Aug. 5, 2022

New Judge’s Interview

Ms. Nao Tamura, a designer, was newly welcomed as a judge for the KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD. The New York-based designer says, “Design is about conveying someone’s thoughts.” We asked her about the theme and what she expects for the KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD 2023.

Communication is number one.

――  You work on a wide array of designs, from products to installations.

I worked a lot on graphic art at the beginning of my career, but I’ve started to do more product design in the last 10 years or so. In recent years, I’ve been doing projects like the public bathrooms in Shibuya and installations at exhibitions. I originally studied communication design in the US and have since focused on “design that exists in the space between people,” so I don’t care too much about what format the end result is in. No matter what area it’s for, I approach design with a focus on “who and what I’m communicating for.”

TRIANGLE: The Nippon Foundation / Photo: Hiroko Hojo
“THE TOKYO TOILET” is a project where 17 public bathrooms throughout Shibuya Ward were revamped by world-class creators. Tamura said that hers, “TRIANGLE” (in Higashi 3-chome, Shibuya Ward), was inspired by Origata—a traditional Japanese method of decorative wrapping.

――  What do you think is important when working on a design?

I think art and design are fundamentally different. Art expresses things that come from within you, and the people who like those things will appreciate it. On the other hand, I think design is almost like interpreting. We have clients, and they have their own technologies and things they want to communicate. As a designer, my role is to take someone’s feelings and pass them on to another person through design, so the time I spend communicating with the client is the most important part of the design process.

TURN Collection: Ambientec / Photo: Hiroshi Iwasaki
“TURN+” (pictured left) and “TURN” (pictured right) are Ambientec lamps. The beauty of the carved metallic detailing adds a touch of luxury to any space.

――  Do you work differently on designs in Europe and the US versus in Japan?

It’s not a big difference, but overseas, each individual client clearly expresses his or her own opinion, and in Japan, they rarely express theirs. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they think something is good or bad. What often happens is that I’ll feel down after a meeting and think it hasn’t gone well because no one says anything, only to later be surprised when a representative tells me it was wonderful and that everyone was happy with it. I think it might be the difference between thinking individually versus as a group.

――  What kind of things have you been working on recently?

I’ve been working on more and more furniture projects. Right now, I have some in progress with several manufacturers in Sweden and in Japan. On a different note, I also had a musician reach out to me that does music and art therapy for children with disabilities in Sendai, and I’m starting to work on art with them. The children’s expressiveness is truly amazing. However, when I see how hard it is for them and their families to live in Japan as it is now, I keep thinking about whether I could do something to help them.

“Embrace” means making something “your own problem.”

――  Have you ever entered a design competition? Did you know about the KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD?

I’ve never participated in a competition myself, but I was familiar with the KOKUYO DESIGN AWARD. My impression is that it’s a design competition that always comes up with an interesting theme. I feel like it’s a very Japanese competition, and I mean that in a good way: it’s about focusing on the little things in everyday life and nurturing those seeds, if you will, with politeness and kindness.

That being said, I live in New York City which is filled with different kinds of people, so it can be hard to notice the little things. For example, if you just had ten apples lined up, you’d notice small things like different colors and shapes, but New York’s version of that line is like apples, bananas, and pizza lined up together (laughs). In other words, I think Japan is a country where people with similar values can coexist and share in those little things. The fact that this award takes those things and makes them into products is one part of what makes it very unique.

――  Let’s talk about the theme, “embrace.” This is an English word we don’t often hear in Japan. As a judge, what do you think of it?

I think it’s perfect. Embrace has two meanings, really: one is the idea of physically pulling something toward you and keeping it safe. It has more of a nuance of getting close to something than simply hugging. The other meaning is a metaphor for acceptance. There’s also the word “accept” in itself, but embrace is more like getting emotionally close to something. You might use it when expressing the idea of accepting a value or culture different from your own.

Most of the problems in our world today—environmental issues and different types of discrimination, for example—are born from and continue due to some people’s lack of willingness to accept the current situation. To embrace something and move forward, you can’t just passively accept something “because someone told you to”; you have to start with understanding the situation and facts well, then dissecting the topic at hand in your own way, empathizing, and finally, actively accepting it. From there, I think it’s important to use your creativity to tackle whatever the topic is. Creativity isn’t just about giving form, it’s also potentially a system, space, or words you tell to a person. We really need all the creative power we can get right now.

――  In other words, are you saying that this “embrace” will show us the entrants’ stances or attitudes?

Environmental issues or sustainability might be too expansive of topics to fit the bill, but you can try to understand them in your own way, and imagine how they’ll affect you or your children in the future.
Rather than the size or severity of an issue, I think what’s important is how personal it can be to you. This isn’t an exaggeration or a superficial approach, but if we look at our daily lives, there are definitely some things we do every day that are inconvenient. If entrants look for something they’d personally like to see change, I think they’ll be able to come up with some interesting proposals.

――  So rather than solving a problem, you’re saying it’s more important to think through it until it’s almost part of you.

The implication from pulling something close to you and accepting it might be something like that. If you focus on your emotions, you might be able to do it easily. Simply put, it’s about whether you can make something “your own problem.”

We especially need the power of positive design now.

――  What are you expecting from the entrants?

I hope that everyone entering this time will be very conscious of communication. When you live abroad, people don’t tend to ask you nicely about what you’re thinking or what you want. So, you have to know clearly what you want to say and be able to convey messages properly.

Also, being conscious of communication can help you organize your thoughts. When I’m designing, sometimes I think up a quick idea and then start creating some materials to show the client, and as I’m doing that, I realize that it isn’t quite right. If you’re thinking about an idea but it’s giving you trouble, explaining it to others around you might show you a part you should explore more deeply, or a message you could communicate through it.

――  Some may find it difficult to translate the expansive theme of “embrace” into a product design.

I think it’s fine to take it to a personal place. In this era of abundance, it’s easy to feel like you don’t need anything more. I think entrants will do well if, for example, they have a clear purpose and can help someone around them solve an inconvenience, enriching their lives even a little bit more.

It’s hard for us as individuals to know where to start when it comes to tackling sustainability or global warming, but while we can’t necessarily reduce the whole world’s waste, we might be able to reduce the waste in our kitchen trash cans. What’s important is whether you put your own thoughts and feelings into it. The more you can put in, the better, and a lot of people may end up empathizing with you.

――  As a final thought, do you have a message for anyone thinking of entering the competition?

I hope the entrants will have fun with this opportunity. There’s a lot of bad news lately, isn’t there? In times like these, we truly need designs that make us feel like we can move forward with a positive mindset. I think design is fun, too, and I want to keep enjoying it forever, so I’ll keep asking myself what purpose I’m putting each design out into the world for. That’s a designer’s responsibility, but at the same time, I think it’s the most fun and interesting part of design.

――  Thank you for your time.