The idea of ‘white’

I've always liked the colour white. For its purity, the sense of invitation, of new beginnings.

I've just finished rereading one of my favourite design books, in fact a favourite of mine in any category: a meditation on the idea of 'white', by the Japanese designer Kenya Hara, a director of Muji and the Hara Design Institute.

Hara's book, called, with characteristic simplicity, White, is a gentle rumination on the colour's special qualities as a catalyst to creativity. For Hara the proverbial blank sheet of paper holds no terrors for the artist, designer or writer, but possesses a numinous quality that invites thought to take shape.

I'll let Hara speak for himself - there are so many wonderful passages in this book. He begins by unfolding the root meanings of the Japanese word for 'white', shiro:

The etymology of the word shiro, or 'white', one of the four traditional Japanese colours, is rooted in the ancient word shiroshi, which is in turn connected to the words itoshiroshi and ichijirushi. All of these terms are based on the corporeality of things. Ichijirushi is a clear and objective condition which manifests itself in the purity of light, the lucidity embodied in a drop of water, or the force of a crashing waterfall. Shiroshi, on the other hand, is the state of consciousness we enter when we focus on these things, when our senses seem to vibrate like the strings of a koto. Over a long history, these ancient words were absorbed into the concept of 'white' or shiro, and established as an aesthetic principle.

I love the concept of ichijirushi. He goes on:

In the old days, Japanese referred to the latent possibilities that exist prior to an event taking place as kizen. In so far as white contains the latent possibility of transforming into other colours, it can be seen as kizen.

He uses the fine metaphor of the white shell of the egg, 'the membrane that forms the boundary between this world and the next', to suggest white's inspiration.

There's an entire chapter on the concept of paper, the invention of which Hara sees as being of fundamental importance to the development of human creativity, not just for its pragmatic function as a more convenient canvas than earlier materials such as papyrus and parchment, but because of its colour: its bright, shining, white surface of itself encouraged creation:

[T]he invention of paper can be seen as having cast a bright light over the course of human history… Our imaginations have been incalculably altered as a result of having given that principle of whiteness material existence in the form of a thin, stiff sheet.
Paper is the materialised energy of itoshiroshi, that extreme form of purity that is ladled out of chaos and which appears to us as both potentiality and actuality. Human beings who come into contact with its latent potential are naturally driven to express themselves.

The invention of paper 'was a breakthrough that evoked a primeval world of unblemished purity and calm'.

As you'll have noted, Hara's style is lyrical, rich in metaphor. That seems to me appropriate: these are difficult concepts to express, and best expressed allusively. Another example:

The moment before a performance of music or dance begins, for example, greatly resembles the purity of white paper; it is a state of tabula rasa for audience and performer, the perfectly white tablet.

Hara goes on to note how this concept of emptiness, of the figure emerging from the white field, is at the heart of Japanese culture. There's an extended discussion of the ancient art of screen painting, which employs the 'the technique of using emptiness to set the image free on paper', with particular reference to Pine Trees by Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610).

Pine Trees, Hasegawa Tohaku

The concept is also fundamental to ancient religious and ceremonial practices. For example the architecture of Shinto shrines, simple spaces demarcated by sacred architecture left empty to invite the presence of gods, attended by white robed priests. And the tea ceremony, a beautifully spare ritual that makes use of the simplest implements and furnishings - a modest little garden house and tea set - to provide space for the imagination to take wing:

When a host invites his guest into his tiny teahouse for an exchange of thoughts, there is a reason for the scant furnishings: one's imagination expands in uncluttered, simple space… For example, a basin filled with water and floating flower petals allow the host and his guest to imagine themselves sitting together under a blossoming cherry tree.

Hara observes that the Japanese flag itself can be interpreted as a further manifestation of the recognition of the special qualities of white:

Because the simple and abstract quality of a red circle on a white background is so equivocal, it can be filled with various images. Its composition is one case where a figure signifies something only in relation to its background.

There is much more in this rich little book, less than 90 pages, but dense with concentrated thought and insight. I have it by my side when I start any new project, a reminder that a blank sheet of paper, or in my case a screen, is not something to be feared, but an invitation.

White is available from Lars Müller Publishers. There are some interesting resources online: a good piece in Theme Magazine introducing Kenya Hara's work and including a brief interview and a video of Hara delivering a guest lecture at Google's headquarters in California.