What I Think About When I Think About Design


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Note: This post is from a series of interviews with AZZAMI, CEO and Creative Director of Craft Design Technology, Owner and CEO of Advertising Orchestra, and Producer of Casbah and the Vegan Mandala Project.  The interview was held in Japanese and transcribed into English. Photos (except #2) by AZZAMI. Photo #2 by Casbah.

Q: What does “design” mean to you? 

I have two answers to that.  Design as art, and design as commerce.  When we talk about design as art, the only concern is the expression of self, and it matters little what others think, whether or not they would pay money for it.  All that matters is an examination of who and where you are.

Just as an antique Barbie doll can have no value for one person and be worth millions to another, the value of art (for the sake of art) cannot be calculated, and the value (for the artist) stems solely from the depth of his pursuit.  In other words, there is no compromise.

On the other hand, the purpose of design as commerce is to enrich the lives of those who are willing to pay a certain amount of money for your product.  For those who create, issues that do not pertain to self, such as making sure the staff does not go hungry, become a deciding factor.

My most recent design

(For the story about this table, please visit the last post.)

Q: What does personal design mean to you? 

I suppose my answer would be, to make lives richer.  I feel this way about fashion (through a 25-year career), but I live by the belief that design is about etiquette, an expression of respect to those present.  Often described (in fashion) as TPO (Time, Place, Occasion), there’s a certain moral code, or etiquette people have when dressing for an occasion.

The same goes with design.  Of course there are the artists who create out of ego, trying to create what they think will sell, and when it doesn’t, they’re resentful.  That’s just a matter of now knowing where to draw that line.  To me, design will always be associated with etiquette, with respect.  With wanting to bring wonder and joy.

Q: These votive candleholders caught your eye at Anthropologie.  What was it about them?

These votive candleholders at Anthropologie – which had all been loaned out for a photo shoot two days later when I returned – are a perfect representation of the world we live in now.

After 3.11 (the Japan triple-disaster) and 9.11 for Americans, one of the keywords we tend to lean heavily toward is “warmth”.  The explosion of social media points to our desire to connect, to the relief we feel when a human connection occurs.

In the place of an impersonal modern or sharp feel, there’s a certain ease (an almost imperfection) the world wants to experience now (which in fact, requires great skill and technique).

Similar design trends can be seen in the Japanese market, which has turned dramatically away from the emotionless feel of stones and metals (in furniture, etc), to the warmth of wood, though with a more modern edge than the sweetness of the Scandinavian design trend a few years ago.

It may be similar, as seen in fashion trends of the past, to mini skirts becoming the rage during years when a developed country is at war, in an economic downturn, and unemployment rates are through the roof.  The tension in the atmosphere often causes people to break out and express themselves in loud, dramatic fashions, as opposed to times of peace when people do not feel bound, and are generally emotionally free to wear whatever they please, from sugary sweet to complete punk rock.

A store like Anthropologie chooses its products with the intent to sell to customers, of course.  But what interests me more are the shelves that hold the displays, a certain mirror in a restaurant that brings me back again and again, or for example, the gold in the Soho Grand.  I’m drawn to places like these for its details.

Soho Grand Hotel

Next time I’m in New York, the merchandise lining the shelves at Anthropologie might not even catch my eye.  The single most important quality to have as a buyer is to see things that others don’t notice.  You may never be able to return to the store again, and you just have that one second to decide.

To keep a discerning eye in top form is essential, to act instantaneously when something in the store clicks with what’s inside of you.  To know what wave is coming next before it even starts to ripple.  When I sense that in a piece (or clothing), I’ll buy it for my own collection, knowing I can’t use or wear them.

What people look for now is a practicality that tends to give warmth but does not have the “too much sweetness” feel, an easeful style that soothes the soul.  And these 4 items, to me, share that same common thread.

If the topics of design and how to keep a discerning eye interest you, drop by my Pinterest page, where I pin items under Product Design, Architecture, Old School (Sneakers), and Art, among other boards.

And I’ll see you back here again, next week.


Danshari – Breaking Free From What Binds Us


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“Danshari”(断捨離)is a word comprised of three kanji characters, each with a distinct meaning.

The first character, pronounced dan (断) means to refuse, to say no.  The second character, sha (捨), means to throw away.  The third character, ri (離) means to separate.

Together, danshari is the act of clearing your home and surroundings of unnecessary clutter.  This minimalist concept taken from Zen Buddhism has found new life in Japan in recent years, and as with most things Japanese, there is a psychological aspect to the word:  The purging of physical possessions from the home can be equated to the refusal to bring excess mental baggage into one’s life, throwing away that which is not necessary, and separating oneself from the desire to possess.

This past weekend, my mind was on danshari and the activity of breaking free.  To sever what is not necessary.  I decided to bring it to the table.

At Casbah, the vegan deli I am producing in Okinawa, we held a wine-tasting + vegan event which, to my delight, brought together an eclectic mix of local Okinawans, Americans and Europeans, and recent transplants from mainland Japanese.  The crowd had gathered in anticipation of the Vegan Art Mandala, and we were geared up for it.

