Yusuke Seki is sharing how he is balancing respect for history with the use of a contemporary design language.
Can you please tell us how you started your professional life and how you shaped it by time?
I first got interested in design in middle school, when I saw a chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames (the Plastic Chair with the “Eiffel Tower” base) in a magazine. I was floored. Talking about with a supportive teacher I had at the time, I started to realize that everything around me had been designed in some way. Out of this experience, I developed an interest in product design -the design of everyday things-. I continued this interest when I went on to study industrial design at the Kanazawa School of Art. But one day, I was talking to a friend who was ahead of me in the program, and he said to me: “Why are you studying product design? Before you can design a good chair, you need to know how to design a place to put it. So why not study architecture?” That opened my eyes up to the possibilities inherent in designing entire spaces. I was also getting interested in fashion and clothes at around the same time, and so I started to pay more attention to the design of boutiques and how they create unique retail environments.
After graduating, I went to work as a designer for a large company. While I was there, a friend of mine approached me with an idea for a store and asked me if I would be interested in designing the space for him. That eventually resulted in my design for the TEMPT boutique in Toyama, which was the first commission under my own name. The rest has just been about building off of these initial opportunities.
Pretty early on in my career, the designer Jin Kuramoto; who I knew from university, invited me to come with him to exhibit at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. That was my first exposure to the international scene, and I became aware of the importance of maintaining personal ties with people from all over the world, even though most of my commissions came from within Japan. In recent years that that’s begun to pay off, as I’ve increasingly been able to turn my relationships with people abroad into work outside of Japan, as well.
We can observe that you respect the historical and material substance of the place you work with. Besides this, you use a contemporary design language. How do these two things work together? Can you please describe your creative process?
My process is very simple, always starts with me going to the site directly and doing research. No assistants, just me. I think this is very important. On-site, I try to focus closely on the unique local conditions – on the history of the place, the available materials – and ask myself: What is something that can only be done here, in this space? This I distil into a sort of “rule” for working with the site, which forms the framework for every design decision I make. This “rule” doesn’t have anything to do with style or form but is rather concerned with understanding the general genius loci of the place. This is how I balance respect for history with the use of a contemporary design language: the former is a principle, or a restriction, that I set for myself before I even start working on the design. It’s in the creative interpretation of this rule that the latter comes into play. The two don’t clash because they are introduced at two different points in the process.
You translate the identities of the brands you work with into architecture and design in forms of showrooms, retail spaces and exhibitions. Still one can see your signature in every single project. What are the key factors you consider in such partnerships? How do you manage to merge your signature with the respective brand’s identity?
I’d say that using my projects to impose a certain personal “style” is not a very high priority for me. Instead, my goal in any project is to create something new that people haven’t yet experienced before. A new experience for the users, of course, but also for everyone involved: the people who work in the store, the craftspeople who build the components – and yes, for me, the designer, too. If that approach, carried out consistently over a variety of projects, results in a certain visual “signature,” then so be it but it’s not my intention by any means. With regards to working with brands, it’s not too different from the approach I take when I work with a particular site. I see the requirements of the brands as a set of “rules,” which I try to implement creatively. One thing I really emphasize is constant communication – when speaking with partners, I insist on replying directly to any feedback, rather than rely on my assistant. I think this communication and openness is important because it builds trust.
How does the digitalization of our lives influence the usage of space in your eyes? How do you reflect it to your work?
First of all, I hope the answer I give here won’t turn out to be embarrassing in ten years!
I must admit that the digital doesn’t play too large a role in my practice and in how I think about space generally. Maybe it has to do with how digitalization has been normalized to the point of becoming imperceptible: the OS on my phone, after all, is updating itself constantly without my really being aware of it.
If I have to identify one thing, I think the emergence of social media and the increased sharing of images has certainly changed the way people engage with the space around them. Everything is a potential photographic subject, a potential backdrop for a selfie. And that’s affected the way designers work too. People are thinking more about how photogenic their spaces are, how “Instagrammable.” I’d say that consideration has also determined how I design at times. A good example is the Bake Cheese Tart shop that I designed in Kyoto: I purposefully designed the countertop using LEGOs, not just because it would be visually interesting, but also because it would be instantly recognizable to a global audience. So I was anticipating. At the design stage, that images of the shop would be circulating far beyond the local context! But at the same time, I want my designs to go beyond being just mere images. The visual impact is, for me, a means to an end – a way to inspire people to make the trip and see the space in person.
One of my personal favorites of your work is the Maruhiro Ceramics flagship store in Hasami. Can you please tell us how you developed and implemented this design idea?
I’d been to the town of Hasami on many occasions before the idea of doing a store even came up. So I knew the people there already pretty well, including all the craftspeople, and I had an idea of their work. When the client eventually approached me with the idea of doing a store, the first thing we decided was that the store should be one with a strong visual impact. Hasami is a town on the periphery of Japan, and it’s not really close to any large cities. We thought that by creating a statement-like design, we’d be able to create awareness of this place, put it on the map.
During my research there, I became aware of a problem that many of the artisans in town had: a surplus of unused pieces of porcelain. The porcelain produced in Hasami has traditionally been meant for everyday use, and so it would usually be produced in large quantities and supplied to various brands and firms for distribution. To allow for a margin of error, the manufacturers often produce more pieces than have been ordered. When you have less mishaps than expected, though, you end up with a surplus of ceramics that don’t have anywhere else to go. Even throwing them away costs money, so they continue to pile up in the workshops.
The final design was a way to kill two birds with one stone: create a visually arresting space while also finding a way to imbue new value in the surplus ceramics. It was also, for me, a statement on the potential for interior design to make a tangible difference. Architecture is often talked about in these grandiose, world-changing terms; interior design much less so. I think in this project, though, the interior design has been quite instrumental in creating new visibility and a new market for Maruhiro Ceramics and the town of Hasami in general, and I’m very happy about that.
You are based in Tokyo and Kyoto and work on projects in different countries. Do you apply your own style and aesthetics in every project or do you adopt them to the respective culture?
The approach is the same, regardless of where I am. First I do research, then develop a set of parameters, which I then try to interpret creatively. One opportunity that working in countries outside of Japan offers, however, is the chance to work with different legal systems. Once the regulations are different, the horizons of what is possible completely change. It may sound strange, but I see a large productive potential in different legal and building regulation systems.
In what kind of space do you live in? What other options would you consider?
In Tokyo, I just live in a normal old apartment which I happened upon by accident – nothing really spectacular. Maybe the Kyoto case is a bit more interesting: there, I live in a traditional wooden townhouse, called a machiya. It’s over 100 years old, and I’m renovating it gradually by myself. Actually, the very reason why I live part-time in Kyoto now is because of this townhouse. I just came across the listing one day, and I knew I had to take it. For me, living in an old house like this and working on it is an occasion to live history, to gain a deeper and more practical understanding of it. And I open it up to friends whenever they come through Kyoto, kind of as a way to let them take part in the history of this place as well. That’s important for me – in fact, I’d even say that the renovations I’m doing on the place aren’t really for myself, but are rather a way to be constantly preparing for future guests. I’ve been there for over a year now.
Can you please tell us about your future projects?
An exciting project in the works is an expansion of the Maruhiro Ceramics headquarters in Hasami. This’ll be a big campus that also integrates a park and hotel – on an area of around 1200 tsubo (about 4000 m2). I’m approaching this project the other way around: not as a building complex that happens to have a park around it, but rather as a park that happens to have a bunch of buildings within it. One of the ideas is to play with thatched roofs – stay tuned!
Answers translated from the Japanese by Yuma Shinohara.