Communiqué, a Mingei International Museum publication, celebrates the iconic Butterfly Stool by Sōri Yanagi with reflections about its enduring design.
The Butterfly Stool designed by Sōri Yanagi in 1954 is an example of molded plywood furniture. Plywood is a lightweight composite material made by gluing together thin layers of wood veneer. Alternating the wood grain of each layer is the secret to its strength. With the help of heat, pressure and uniquely designed molds, plywood can be formed into sculptural structures that would otherwise be impossible to achieve with natural wood.
Molded plywood was made popular in the 1940s by American designers Charles and Ray Eames in the furniture they designed for Herman Miller. Tendo Mokko was the first company in Japan to use molded plywood to mass-produce high-quality furniture and they’ve been manufacturing Yanagi’s Butterfly Stool since 1956.
Today, the stool is also produced and distributed by Vitra and is available in natural maple or rosewood plywood. Vitra produces a collectible miniature version, too, that’s only 2 3/4 inches high compared to the actual stool’s 15 1/2-inch height.
Butterflies are a symbol of metamorphosis and transformation. The Butterfly Stool references the changing perspective towards seating in industrialized Japan following World War II. Previously, the custom was to sit on cushions, or zabuton, placed on the floor or on tatami mats.
Naming the chair ‘butterfly’ conveys beauty and reflects the stool’s physical form. Having a ‘hook’ like that is really powerful in shaping perception.
The simple, elegant form of the Butterfly Stool captures aesthetic and emblematic features of Japanese art and design. The stool’s mirrored forms reflect the symmetry of a butterfly’s wings, a graphic impression rather than a realistic rendering. Symmetry is also prevalent in the geometric interpretations of Japanese family crests called kamon or mon.
The graceful flowing lines of calligraphy have been suggested as an influence on the stool’s edges while the sweeping neck guard, or shikoro, at the back of a Samurai helmet, is hinted at in the bulging sides of the stool’s base. Its sculptural appeal has been likened to the architecture of a traditional Japanese gate, or torii, which symbolically marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred upon entering a Shinto shrine. Then there’s the incongruous brass connector that stabilizes the two pieces, perhaps it alludes to wabi-sabi, the aesthetic and spiritual beauty found in imperfection.
Sōri Yanagi sought a new national style for a modern industrialized Japan. Through his design practice, he blended long-established traditions championed by his father, Sōetsu Yanagi, founder of the mingei movement, with modern industrial processes like molded plywood. His Butterfly Stool is but one example. He also designed other notable solutions to an array of everyday utilitarian objects—gently rounded forms that radiate human warmth.
By experimenting with materials, technology and techniques of his time, Yanagi produced an iconic piece that is as relevant today as it was when it was designed almost 70 years ago.
In Your Words: Butterfly Stool
Two friends of the Mingei share their thoughts on the Butterfly Stool, an object being featured in the upcoming exhibition, TOYING WITH DESIGN. Here’s what they had to say about this whimsical and functional work.
Principal/Creative Director, MiresBall
“The Butterfly Stool is an elegant, beautiful object. Not so great for sitting, but a lovely piece of sculpture. I am a big fan of well-designed furniture that marries form and function and bought myself the Butterfly Stool a few years ago. Like many designers, I have the classic molded plywood Eames Chair, some pieces from Design Within Reach and a couple of custom things made by local craftsmen. Unfortunately, there’s only so much room in my house or I’d have way more!
“My firm, MiresBall, focuses on brand identity, so I pay a lot of attention to naming. Butterfly Stool is a great name. Naming the chair ‘butterfly’ conveys beauty and reflects the stool’s physical form. Having a ‘hook’ like that is really powerful in shaping perception. Contrast that with a more descriptive name like ‘Bent Wood Stool.’ I think it’s clear which one sparks the imagination and tells more of a story.”
Associate Professor, Furniture Making, Palomar College
“As a woodworker and avid furniture fan, I used to pour through design books studying their images. This was long before social media, but the turn of each page held the same possibility as a scroll through Instagram. Excitement, anticipation and, if lucky, a thrill to the visual senses. The Butterfly Stool, designed by Sori Yanagi did not disappoint.”
“The form, reminiscent of two hands cradled open and connected at the inside of the wrists, invites the viewer to sit. Yanagi’s use of scale, line, proportion and materials is in perfect balance. The object is both a piece of sculpture and a piece of furniture.”
“Like many great designs, the stool has been paired down to contain only its necessary elements: two identical forms, mirrored and held together by a few simple pieces of hardware. The elegant and inviting form belies its complex design. At the same time, its construction pushed the boundaries of technology, utilizing compound bent plywood—a technique made popular by Charles and Ray Eames.”
“By experimenting with materials, technology and techniques of his time, Yanagi produced an iconic piece that is as relevant today as it was when it was designed almost 70 years ago. For me—a designer, maker and collector—this work of art serves as inspiration.”