On a recent Saturday afternoon we visited graphic designer Kenzo Minami at his home/studio in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was chilly but in his sun-drenched apartment where he was solemnly working on a 12″ jacket cover for an upcoming album, it felt like early summer. The sought-after designer has been tapped by big names like Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Dell, Raf Simons, Adidas, Kidrobot, Ace Hotel and many many more. His stylistically detailed illustrations are mechanical and controlled, yet thoroughly chaotic. We were interested in learning more about him, his work, and what makes him tick as a designer.
Kenzo grew up in Hyogo, a Western prefecture of Japan dominated by heavy industries. His father owned small factory and, partially raised by factory workers himself, Kenzo grew up watching people build things with oily, greasy, machines. A dedicated worker, his dad took only 3 days off out of the entire year during new year’s so on weekends Kenzo and his brother would stay with their father at the factory.
Q: Have you always had long hair?
A: Actually there was a brief period when my hair was even longer. It was when I had moved to San Diego. But I had this bad habit. I would go out, get drunk, come home and think, ‘I’m going to cut my hair.’ No more drunk hair cutting.
Wandering the Unconscious
He attended Kwansei Gakuin, a protestant private High School and University, and immersed himself in his studies. To enter the school, He even subjected himself to some particularly strict regiments when he was a Junior High School student. During the summer he would enroll in intense studies at a cram school summer training camp at a temple where corporal punishment was an accepted form of discipline. “We had to sign a contract saying that we couldn’t sue even if we were physically injured by the punishments,” which included hitting and dumping cold water on students. The curriculum called for 40 minutes of study, followed by 10 minutes of test-taking. If you didn’t pass you had to retake it, but at night. Failing meant sleep deprivation. Once during an exam Kenzo drifted into unconsciousness while his hand apparently kept moving. At the end of the period he handed in a completed exam. Surprisingly, he scored 25% (“it should have been a zero, since I blacked out the entire time.”) but it was his nonsensical, delusional answers that alerted the staff. “My teacher called me in and told me to sleep,” Kenzo chuckled.
“You know how when you’re on the phone and doodling you do something half unconscious and something really good comes out? The trick for me is to bring myself to that place, but very intentionally,” Kenzo later said, reflecting on his process.
When you know your scotch is going to get watered down, you stop serving the real stuff
After spending almost a year in San Diego, studying English and preparing his portfolio to get into Parsons, he made the jump. While in school, Kenzo’s first real gig was creating set designs for a film director known as Voltaire. And before he had graduated he had become a partner at a broadcast design firm, where he eventually spent 7 years working on TV productions. Despite being a wonderful learning experience, the mentality began eating at him. “The concept would always start out really cool and everyone was motivated. But 6 months down the road it’s just a hot girl dancing and a logo. When you know your 100% scotch is going to get watered down, you stop serving the real stuff. And I realized that I was starting to give them the watered down stuff from the beginning of the process and I saw the huge danger in where I was heading.”
Q: What does it mean to be a professional?
A: If you think hard enough and have enough time, anyone can come up with a cool idea. Being professional means coming up with cool ideas and you can execute them on time. Also, knowing what to spend time on and what not to. If you have to plant a forest but are obsessing over 1 tree when time does not allow you to be, that forest is not going to happen.
It was one of those projects that you think, this is going to change my career
A turning point for Kenzo came in 2002. The event was that Nike commissioned him to do a mural for their first art space project in NYC. But the chain reaction reads like a lesson in serendipitous causality. Kenzo was living with 2 roommates on Mott St. One of them was Mandy Coon, the fashion designer. While on tour with her all-girl electroclash band W.I.T, Mandy gave one of Kenzo’s stickers he had created to a friend, Matt Clark, who was behind the Seattle-based Houston. Matt was also working for Nike at the time and took an interest in Kenzo’s work. “It was one of those projects that, while you’re doing it, you think, this is going to change my career.”
Q: Where do you get your inspiration?
A: I love watching movies with director commentary. Listening to how other people work is inspiring. Actually, designing is a lot like acting. When I’m working on something dark, I’m playing the role of dark graphic designer, listening to Nick Cave. But when working on happier projects I’m listening to disco, like the Bee Gees. But that role that I play has nothing to do with my everyday life.
Q: So do you watch a lot of movies?
Q: Favorite movie?
A: Anything by Woody Allen
Q: Can you tell us a little about your fashion philosophy?
A: I always travel with necktie. As a man, when you travel in a suit and tie… it makes your life so much easier. Also, when you travel it’s a constant collection of 1st impressions. And that’s all you get. So might as well make the best impression.
Q: Fashion icon?
A: My grandpa is 95 and still works in factory. He wears a suit and tie every day. He’s from a generation that dresses proper no matter where you go. He’s not really my style icon but it’s more of his philosophy that appeals to me. So now I always put tie on for workdays.
Q: Do you have a dream collaborator?
A: I’ve done so many collaborations with big name brands and corporations but I also would like to work with the people around me. There are so many great people that I run into and think are on same wavelength. People like Christian Joy.
As usual, my son Huey (6) had some questions for Minami.
Studio Visits are an ongoing series in which we visit NY-based Japanese artists in their studio. You can read them all here.
(special thanks to Kaori and Masako)