Last week we visited the home and studio of Brooklyn-based Japanese designer Nao Tamura. We ascended the elevator to the top floor of her building where we were greeted by Oreo, a boisterous English Cocker Spaniel who voiced her excitement at our arrival. Tall and slender, Tamura showed us into her apartment – a space that tells the story of Tamura, both past and present.
For Tamura, becoming a designer was in her DNA. Having grown up in a family of designers, for her, it was the most natural process. In the 1940s Tamura’s grandmother founded Familia, a line of children’s clothing. Her father was an industrial designer and her mother, an interior designer.
Tamura’s first memories of making something with her hands, she tells us, was at Christmas time. Family tradition stated that each member must make hand-made gifts for each other. So at an early age, Tamura was already steeped in the process of envisioning what other people want or need, and then creating it. The family even held mock design critiques. “Having my work praised highly was really rewarding,” reflects Tamura. “If I retrace my steps, that was probably the beginning.”
When Tamura moved into her blank slate of an apartment 3 years ago she did what any seasoned designer would – she remodeled her own apartment. Taking advantage of the double-height ceilings, she added a floor to half of her space and hand-made a spiral staircase that leads up to it. Expecting to use her space to also present work to clients, Tamura made a long, black table from charred wood.
And yet, while the hand of the designer is clearly evident, only scant traces of the designer’s name are to be seen in the space. Aside from a stack of prototypes of her recent silicone leaf plates, we struggled to locate any of her actual designs. “I don’t like showcasing things I made, in my house,” she told us. As it turns out, this is a direct result of Tamura’s design philosophy, or lack thereof.
Tamura never liked the idea of a designer being in the front and preferred that the work stand on its own. Although, admittedly, she told us that she has become more flexible in recent years, as long as it helps to promote the work.
Tamura does very little to cultivate her own celebrity. She doesn’t have a twitter account or a Facebook page. In fact, trying to get to know her on the Internet is virtually impossible – believe me, I tried. When we posed several typical designer questions (what designers do you admire, what is your design philosophy) Tamura struggled for answers. Her attitude was one of naïveté, coupled with a humility that at once disarmed any impulse of resentment.
Tamura didn’t even want to appear in this studio visit. She refused to have her picture taken, unless she was hiding behind her work, which I thought was interesting in that it mirrored her real-life design philosophy. Finally, we got her to pose with her dog, Oreo.
After much coaxing, she finally puled out from her cupboard, some Pyrex measuring cups that she had designed.
The Pyrex redesign came right after Tamura had finished working on a design project for a cellphone – an object that epitomizes discardable gadgets that just aren’t made to last. In Japan, cellphones are often given away for free in exchange for a contract, and Tamura couldn’t help but feel a certain emptiness in designing, what she felt, was a temporary, non-lasting work. On the other side of the spectrum was the iconic Pyrex measuring cup – a kitchen staple that I recall my mom cooking with. The task? “Make it so your grandchildren can still use it.”
“I loved the challenge,” Tamura reflected. Redesigning an object that, for a large part, had not changed shape since its existence was exciting and refreshing. In the end, she proposed a cup with a wider mouth, so it can be used as a mixing bowl. She also incorporated bold, red graphics that can be read from above. (In the past, one had to bend down to make a precise measurement.) When asked if she cooks much herself she told us, “Yes, I do moderately.” Jokingly, she added, “I don’t think they were interested in hiring a European male designer who never cooks.”
Next, we got Tamura to reveal her Alight miniature LED lights inspired by the fireflies she saw, growing up in Japan. Fireflies are often used as a (unofficial) barometer for pollution – or lack thereof – in Japan where a common saying is that fireflies only come out near clean rivers. Consuming just 11W of energy and lasting for 20,000 hours, Alight is a reminder of our wasteful habits when it comes to energy consumption.
For the cellphone design project she did in NY for the global arm of a major Japanese company, Tamura conducted intense human behavioral observations, recording hundreds of people and the different ways they use their cell phones. The result was a 70-slide PowerPoint presentation she used to justify her design. “The process for industrial design and something like furniture design, it’s like two different worlds,” she explained. “the ‘wow factor’ and usability are both very important, but it’s as if they get factored in at 2 different points in the process. Both are stimulating, but in different ways.”
For someone who lives and breathes design, it’s hard to imagine Tamura doing anything else.
“If you weren’t a designer, what would you be doing right now,” we asked.
“I’d probably be a complete slob,” Tamura laughed. “Like, just a really bad human being.”
As usual, my son Huey (5) had some questions for Tamura, which she happily answered:
Check out our other studio visits, all conveniently archived right here.
(a special thanks to Masako Shiba for making this interview possible. Among other things, she entertained Fia-chan, my very hyper-active daughter)