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Idealog—in the ideas business

Meet the Kiwis at Tokyo Design Week

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Photos by Karryn Cartelle

meets the Kiwis on the floor at the massive Tokyo Design Week

A few symbols of the Japanese design aesthetic are instantly recognisable to the foreign eye: products with elaborate patterns reminiscent of the kimono, minimalist rock gardens shaded by ornate bonsai trees, sleek simple furnishings we imagine framing an otherwise stark one-bedroom apartment in the central city. Many foreigners bring this perception of simplicity and style with them to Japan—but it quickly changes upon a visit to Tokyo Design Week.

TDW is a permanent fixture on Japan’s design calendar, and each year it attracts a growing number of international guests. With cutting-edge, peculiar, distinctive, traditional, and sophisticated designs making their way into the exhibition, the displays match the diversity of Japan’s marketplace.

With designers coming from both Japan and abroad, TDW’s displays are varied and range from outdoor furniture to lighting solutions, kitchenware to crystals. In 2006 the event attracted 74,000 visitors, buyers, and media people; in 2007 it drew a crowd of around 100,000. The week of design-related festivities, which typically is held at the start of November, is split into 100% Design Tokyo, TDW Sangaku Exhibition, 100% Student Exhibition, 100% Shop Exhibition, 100% Zero Exhibition, 100% Designers and 100% Container Ground.

100% Design Tokyo was born out of 100% Design London, a contemporary interiors event. The 100% Exhibitions joined the Design Week lineup in 2005, 19 years after TDW first started.

Among the crowds, you’ll find new arrivals and old hands from Enzed. Hagan Provan, a newcomer to the event, is here to look for opportunities for his company, Hold, which designs shelving and display products. “TDW is the main design show here and it is our first step into the Japanese market,” says Provan. “During the event we hope to meet people [in the industry] and start to understand where our product fits in Japan.”

James St Clair, one half of the Cina design team, moved from New Zealand to Tokyo in mid-2005. He chose to participate in 100% Design Tokyo to help raise awareness of his designs and increase his growing contact list. “The first thing any designer wanting to enter Japan should do is get involved with one of these shows,” he says. “Networking is essential here and it’s fairly easy to make contacts through the various parties held around Tokyo.”

Super Deluxe is one venue that attracts a creative crowd, particularly on Pecha Kucha Night, conceived by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Klein Dytham architecture (KDa) in 2003. The event provides a place for young designers to meet, network and showcase their latest designs through presentations. Each speaker at the event is allocated six minutes 40 seconds to present 20 images for 20 seconds each. The event has since spread globally and is now held in over 80 cities worldwide, including Auckland and Wellington.

Japanese designers are very playful. But one of the cool things about design in Tokyo is that for designers there are gaps here where you can really do your own thing 

But few people know that this hotspot on Tokyo’s nightlife scene was partly created by a New Zealand designer. The design duo Namaiki—New Zealand graphic designer David Duval-Smith and British architect Michael Frank—opened Super Deluxe with KDa in 2003. “We created Super Deluxe to provide a space for creative people to meet,” says Duval-Smith.

Namaiki’s Japan story is long and varied. Since their start as a design duo in 1999, Frank and Duval-Smith have worked on the package design, copywriting and photography for the worldwide launch of Sony’s Aibo II robot, created poster campaigns for Nike, developed their own design DVDs, made an underwear range, and more. They even found the time to launch their own microbrew called Tokyo Ale and enter the market for bike frame designs.

But these days the design duo is working more with nature than with computers. Looking to the future, they are creating sustainable plant living systems that bring a whole new meaning to the concept of fresh, hand-picked vegetables. “People want to be able to sit around a table with friends and enjoy good food and drinks. We want to create systems where this is instantly accessible,” says Duval-Smith. “We see it as going forward to basics, rather than back to basics.”

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This focus on sustainability is something that Namaiki feels TDW is yet to achieve. “TDW is a celebration of technological innovation that’s closer to the mainstream [design] market,” says Duval-Smith. “We’re out on the edge of the cliff rather than in the warm valley.

“In Tokyo, designers are only thinking about the year ahead when they should be looking ten, 50, 100 years ahead with their designs … there will come a time when these people [creating systems to protect the natural environment] will be at TDW.”

This year at TDW the focus shifted slightly more towards sustainable systems. Within the Japanese marketplace, an eco-friendly image is associated with New Zealand. “People in Japan really love New Zealand,” says Joneen Wall, a Tokyo-based design consultant and English teacher. Wall first came here after graduating with a BDes in Interior Architecture from Victoria University. During her time here she has worked for Design Festa, the biggest art event in Asia, helping with the international promotion of the event. “There is just so much creativity in the city and so many people wanting to express themselves using a variety of mediums.”

