Ben Miyagi’s Elephant Seating - Design Bureau

Ben Miyagi’s Elephant Seating

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

When architect Ben Ryuki Miyagi was encouraged by friends to start marketing a sofa he had designed eight years prior, he never imagined the acclaim it would receive. “I spent all my formal training and career in architecture. I have no furniture design training,” he says. “‘Ben the architect’ is quite jealous of all the attention ‘Ben the furniture designer’ is getting.” Miyagi, who earned his degree in architecture from Princeton, didn’t consider furniture design a particular strength of his. In fact, his award-winning sofa almost never saw the light of day. At the time Miyagi, who now splits his time between New York and Tokyo, just needed to fill a space in his apartment.

I have no furniture-design training. ‘Ben the architect’ is quite jealous of all the attention ‘Ben the furniture designer’ is getting.

“The space itself was a little unconventional, so most of the furniture needed to be more traditional. But I wanted one piece to bring a level of complexity and sophistication to the room,” Miyagi explains. He sketched his vision of a sofa into one of the many notebooks he never leaves home without. Eventually, time passed and he became busy with his architecture work, so after finishing the chair, he left it in a storage space in New Jersey. It was there the sofa seemed doomed to collect dust until he removed it from storage and placed it in his upstate New York home.

“My friends took one look at it and became adamant about me marketing the sofa,” Miyagi says. The sofa, named Elephant Seating is made from layers of industrial felt folded and glued together. Miyagi, who says he took inspiration from 20th century minimalists such as Josef Bueys, who had also used felt in many of his pieces, considered the material’s practicality during his design process: it’s easily manufactured and cleaned. His choice of felt also played into the non-traditional requirement for the piece, bringing with it both humorous and familiar elements at once. And it’s clear where the name ‘elephant’ comes into play: the folds of the felt, coupled with the gray tone of the fabric, make it reminiscent of an elephant’s wrinkly body.

Although Miyagi maintains his work is never meant to be literal. “I design conceptually. People may look at this and think ‘elephant’, but it was not specifically intended to be this way,” he says. “The design of the chair came first; the name came later.” At the behest of his friends, Miyagi decided to send the sofa to the Red Dot design committee for consideration. The arbiters of design did much more than consider Miyagi’s sofa; they awarded Elephant Seating the Red Dot: Design Concept award, a mark of excellence for both the concept and the designer. Elephant Seating is currently on display at the Red Dot Design Museum in Singapore.

Despite winning, the architect-turned-furniture designer still seems surprised by the buzz that continues around his sofa. And although Miyagi’s primary focus is still architecture, he assures that Elephant Seating won’t be his last foray into furniture design. Right now, Miyagi says he has about a dozen or so sketches and ideas for furniture, all of which use non-traditional materials like Elephant Seating. “You will be seeing more from me,” he says. “I want people to know this is just the beginning of me as a furniture designer.”

Sarah Ferguson is a freelance writer and graphic designer currently residing in Minneapolis.
Photo by Caitlinn Mahar-Daniels

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