When I was living and working in Tokyo two decades ago, the city was already overflowing with new styles, trends and designs. There was a high demand for all types of designers, but I hardly heard of any ‘gaikokujin’ designers living in Tokyo.
I believe Marc Newson was one of the first foreign designers to have worked in Japan for an extensive period of time. Newson had worked for four years in Tokyo before he opened his studio in Paris (and then in London). Some of his most well known designs including the Embryo Chair were born in Tokyo.
Today, there are a number of designers and architects from other countries based in Japan. Designers like Gwenael Nicolas, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham are big players on the Tokyo design scene. Japan is not such a closed country as it was before.
However, in terms of the language and cultural differences, for designers from Europe and English speaking countries, life in Tokyo still doesn’t seem to be as simple and easy as in New York City, and I have become curious to know how it is to be a ‘gaikokujin’ and a designer in Japan today. I recently had a chance to ask several questions to designer Jason Wright-St Clair who has founded a brand and design firm named Cina in Tokyo.
Tell me about the name. Why is it called Cina?
The brand name Cina has no real significance other than sounding good, pronounced “seena”. Our logo and branding image on the otherhand is designed by myself to exude the feelings of luxury, timelessness, and quality.
How did you end up in Japan, and when?
I have been in Japan for nearly 3 years now, I originally decided to come to Tokyo after graduating from product design at Victoria University, Wellington New Zealand. The reason for this was that in Japan design is valued greatly, the originality and the quality of the designed product is always taken into consideration. Compared to New Zealand which has a small and relatively quiet design scene, where quality and uniqueness is often overlooked for the cheapest prices.
Since being in Japan I have founded my design brand, and have designed the first collection of products for Cina. Just recently I was joined by another New Zealander, Leslie Leung. We have received a bit of publicity lately, we were awarded “best emerging designer of 2008” by New Zealand and Australian magazine, “Urbis”. Next month we will have products in “Wallpaper” magazine, and be in a book about web design published by Singaporean company “Page one publishing”. So, Cina’s first year has been good so far.
Tell us both the good and bad sides of working as a team versus an individual.
The good sides of working in a collaboration is that you always have someone to bounce ideas off and ask, “is this completely crazy?…”. Generally if you get bagged by someone about one of your products, you can blame it one someone else in the collaboration…!
A bad side is that sometimes one designer can dominate the collaboration with more design ideas than the other. But, the way we operate is to design our own products and release them under the same brand. This way we both have a say in what the other is designing, and whether it fits into the branding image. So far all products have been designed by myself, Leslie and I will both be releasing new products early next year.
How long are you planning to stay in Japan?
I am planning to keep Cina based in Tokyo for a while as it seems to be the perfect environment that my design style fits into.
What is your legal status?
By legal status I guess you mean my living status. Right now I have a working visa to be in Japan, generally these last from 1-3 years.
What do you find most difficult being a foreign designer in Japan.
The thing I find most difficult about being a foreigner in Japan is the language barriers. I have been in Japan for three years now, my Japanese language ability is intermediate, but I still find it difficult to organize design-related issues. Lucky I have lots of helpful friends!
Any advice for other young designers who are looking for opportunities in Japan?
I think my advice for other designers looking for opportunities in Japan would be that Japan is an amazing place for design. Design is appreciated by nearly everyone, the aesthetic of anything is always important. These values make living and designing in Japan a true pleasure. It may be difficult in the beginning if you are like I was with no Japanese language experience prior to coming to Japan, but like anywhere and with anything if you really want to do it just keep trying.
Any up-coming publicity we should know about?
We will be featured in the December 2008 issue of Wallpaper* magazine.
What is your favorite Japanses food?
My favorite Japanese food would have to be the fresh sushi you can find in and around the markets of Tsukiji.
Yeah, Tsukiji is amazing. I used to go there at 4 a.m. with the chefs of a Japanese restaurant where did dishes. It’s the best place to buy fish in the world!