Welcome to our latest volume of our Eat Takeaway. In this series we hear from brand, marketing and creative leaders on their ambitions and challenges this year and beyond. We explore their day-to-day and what lessons they have for delivering more powerful and authentic brand experiences. Check-out our three take-aways at the end for a sharp digest of what you can be bringing into your brand strategy and creative executions moving forward.
In this volume our Japan Content Director Tazlu Endo caught up with Ryu Kosaka, Executive Director at Aoyama Nomura Design, one of the most revered interior, architectural and product design studios in Japan.
Please note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tazlu Endo: First up, we’d love your overview of Aoyama Nomura Design and your role as Creative Director?
Ryu Kosaka: We have a few hundred designers working at Nomura Co., and around 17 years ago decided to set up a new team that specialises in designing spaces with a greater focus on quality. This led to the establishment of an in-house brand A.N.D. (Aoyama Nomura Design), and I was appointed as the creative director. At A.N.D., we have a separate office in Aoyama, Tokyo, and have been working on a wide range of design projects including private residences, hotels, restaurants, and retail spaces. In recent years, we have also been more involved in overseas projects, and have been receiving inquiries from both domestic and international clients across the hospitality and retail industries.
TE: Can you give us few examples of recent projects which really gave you a sense of accomplishment?
RK: I have a couple of examples I can share, and they are two completely different projects. Firstly, "The Hotel Seiryu Kyoto Kiyomizu," which opened back in 2020. The building used to be an elementary school, and we transformed it into a hotel, giving it a new life for the next 50 years. We had multiple challenges to overcome, such as the construction inspection and ensuring that it’s in line with Kyoto’s landscape ordinance. We also had some design challenges, especially applying the right texture and colour to the hotel exterior so that it would feel more luxurious. This was a comprehensive project including architectural design, interior design, artwork, uniform design and logo development, and involved experts from various fields. We were very happy to hear positive comments and words of appreciation, not only from the client and users, but also from the neighborhood residents and even school alumni. Seeing people who had strong emotional connections with the former elementary school being pleased with our design was a great feeling, and it’s not something you would normally experience in other projects. The hotel’s rooftop bar "K36" has become a popular photo spot because of its spectacular view overlooking the city of Kyoto.
The other project is the FEI Bar in Guangzhou, China. This was also a challenging project, but it wasn’t to do with the client. It was a challenge for myself, to design something completely new and unique. The bar is located in the W Hotel, a boutique hotel reminiscent of a luxurious club. As it was their first venue in mainland China, the client was looking for innovative ideas. So I decided to forget all the projects I had worked on which made me the designer I am, and tried using new technologies and design techniques. Our design concept was to express the energy behind China’s economic rise. The new space is a box 18 meters long, surrounded by glass curtain walls and isolated from the outside world. The curtain walls are made of optical fibers, which shine glowing light and fill the space. The other-worldly architectural design received a lot of praise and won a number of awards in Japan and overseas.
TE: What are the key differences between projects in Japan and projects overseas?
RK: When dealing with overseas clients, it’s important that your communication is clear because you are likely to be communicating remotely. You need to clearly explain your design intent and make a strong statement. When we pitch for a new project, we often try to make our proposal exciting and entertaining in order to keep our client engaged from the very beginning. Once you’ve been appointed, you can really focus on working on your design. Overseas clients generally have a lot of respect for designers, so it’s important that you meet their expectations and demonstrate your creativity. You’ll have certain goals to meet as well as functional requirements, but the client tends to say, “You are in charge, so just design something great for us,” and give you a lot of freedom.
Overseas clients generally have a lot of respect for designers, so it’s important that you meet their expectations and demonstrate your creativity.
Whereas in Japan, you won’t really see a client who leaves everything to you unless you are a star designer. So rather than trying to surprise our clients with creative ideas, we focus on building trust, developing a strong partnership and ensuring that everyone is on the same page. A lot of Japanese clients want designers to incorporate their opinions, so when you are developing your design, it’s important to constantly ask for their feedback and make sure it’s aligned with their needs. Sometimes we propose several different options and ask for their preferences. With overseas clients, this could be taken as a lack of confidence, but with Japanese clients, it often gives a sense of reassurance that the designer is willing to listen to their voice and that they’re involved in the decision-making.
A lot of Japanese clients want designers to incorporate their opinions, so when you are developing your design, it’s important to constantly ask for their feedback and make sure it’s aligned with their needs.
TE: What kind of design do you think transcends time?
RK: We’ve worked on a lot of design projects for restaurants, residences and hotels, but it was when we were commissioned to design Mandarin Oriental Tokyo’s restaurant and bar that made us aware of our design philosophy: ‘permanence’. The client asked us to create a space that can survive the test of time for at least 10 and preferably 20 years. They not only wanted us to use materials that were durable, but also requested a design that wouldn’t become outdated. While we aspire to create design that transcends time, we also want it to be striking. So when we work on a design, we try to ensure that the colours and brightness won’t fade away over time, and that the texture and design would age well as time passes.
While we aspire to create design that transcends time, we also want it to be striking.
TE: What are some of the key points when you start working on a new project?
RK: In today’s world of design, once the production starts, you can complete everything you need to do on your computer. That’s why we always try to meet with our clients in person to discuss and discover underlying needs and challenges. Our job is to solve these challenges using design. By meeting new people and developing an understanding of both sides, we can stay fresh as designers and avoid falling into repetition. So it’s important to make sure you’re developing your skill-set every day that helps clients solve their challenges.
TE: What is the situation with designers in Japan today?
RK: Compared to when I was in my 20s, the social status of designers has improved. I’m happy to see that the value of interior design is starting to be recognised in Japan and overseas. That said, the way designers work also needs to change. Designers are similar to researchers and artists, and don’t always work well with strict work rules - forcing people to leave the office at 5pm sharp every day for example. The onboarding where new graduates are trained by their superiors and seniors is also often ignored by companies as it can be seen as a form of harassment. The social status of designers is improving in Japan, so I’d like to see more young people getting interested in our world and in our work. I’m hoping that new technologies can make the way we work more efficient and provide opportunities for the next generation to work on the global stage.
The Eat Take-Away
Keep everyone involved. When you are working with Japanese clients, it’s important that you give a sense of reassurance that the designer is willing to listen to their voice. In order to avoid any disappointments from the client after the project’s completion, make sure all stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process. Just because nobody shared their opinion during the meeting, it doesn’t mean what you proposed has been approved. Rather, it tends to be a sign that you need to ask what they feel about your ideas in every step of the project.
Bold ideas and a clear message. When you are pitching for an international project, it’s more important that you have a clear and specific message, rather than saying "we can do anything”. Once you’ve been appointed, you can focus all your energy on creating great work. But be careful when you are presenting multiple ideas. It will please your Japanese clients, but overseas clients may take it as a lack of confidence.
Design that ages like fine wine. You can learn tips to survive the unpredictability of the future from great designs created in the past. Make sure you are creating design that would age like fine wine. Your design should stand the test of time, but it also needs to be creative and engaging.