First, a little background on mandalas themselves, a sacred art practiced in the Buddhist and Hindu religions.  Rich with ritualistic and spiritual significance, mandalas are most often circular in shape, in reference to rebirth, the universe, life, and eternity.

(The past two Vegan Mandalas created at Casbah, seen here and here, have been true to form, circular in shape.)

But this mandala was to have a different theme, focusing instead on “breaking free”, or the severance of relationships with the things in our lives that harm rather than help.  Instead of a sphere, I drew a straight line through the center of the table, a visual reexamination of our excessive dependence on food, especially of the unhealthful nature.

The meaning of the RED and WHITE, you ask?  Wine, of course.

The combination of wine and vegan food might cause one to pause, as my time in New York has shown that even in a city overflowing with restaurants, few restaurants offer wine with their Vegan menu.

Simply put, wine and vegan food do not complement each other.  Even when you find a “vegan wine”, the foods that go well with it are the opposite of vegan: seafood with white wine, and meat and cheese with red.

On this particular table, you will find vegan burgers, sausages, falafel on the red wine side, and vegetables accompanied by vegan cheese and bread on the white wine side.

This mandala was created in an effort to ditch the “given” concept that plates of steak and cheese, or steamed mussels in white wine sauce are the only viable accompaniment to wine.

Just as cleaning your home and life of unnecessary clutter allows you to see what you actually need, so too is the case with the food we eat.  A form of “detox” if you will (but in an enjoyable setting), if the food on the table is freshly and carefully prepared, using the best ingredients to bring out nature’s flavors, there is rarely a need for oil or meat to satisfy the hungry brain.

I’m often asked where I come up with recipes and ideas.  The techniques used to create these menus are derived from my birth and upbringing in the city of Kyoto, the beginning of all traditional Japanese food (authentic Japanese cuisine or washoku – before sushi, tempura and teriyaki chicken).

Thousands of years ago, the Buddhist priests in the temples of Kyoto ate what is called Shojin Ryori – translated as ‘devotion cuisine’ – where of course, no meat or fish was used.  Instead, various cooking techniques (including presentation) were invented to bring some life to daily meals.  I suppose you can say, it’s in my blood.

With March 11th fast approaching, we’re forced to think about how the earthquake and tsunami has affected the way we think about food here in Japan.

What really, is important?  What is too much?  Is all that rich food you’re putting into your mouth necessary?  Seeing as how we can no longer eat a vegetable or drink water (in Tokyo where I live) without worrying if it has been affected by radiation, every meal has become quite an affair.  And not many are as enjoyable as the party we held on Saturday.

(Note: Okinawa is approximately 950 miles from Tokyo, 1080 miles from Fukushima, and said to be the only prefecture in Japan not affected by radiation.  With the current mass relocation of mainland Japanese to Okinawa, I feel an urgency to start and build conversation between the Okinawan locals and its new residents, not to mention the large population of non-Japanese who call the island their home, regarding food and its origins, health concerns, and the country’s future.)

Thanks to the great turnout, and enthusiastic responses to the dishes, as well as the setting (including the table in the first photo), people from various backgrounds were able to come together, connect, and hopefully go home a little fuller in spirit than when they arrived.

Lifelong Companions


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Whether I’m on a plane or train headed east or west, you’re not likely to catch me without these two items close by.  They’ve seen life as I have since my first paycheck in Tokyo over 25 years ago, when I had no business buying a $300 leather organizer.  (My salary was probably only a hair more than that.)  I had a large debt to pay (not my own) at the time, a 20-something kid from Kyoto, speaking in an accent the Tokyo-ites in the fashion industry (back when I landed 25 years ago) scoffed at.  Work did not flow my way, as trained as I was. Nothing like today, where Kansai-ben (Kansai Language) or the dialect of the East, is embraced, adored, even envied as the most entertaining voice at the table.  Things change in 25 years.

I was broke, alone, and at the bottom of every totem pole, but I had left a life behind in the city of Kyoto, having made my declaration never to return.  I chose this Italian-made organizer that I knew I would carry with me for the rest of my life.  Twenty-five years later, when most tools in my toolbox have turned electronic, these two have never left my side.

This leather bag, which I designed and a friend crafted, is an original, without duplicates.  To hell and back it’s been.  One needs only stroke the leather to understand those words.  Spacious enough to fit my MacBook, organizer, documents and samples of clothing, this remains closer to me than any human acquaintances I’ve crossed paths with.

Whether I’m designing clothes or stationery products, the sentiment is always the same.  Style and design are relevant no doubt, but trends, fads, products and clothes that fall under the “fast” category are of little interest to me.

When creating, building, or even selecting a particular object to buy, the intention of “keeping it for the rest of your life” prevents indifference.  It keeps the eye sharp, the tastes real, and is a constant test of who you are.  Only through keen observation and confrontation with the self can I begin to tell what it is I really need to have.

Lifelong Companions = Creating one’s own “antique” color.  I enjoy the experience of watching my belongings find their color, right alongside me.