Chomei and Giacometti — Inspiration for an Intentional Space

My Studiolo —© Kevin Shau Photography (2021)

Interior design is a subject ripe for abuse, particularly when it comes to those with excess space. The ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality popular in American culture, indeed part of the mainstream since the 1950s, has exacerbated the worst elements of interior design while avant-garde minimalist design remained rather disconnected until recently. An artist and philosopher myself, I wanted to take inspiration from those who came before — those who not only wrote about interior design but lived it as well. Kamo no Chomei (c.1155–1216) was a Japanese monk, minimalist, and early tiny house enthusiast. Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) was one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. Both inhabited small spaces and both found that this voluntary constraint enhanced their creativity and influenced, to some degree, their respective outlooks. I sought their inspiration when developing my Studiolo as a creative space.

The word ‘studiolo’ comes from the Italian Renaissance and refers to a room serving as a study or retreat. In centuries past, such rooms were usually in palaces and contained curiosities, art collections, or a library. Mine is a place of work — creative production — as well as of contemplation. A place of intentionality.

In contrast to many such places of the European past, I sought a greater degree of intentionality and lack of useless ornamentation. Kamo no Chomei went to the extreme in the early thirteenth century, when he constructed a ten-foot-square hut for himself. He brought with him a few books, a couple musical instruments, sutras, and a couple Buddhist images. This was in addition to some basics, like bedding. It was a carefully curated space which reflected the values and lifestyle of a great man. He recorded with joy the simple pleasures of his later life in his famous work Hojoki (1212).

Alberto Giacometti moved into his Parisian studio in his 20s and came to grow fond of his simple abode in the decades to come. He chose to stay at that modest working space long after his finances allowed him to move into more luxurious ones. His aesthetic vision was made all the better by forgoing the superficial trappings of a dirty bourgeois.

“It’s funny, when I took this studio … I thought it was tiny … But the longer I stayed, the bigger it became. I could fit anything I wanted into it.”

-Alberto Giacometti

I can see what Giacometti was getting at. I have found that the most interesting spaces are those that have just enough space, allow for one to cultivate earthy aesthetic sensibilities, and contains elements which remind one of the passage of time and the transient nature of our lives.

“The light that streams in is gray and dull. The over-all impression is of monochromatic grayness … The walls are gray … scratched and scribbled on as though some cave painter had tried to capture images in his cavern …

It is strange that this famous man … lives the way he does.”

-Alexander Liberman, editor

The Foundation Giacometti had this to say about the centrality of the artists’ famous workspace in his life:

“The Giacometti studio gradually became not only the world of the artist’s work, but a veritable extension of himself. Giacometti has regularly cited the essential nature of his studio, a legendary place that has remained within the collective memory as the symbol of the artistic life of the Montparnasse neighbourhood.”

-Foundation Giacometti

There is always the impulse among artists, even those at the very beginning of the learning process (such as myself) to look to the greats of the past and how the environments in which they lived and worked helped shape their perspective. Of course, when learning their craft, sitting down for hours on end is what matters far more than anything else. Nothing makes one a better artist than working 10+ hours a day when one has the opportunity to do so. With that being said, a functional and inspiring studio does help greatly and keeping it on the small side forces one to grapple with real interior design — that which emphasizes what is essential and discards the rest. I hope this little essay, musing about the utility of interior design — with an emphasis on the influences of Kamo no Chomei and Alberto Giacometti — can help a reader or two when confronted with challenges presented by our present age.

My Studiolo desk — © Kevin Shau Photography (2020)



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