Photographed by Noa Nguyen
Masamichi Katayama’s newly bleached blonde ‘do somehow suits the 50-year-old designer. Topping what would be an otherwise monochrome all-black look, the lighter hair brings a welcome focus to his always-smiling face. This is the first of many visual juxtapositions that will greet us during the time we spend together with the famed interior designer.
We meet at Katayama San’s design studio Wonderwall for a chat; the graphic slate-grey futuristic box a world apart from its traditional neighbors in Sendagaya. Other than a discreet scrawl by the artist KAWS that gives away the studio’s name, nothing on its exterior prepares the visitor for what lies within the monolithic black metal door.
Inside, high ceilings and a skylight give ample daylight to the studio. Cantilevered stairs look like they’re suspended in air, adding to the space’s graphic sense of wonder. Eames chairs are mixed with taxidermy, rare cacti, life-sized stone sculptures, floor-to-ceiling manga art, moving “photographs” on LCD screens, and Ryan Gander’s conceptual art (a favorite of Katayama San’s).
A couple of Gander’s work attract particular attention – the first being neon lights smashed to smithereens called “Available in Three Different Sizes and Four Different Colours,” a deconstructed play on Tracy Emin’s artwork. The second is “Alchemy Box”, a cardboard shipping box wrapped in black vinyl. Next to it is a list outlining the items contained within the box – you’re not really sure if these things are really in the box. Katayama San has been quoted of this piece saying, “Conceptual art has a fragility… Japanese education is very systematic — it’s right and left, black and white — so art like this shakes my foundation. You don’t buy the ‘Alchemy Box’ because there are things in it. You get it because of its multilayered story.”
Much of this sentiment encapsulates Katayama San’s own aesthetic – he loves odd pairings (think the futuristic interiors he gave streetwear Nigo’s famed A Bathing Ape stores) and visual paradoxes that intrigue and provoke. But this intellectualism is balanced by an instinctive ability to tap into the mainstream consumerist mindset and bridge both worlds. It’s this omniscient quality that has made Katayama San the go-to designer for cool brands and high-fashion labels alike, designing shops for everyone from fast fashion icons Uniqlo and Nike to names with massive street cred like A.P.C., BAPE, and AMBUSH to luxury luminaries like Colette, Pierre Herme, and Thom Browne.
Still, for all the acclaim and recognition, what is most endearing about Katayama San is the devotion and joy he brings to his craft. He smiles and laughs when speaking about his work; his passion obvious from the miniscule models he creates with details so intricate (model chairs the size of your pinky’s fingertip are made out of thin wooden shavings!) to the three-dimensional immersive spaces whose designs bear his name.
We speak with Katayama San about his journey in the design world and why Japanese craft is like no other.
Tell us about how you started your career designing spaces for fashion brands.
I first encountered fashion when I was in high school. In Japan, Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto were huge at the time. These fashion designers really gave me a big culture shock. I loved music and fashion and reading magazines. It was so natural for me to see fashion as a new culture and it really hit me hard. I never thought that I would work as a designer in the future and I probably didn’t even know the word “designer” at the time.
My father owned a furniture retail shop. My father saw that I wasn’t a good student so he told me, “You should take over my business.” He sent me to interior design school and so I can come back and take over his business. I entered school in Osaka where I studied interior design. It wasn’t a school to teach you how to sell furniture, it was a school to teach you interior design. I realized then that there was a job to design a fashion boutique, and interior design also designed the clubs and discos and the cafes at the time – it was so hip in Japan. Everything crossed over and I thought it was my fate to go into the design industry. I was so lucky to have this design encounter because I wasn’t a good student and I never would have had the opportunity to meet these cultures otherwise.
I have a big respect and admiration for fashion. It started from my student years and continues until today. I work as an interior designer and I work with fashion designers but I feel this isn’t a job, I still feel like I’m “playing” and enjoying the process!
“We’re so sensitive about everything from every angle and it’s probably more about craftsmanship. And otaku mentality, in a positive way, is very Japanese! For the Japanese, labor is joy.”
When designing something, do you think a part of you is reflected in your work?
First of all, I don’t care about my personality or my personal design ego. Maybe there is a little bit of my flavor at the end but it comes later, not at the beginning.
It’s not a strong smell, it’s a subtle smell. Maybe if you see three or four projects of mine, you will not recognize it but if you see a hundred projects of mine you will finally start to realize that maybe this is my “flavor!” (laughs).
I’m not selling my art or my sculpture and this is my unique approach which is different from other designers. I always think that if I work with a brand like DAMDAM, I want to be DAMDAM’s director of interior design. When I design for brands, I have to really absorb everything [about the brand] into myself. To design their brand, to fully understand their brand, we really learn and study and think about the brand [we design for].
In your opinion, why do you think Japanese design is held in such high regard around the world?
If we’re asked to do a project and if this is the start, and this is the goal, we should fill the line between start and goal. But Japanese tend to do this (points to a part past the goal) and it’s our natural thing!
For example, if the surface is pretty and that’s fine because people don’t see the back or the bottom. But for us, we care about the back, too! We’re so sensitive about everything from every angle and it’s probably more about craftsmanship. And otaku mentality in a positive way, is very Japanese (laughs). Japanese love to work! For Christians, labor is a sin [on Sabbath]. But for the Japanese, labor is joy.
“Maybe we’re going backwards – going back to analogue to give more ‘primitive’ experiences. Maybe it’s less convenient, but you will receive more joy from that than before… It’s about [experiences that are] more time-consuming but filled with joy. We have to educate people to enjoy life with this time-consuming experience… So it’s a different joy.”
Where do you see interior design going in the future?
Interior design, the industry is shrinking. Web shops are invading our industry but it’s natural and convenience wins. It’s simple. But experience and learning – I think this will win over the Internet. I think we have different roles between web shops and retail shops. What we’re doing [for retail shops] is to provide an experience. And maybe we’re going backwards – going back to analogue to give more “primitive” experiences. Maybe it’s less convenient, but you will receive more joy from that than before.
I think it’s an interesting time we’re in. The Internet is evolving and it’s evolving towards convenience. I think my industry is evolving towards ‘inconvenience’ – it’s about [experiences that are] more time-consuming but filled with joy. We have to educate people to enjoy life with this time-consuming experience. For example, in ten years, cars will need no drivers. If you want to go from one point to another, you don’t need a driver. You just need a vehicle to take you there. But if you want to have the joy of the ride, maybe you will drive by yourself. So it’s a different joy, I think. And my job is to make the less inconvenient even more joyful.