Design for Modern Living In Japan

Shinichiro Ogata is determined to bring every aspect of Japanese virtue to our everyday lives.

In Japanese design, simple just isn’t that simple. No matter the subject, tower or teacup, the works from all of the country’s top talents exude a sense of purity, calm, and efficiency. In the West, what we label as minimal or describe as “less is more” is deeply rooted in Japan’s cultural, historical, and economic DNA—so much so, that Japanese designers can have a hard time today communicating how their sensibilities fit into a world driven by movement, stimulation, and novelty. They offer their works without explanation or obvious agenda—a museum that looks like stacked boxes, a barely there chair that seems too fragile to hold anyone up—and leave it to us to make sense of it all.

And then there’s Shinichiro Ogata. A Tokyo-based designer, entrepreneur, and budding lifestyle guru, he is set on seamlessly translating traditional Japanese culture into something for everyone. He’s doing so, in part, by turning the usual client-based career path on its ear. While he’s done a host of interiors for international brands, including the Andaz Tokyo hotel and the high-design bath-products company Aesop (seven shops in Japan), Ogata—a Nagasaki native who looks to be in his early 40s (he wouldn’t say exactly)—is focused on his personal brand: five boutiques, two restaurants, product lines, and growing. Everything in his personal portfolio is a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work. His roughly 40-person firm designs the architecture, furniture, graphics, food, packaging, utensils, and everything in between. The firm’s name? Simplicity, what else?

Aesop's boutique in Kyoto. (Courtesy Takumi Ota Photography / Courtesy Aesop)

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ogata doesn’t seek to offer a vision of the future, but rather to make the traditional Japanese lifestyle and design culture as practical as the kimono once was to his feudal ancestors. He wants to take all the familiar elements—natural materials, quiet restraint—and make them relevant again. This thinking was the driving force behind his first restaurant, Higashi-Yama, which opened in 1998 on a side street in Tokyo’s Meguro district. “I wanted to create a community that would establish a culture,” Ogata says, describing the evolution of his portfolio. In insisting that all elements of his projects are designed in-house and sourced from all over Japan (furniture makers, potters, metalworkers), Ogata ensured that his Rolodex would feed upon itself, continually spurring the next project and the extension of his personal brand. “Each technique has a mentality and spirituality within its details,” he says.

He points to one example as proof of his community’s benefits: a metal soy sauce container called a suiteki (water drop). Lacquered on the inside, the teardrop-shaped copper object was made in Takaoka, a town on the western coast of Japan, and fashioned by craftsmen who traditionally produce metal objects for Buddhist shrines and ceremonies. With demand for these religious products dwindling, he found a way for them to “produce something more accessible in our modern lives.”

Tokyo's Yakumo Saryo restaurant. (Courtesy Kunihiko Nobusawa)

By employing his fellow countrymen, Ogata hopes to imprint the untranslatable essence of his culture on his guests, clients, and customers. “The world acknowledges Japan for its geisha or samurai, these visual elements. But it’s actually really difficult to understand Japan through those forms,” he says. “Japanese culture isn’t about those things. It’s more about living with the spirituality and the methods that our culture has been using for a very long time.” In other words, he hopes that when you purchase sweets and teas from his shop attached to Yakumo Saryo, his other restaurant in Meguro, or a featherweight lacquered paper bowl from his product brand Wasara, you absorb some of this spirituality through a kind of osmosis. “When people come to my restaurants, they can experience everything through their five senses,” he says, “and that’s how they can understand the culture we’re talking about.”

How did Ogata become Ogata? His childhood sounds ordinary—his dad worked at a company; his mother stayed home. He downplays his roots, saying he was a curious child, not just about art and design, but everything. Though he does credit Nagasaki, on the northwest coast of the island of Kyushu. “It’s surrounded by the ocean and also mountains,” he says. “It has a rich food culture. You can source fish, vegetables.” Plus, there’s its long history as a port city—at one time the only gateway to the West—and those resulting influences affected Ogata’s budding aesthetic.

Offerings from Higashiya, Ogata’s chain of confectionery shops. (Courtesy Simplicity)

If his approach feels a bit hard to grasp, then his picture-perfect shops for Aesop represent case studies for how he works. For each he brought a bit of local history into the design. According to Marsha Meredith, the brand’s New York–based creative director, “Materiality is a key element in our [store] designs, as we look for a relevant architectural vocabulary to immerse ourselves in a city. Ogata raised the bar by using unique contrasts of materials, subtle and evocative at once. Aesop Kyoto has variations of color, texture, and light: a soft black mesh against pure white walls; curved surfaces and accents of copper; an intricate balance of light and shadow. From these contrasts emerges poetry.”

He doesn’t plan to limit himself to Japan. A restaurant in Paris is in the works, and he’s dreaming up some kind of school to train others in all things Japanese, from architecture to manners. “My goal is to establish a lifestyle,” he says, “and then spread it to the world.” See? Simple.

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