes, though. The designer believed strongly that the company should split capital between the line, store interior design, location, and advertising. The brand’s aesthetic had to go beyond the garments; there had to be a reason to visit each store.
Indeed, a unique space in terms of styling and architecture can attract customers on its own. In 1983 Rei began designing furniture for her Tokyo and Paris locations. These pieces were not commercially available to the public, just used as an elegant compliment to the clothes.
Her furniture was produced in small collections up to 1990 and branded under the same name as the label. In the late 80’s there was even a Paris CDG store dedicated to furniture, which was the only location where you could buy the pieces. Sadly, it was short-lived, converted into a perfume shop. After the store’s conversion, many of the furnishings were scattered around the globe, popping up at various auctions and drawing collector attention.
Interestingly, Kawakubo’s furniture often eschewed functionality, made to mimic the simplicity and elegance of CDG’s clothing offerings at the time. Rei liked to design with a modest approach, choosing metal or wood for materials.
The chairs were sometimes not even structurally sound. As Kawakubo expert Didier Courbot explains, “if you are too heavy, it would break the legs.” Courbot categorizes the pieces in a space “between sculpture and furniture,” playing “with the limits of what is sculpture and what is furniture.” Such categorizations may help us grasp the work, but they can also be reductive. Rei thought of her creations as more than chairs and tables.
Kawakubo used furniture to stimulate flow within stores. It’s unsurprising, then, that though Rei’s chairs were for sitting, one was not intended to sit for long. “This is furniture that was designed around the idea of transit,” explains Courbot. The seats and backrests were intentionally designed to be less than comfortable, forcing customers to contort into uncomfortable positions. They demanded constant movement in her shops. Discomfort called attention to their form as sculptural objects.
There is an emergent feeling of construction and deconstruction from the furniture, a sensation Rei tried to capture through much of her career. It was noticeable in the clothes, where she might cut a hole in a piece instead of finding a more “elegant” way to solve the issue, and in the furniture, where she felt that minimal embellishment was needed. It is almost as if the chairs were manufactured to feel used. Rei actively tried to avoid the new and shiny feel, almost implementing Wabi-Sabi, or a deliberate acceptance of imperfection into her designs. Appreciating the chaotic nature was half the battle with her pieces.
Her work was shrouded in uncertainty, and accurate information about her furniture is scarce. Although she has shared insights into her design process, the logistics of production, number of pieces produced and their price remain unclear. When Courbot was trying to get in contact with people regarding the pieces, for instance, he found that “no one was able to give us all the right answers.” The artifacts, then, remain, but key elements of their history are lost, likely forever.
Rei resisted loaded definitions. She never considered herself an artist or designer in the dictionary sense. Where others called her furniture work stark and brutalist, she thought of her creations as perfectly simplistic. Perhaps it is this aversion to boxes that allowed this prolific designer to venture beyond clothes in the first place.
Kawakubo’s furniture practice came to an abrupt end due to her stopping production. The pieces are simply too limited to collect. Her designs at the time, however, have lived on, and her creative ethos has transferred over to adjacent projects all across the fashion industry. The use of simple materials, embracing imperfection in design and invoking flair and movement were her signature styles. Her furniture has not been totally forgotten either, and is housed by galleries and furniture enthusiasts across the globe, still being studied and appreciated to this day.