Zakka: A new art exhibition looks at retail goods in Japan

Style-conscious visitors to Japan will have noted the country’s wealth of stores known as zakka-ya, literally ‘miscellaneous goods shops’ but more accurately a distinct kind of lifestyle emporium where the aesthetic charm of the inventory comes from its usefulness in daily life.



It’s a retail genre that Japan has made an art form of, Western equivalents are scarce but think London’s Labour and Wait or Portland’s Schoolhouse Electric over stores that design for design’s sake.

Now a major Tokyo exhibition examines the phenomenon, directed by celebrated industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa and running at the 21_21 Design Sight gallery until June.


Zakka: Goods and Things’ reveals how, in tandem with the rampant modernisation and economic growth Japan has seen over the past century-and-a-half, understanding of the word zakka has shifted from workaday goods such as brooms and kettles to signify, in Fukusawa’s own words, “things that accompany our everyday lifestyle spaces and provide a subtle element of decoration”.

A very broad category then, but full of well-designed items that put utility first while still possessing a simple, unaffected beauty. Following this principle, contemporary zakka items are sourced from all over the globe with mainstays including the U.S.-made Chemex coffee maker and Tokyo’s artisanal stationery/carry goods brand Postalco (both are included in the exhibition).


Descending into the semi-subterranean Tadao Ando-designed venue, the scene is set by a recreation of the travelling sales carts of pre-industrial Japan, wares piled staggeringly high as of old but wittily updated with modern household goods.


Then, the first of two sizeable exhibition rooms is almost entirely given over to ‘A Never Ending Loop of Thoughts’ by creative duo Hidenori Ikeda and Saiko Ito. A vast work spanning two white walls, this sees the thought processes of today’s shopper mapped out visually, in order to question whether it is possible to purchase an ideal lifestyle in the same way that we accumulate products.


The next, and largest room, presents a wide-ranging look at what is considered zakka via a series of installations containing literally hundreds of products, and arranged as if aisles in a supermarket. Curated by 12 local influencers, including Yaeca designer Kyoko Ide, and Kazuto Kobayashi of quintessential Tokyo zakka-ya Roundabout, these range from well-worn patinas to minimal monochrome with some cute playfulness also in the mix.



One corner presents a curious diversion from the sea of mass-produced goods: a variety of redundant items have been ‘repurposed’ by regular consumers, with a 1980s radio turned upside-down to form a towel holder; and a CD imaginatively converted into a bird-scarer. In modern Tokyo where shopping is arguably the most common form of self-expression, we might consider these pieces as a modern folk art.













Zakka: Goods and Things

21_21 Design Sight

9-7-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku

81 (0)3 3475 2121


Until June 5, 2016


Picture credits: Writer’s own and Sohei Oya / Nacasa & Partners

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WANT MORE? Check out the work of photographer Paula Zuccotti who explored consumer behaviour and our relationship with product.

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