Design Festa, a biannual event, is another design celebration that allows people to both exhibit and see what’s going on in Japan. Attracting approximately 52,000 visitors and 6,500 exhibitors, the event has no age or genre limits but is targeted at a younger market. It’s a good place to get your foot in the door, but with no restrictions the unusual and the classic are showcased side-by-side.

St Clair sees Japan as providing more opportunity than New Zealand. “Design is much more valued here and people are prepared to invest money in things that are well-designed.” Cina is becoming known for its tote bags but plans to expand the product offering next year and will move more into exclusive kitchen products.

But entering Japan is not all smooth sailing. Although you can at least get by without knowing the language, if you’re looking to work with Japanese companies then language ability is important.

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Graphic designer Eparama Tuibenau tried his luck upon arrival by applying for all graphic design jobs, even if they required business-level Japanese. After two months of job hunting he secured a position at Advertise Japan, which works on several projects with Dentsu, an advertising company which controls around 30 percent of all mass media advertising in Japan and has more than 6,000 clients. Tuibenau found the working hours to be the biggest change from New Zealand, with designers working late into the night and sleeping in the office. The brief was usually different, too. “Design here really needs to grab attention. To do this they use bright colours and kawaii [cute] designs. Baby pink and cartoon characters are popular in advertising.”

Tom Vincent from PingMag, a Tokyo-based online magazine about design and making things, agrees. “Japanese design is very playful.” But in his 20 years in Tokyo he’s also found plenty of niche demand: “One of the cool things about design in Tokyo is that for designers there are gaps here where you can really do your own thing.”

More and more foreigners are looking to either enter the vibrant Tokyo market with their designs or work from here. Being at the forefront of the industry Vincent receives emails almost daily from designers abroad wanting to know how to get started in Japan. “It’s not easy to get into design here, but it’s not easy anywhere,” he says. The foreign designers based in Tokyo have formed a close-knit community and help each other out. “If what you are doing is interesting and relevant then things will fall into place,” says Duval-Smith—and maybe sooner than you think.

Japan is renowned for long processes; business here is normally mulled over during numerous meetings between each party. But this trait of Japanese business culture hasn’t been adopted by the design world. “You can really go to a shop in Japan, show them the product and if they like it and it’s a good price they will buy it from you and sell it,” says Ross McBride, founder of product design company Normal YK, in a PingMag article. “You just need to find a few good shops in Tokyo: Axis Building, Living Motif, HH Style, Cibone … if you can place your products in good shops then the right people will see them, it will suddenly appear in a magazine or you get a call from a shop out of town. Things then sort of automatically fall into place.”

St Clair also believes publicity through websites and design blogs is important when establishing yourself. He refers to Jean Snow’s blog as being a great design source but it was on the blog MoCo Loco that a New York design store saw Cina’s bags and became interested.

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Like Provan, Kiwi furniture designer Nick Leigh came to TDW to explore the opportunities here. By setting up a stand at the Designboom Mart, Leigh was able to get his name out there for less than he would pay for a booth. In Designboom Mart around 35 design professionals sold lower-cost design originals ranging from ¥1,000 (about NZ$11.50) to ¥15,000.

The Namaiki duo passed on their own stand at TDW 2007, but their eye-crystal designs at the Hoya crystal stand fetched a much higher price than the goods at Designboom Mart. Namaiki’s large Hoya crystal sculptures (about 20 centimetres in height) were selling for ¥189,000 (NZ$2,170) each. Like Namaiki, Provan will position Hold’s display units at the higher end of the market, reaching a more design-conscious crowd.

As TDW wrapped up, Provan was pleased with the outcome. “It was a great entry to the market and a way to meet people and learn. It was also good from the point of view of understanding how to adapt the product. We are looking at doing a smaller version of Capture [one of Hold’s display products] on a stand, as Japanese houses are not big and they don’t like putting holes on walls in apartments.”

TDW may be over until next year but the creativity continues. In a city of over 12 million people, Tokyo provides a unique opportunity for designers to reach past New Zealand’s shores and TDW offers an easy way to test the waters.

Originally published in Idealog #13, page 56

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When the creative types meet, I wonder what kinds of conversations they will have. Even at the party, would they be more interested in having fun, or networking and exchanging ideas? I am sure some of them are fans of one another, and might exchange ideas regarding furniture design, on top of other things.

I have always love Asian designs, especially those coming from Tokyo. Reading this revived my penchant for collecting items, furntures and fixtures, etc that have designs influenced by Tokyo designers. My wife has the same taste as mine, and we acquired a Sunnin fixture, that is a table and storage carefully crafted and could save some space for us. Apart from that, we also had the Sidi Spain, which is an elegant long table with ample storage space. Because of its sleek design, it could actually trick your eyes that it does not have enough storage space but it does. These are two of our valuable acquisitions from the Tokyo Design Week, which our friend helped us purchase. We were glad to have these items at our home. There are some pieces of furniture and storage fixtures that we bought, inspired by Asian designs, and complement the entire atmosphere of the house.

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