Conversations with Keita Suzuki
20 October, 2018
On an autumn Sunday with his friend/interviewer,
Keita Suzuki shares his thoughts on his past experiences, current work and future vision.
I（Interviewer） Let's begin. As the founder and creative director of Product Design Center, why was it important to share your thoughts as part of your website?
KS (Keita Suzuki) While we’ve recently been able to attend more talk shows and interviews, we’ve become concerned about being misunderstood. Therefore we wanted to build a platform on our website where we could directly express our latest thinking. We intend for this platform to communicate our thoughts quickly and precisely. We’ve started to pursue our interest in material sciences, and we’ve been building proposals for how we could tackle our social and environmental issues. We’re also thinking about having a new base apart from Tokyo. I would be happy if we can summarize all of these thoughts for this platform.
I Now that there is an abundance of information, there is indeed greater risk for misunderstanding. Even personal interviews and lectures are sometimes not enough to convey genuine intentions.
KS That’s why we’re planning to update this interview on our website regularly, perhaps every six months or so. I’m aware that our content cannot communicate our latest thinking; it takes at least a year before we can present our projects to the public. Naturally, our website can only represent our thinking from over a year ago. While this lag is an inevitable part of how we design, we still need a platform that would allow us to present work from the past six months and also be able to announce future plans. We want to be able to access a wider audience, push upon our skillset and hopefully become part of new exciting projects. (laughter).
On confidence and shaping form from thinking.
I I noticed your projects cover roughly three design fields; one involving public infrastructure projects, most notably train carriage design, the second involving brand consulting and the third involving work with overseas clients such as luxury fashion houses.
KS Thinking back, it seems like we are doing quite a lot of things…… It’s not common for designers to be multidisciplinary, working on large public infrastructure projects to small day-to-day products. I’ve noticed many tend to specialize within a single field.
I Thinking back to the previous generation, your multidisciplinary approach reminds me of Mr. Souri Yanagi (A renowned post war Japanese product designer, who designed the Elephant Stool for Vitra) He didn’t however work with foreign fashion houses like you have. (laughter) I ‘m guessing its important not to become too focused on working within a single field. For example, your train features adaptive interior lighting, which dims during the night. Being multidisciplinary might be providing the freedom to look at multiple perspectives.
KS Indeed, our team can work across multiple fields of design due to the skillset and technology that help us shape our thinking. Of course, sometimes it’s challenging to work in a new field, but by combining handcraft and the latest technologies, (eg. 3D printers), we are able to demonstrate this thinking as form. We find a lot of confidence through this process. We also have a wonderful 3D printer expert as part of our team. For our train carriage design, we took a full year to carefully understand how railway systems work and how the carriage’s internal mechanisms are structured. Through this method, we were able to provide technical drawings in 3D for the redesign. We also revised the carriage’s internal structure - and were partly able to do so through our understanding of how the whole system works and how each component works with one another. If you do not know how things work, you cannot design in the first place.
I So you approach the design from the ground up, not just from the surface.
KS I think the 1990s and 2000s were dominated by ‘design on the surface’. A popular approach involved designers arranging and decorating pre-engineered solutions where the internal structure has already been fixed. We take exactly the opposite approach, where we first obtain an in-depth understanding of how things works and how it’s structured in order to propose a solution. Otherwise, designers can only cover the surface of the engineer’s work, not resulting in genuine innovation.
I Don’t many people believe that designers work only on the "surface"?
KS Yes, I think they do. However, in our approach, we can design and provide technical drawings in 3D down to the last detail; in this case from carriage grab handles, overhead baggage racks to the metal grab bars. From an industry perspective, we provide both design and engineering solutions. So our approach isn’t based solely on a series of sketches, but consist of truly communicating our thinking in 3 dimensional forms. It’s not widely expected for designers to provide this kind of detail, and we need to ask for a bigger budget. Even if I wanted to do more of this kind of work, it’s very hard to come by.
