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Sori Yanagi dies at 96; pioneer of Japanese industrial design

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Sori Yanagi, whose designs for stools and kitchen pots brought the simplicity and purity of Japanese decor into the everyday, has died. He was 96.

The pioneer of Japan's industrial design died Sunday of pneumonia in a Tokyo hospital, Koichi Fujita of Yanagi Design Office said.

Yanagi's curvaceous "butterfly stool," evocative of a Japanese shrine gate, won an award at the Milan Triennale museum and design exhibition in 1957 and helped elevate him to international stature.

The work — made of two pieces of molded plywood fixed together with a brass pin — later joined the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Louvre museum in Paris.

Another typical Yanagi design was the stackable plastic stool, humorously called the "elephant stool," because of its resemblance to the animal's chunky feet.

The lines and curves of Yanagi's designs were as distinctly Japanese as they were universal, winning him fans — and a place in homes not only in Japan but around the world — for his teapots, ceramic cups and even the lowly whisk, which became artwork with his touch.

"Things that are easy to use survive, regardless of what is fashionable, and people want to use them forever," Yanagi said in a 2002 Japan Times article. "But if things are created merely for a passing vogue and not for a purpose, people soon get bored with them and throw them away.

"The fundamental problem," he added, "is that many products are created to be sold, not used."

Yanagi was born in Tokyo on June 29, 1915. He chose design for his career after falling in love with the work of architect Le Corbusier while studying oil painting at the National University of Arts in Tokyo. He opened his own industrial design office in the early 1950s after working in a Tokyo architect's firm.

Credited with paving the way on the international stage for younger Japanese designers, Yanagi also took up more monumental pieces, such as bridges and the Olympic torch for the 1972 Sapporo Winter Games, as well as a motorcycle and toys.

He supported Japanese traditional art throughout his life and served as director of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo. The museum was founded by his father, Soetsu Yanagi, who led the "mingei" movement celebrating Japanese folk craft.

"I try to create things that we human beings feel are useful in our daily lives," the younger Yanagi said in the Japan Times story. "During the process, beauty is born naturally."

He is survived by his wife, Fumiko, and four children.

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