I I’m guessing there was a stronger reaction from people within the transportation industry, but when I was able to see and experience your new carriage design, it felt cutting edge even from my own perspective. In such a busy city like Tokyo, where nobody would even notice the demolition of multiple buildings, it felt intensely innovative and at the same time intuitively comfortable.
KS That's exactly what we aimed to do. The first thing we discussed at the beginning of this project was that we can only justify producing high quality design. We are already familiar with good design, like the iPhone, from use on a day-to-day basis. So it has become easy to distinguish bad design. Everyone knows good design; everyone owns good design and lives surrounded by good design. So we thought it’s not acceptable for public design to be left outdated.
I It was remarkable how ‘railway fans’, who are usually not afraid of leaving harsh criticism on social media, left very favorable comments for this project. Even during photography sessions for the new carriage, the number of onlookers were far more than expected.
KS We were very happy to know that people thought the new carriage design felt ‘familiar yet new’; especially for the railway fans who are very passionate about trains. Upgrading the train to a luxury carriage that felt like a hotel would have been easy, but our brief involved a regular commuter train that many people would use on a daily basis. We wanted to design the best solution possible but also maintain this familiar feel.
On conserving corporate identity through design
I I notice your respect for heritage and history in your approach; your solutions aren’t only new and attention seeking. Does this approach play a role in your work regarding your second field of expertise ‘brand consulting’?
KS While it might sound strange, in our approach we try not to have a greater impact than absolutely necessary. I think design solutions that disregard its contextual history feel unnatural. Some of the brands and companies we are working with have heritage that goes back hundreds of years. If the proposed design for the brand only reflected the designer’s aesthetic preferences, they can be easily become disregarded. By being aware of its heritage, our approach asks, “What can we make now that would connect the brand’s future?” This may at first produce design that feels dull and lacking in character but I find the brand’s historical quality always has a stronger personality. We try to pursue the best possible solution within this framework.
I Aside from ‘design geeks’, it seems like users today are more concerned with good design rather than its designer. Rather, it feels outdated to buy based solely on it’s designer.
KS Indeed, we design with people in mind. We don’t design for design’s sake.
I However, aren’t many companies pursuing attention seeking solutions intended for short-term publicity? For example with Converse and Adidas, those classic sneakers have always been a reliable cash cow. Why do you think some companies appear to be unconcerned with genuinely developing their own core products and brand signatures? In the other words, why do you think they struggle to develop a stronger brand identity?
KS I think firstly because they haven’t yet been able to acquire such perspectives, and secondly because they feel under pressure to launch new products to generate business. History suggests that attention-seeking design always becomes obsolete over time. At some point, trends and ideas become outdated. I feel that many don’t perceive their own value. Japan especially has some great companies, but lacks awareness in where their value lies and how they are being perceived. Simply put, it’s heartbreaking.
I So, your approach starts with defining and establishing the brand’s core values. I must say, I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the word "branding" which used to be a trend. I remember an infographic that claimed “branding” is a technique to generate publicity. However today, there is a growing need for brands to have strong foundations. Hermès is a great example, where its presentation is immaculate but its value lies in its high quality products. I think your work takes a similar approach where you dive deep to uncover the company’s core identity to form the brand from its roots.
KS That’s right, we try to uncover its core values to translate it into tangible forms. We try to tell our clients “If you can imagine developing your core values one step further, it would take on this kind of form”. This is why in many cases our brand proposals lead to new product launches. Many designers are proposing radical new ideas for brands, but many are rejected on the basis that their proposals don’t follow the brand’s identity. Likewise, our many brand based product launches prove we have an in-depth understanding of our clients needs. For both new and heritage companies, we approach it’s brand by constantly reminding ourselves “We are developing the company’s identity.”
I I think this kind of awareness is particularly important regarding your work with overseas luxury fashion houses. They seem to be able to permeate their core values exceptionally well, from the design of their business cards to how sales associates interact with customers in their stores.
KS Indeed, they understand their identity very well. They have an acute awareness of their position in their industry.
I Did you have to decide if your design is ‘too trendy’ or ‘too feminine’? I think this thinking process can only be achieved if the brand has continuously developed a strong identity. There is no way the brand and its products can be developed separately.
KS That’s true. While there is also a vision set each time by the art director, we think luxury fashion houses have a strong understanding of their unique founding ‘identity’. Everyone involved, from the PR managers to sales associates, strives to embody this identity and thus decisions are taken swiftly and precisely. So it comes at no surprise when they create products that are very unique.
On synergy between material use and design direction.
I I found your use of materials in your design approach to be very innovative. Your new audio speakers features a pure glass design as well as you’ve challenged the notion of low quality mass manufacturing by focusing on material strength in your new plastic cup design. It’s an approach that feels very radical and I think there is a lot of potential here.
KS Absolutely, as a matter of fact, materials use in design has gained a lot of attension recently and it was most important design factor requested by European fashion houses. We often don’t specify colors in order to emphasize the true nature of the materials themselves. For example, our recent trophy design attempts to maximize upon its beautiful brass finish. We wanted the brass to express the brand’s luxurious yet dignified character. We believe great design is this synergy between material use and design direction. For example, great furniture designs don’t just consist of design direction or quality materials. By first having an in-depth understanding of it’s material choices, we are able to pursue it’s design direction. I think it’s the same approach with fashion design; the final quality is determined by its pattern and material choices.
I I think that’s an interesting perspective. Ideally I want to be able to discover traditional craft by holding it in my hand and wanting to use it; but what is now ‘traditional’ was once ‘cutting edge’. I find it questionable how we sometimes utilize the same old mindset when it comes to its design and material use. Speaking of which, what were some factors European companies were most particular about?
KS In short, they were interested in things we knew that others wouldn’t necessary know about. The reason why they were interested to work with us was because we might be able to introduce new kinds of materials. As a Japanese designer, they understood that we might be able to bring in great influences like the stones used in the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple. I think it’s the same with pottery; since porcelain is the most widely accepted form of pottery in Europe, they are surprised by how Karatsuyaki and Rakuyaki transform clay into such different results. They are also similarly surprised by our use of wood and paper as well.
I So it seems to me the more you pursue your material choices, the more you have to depend on the refined skillsets of craftsmen in order to use them. Do you actively pursue such materials and talent yourself?
KS That’s right, we always find ourselves on the hunt; we love finding new materials and as a result, we search both Japanese and global markets.
I Would you like to focus more on this kind of research?
KS Indeed! I find there are infinitely unknown, yet interesting things out there. We’ve been reaching out to other companies for collaboration, however their response was much weaker than we expected… With Japanese lacquer-ware, there are a few hundred varieties and the golden lacquering technique we recently commissioned was completely unknown to the public. I think Japanese companies need to focus more on their material use. For example, we wanted to pursue a ceramic rice cooker at medium scale production, however I don’t think they understood our vision. If we can expand our use of materials at an industrial scale, I think the possibilities are enormous.
On hunting for innovation in Kyoto.
I With the emergence of ‘local specialty products’, I think there is a global shift away from products that can be found everywhere. For example with Kyoto, I think its the ‘Japanese-ness’ thats essential in drawing in international tourists. As a town that attracts some of the very best talent, do you often visit Kyoto?
KS As a matter of fact... I'm thinking of setting up a new studio in Kyoto, while keeping the current one in Tokyo. Of course there are things that can only be done here in Tokyo, and Tokyo is a great city. However, it’s difficult to move entirely as it affects not only myself but my team as well. I think it’s about time I move on from my ‘young designer’ image and we don’t want to be known to design the same thing over and over again. We want to be able to further pursue our curiosity and keep reminding ourselves to continue learning.
I I can easily picture you enjoying Kyoto every day! With so many Japanese designers going abroad, I think its rare to move to the heart of Japan.
KS I’m interested in things that offer new experiences, regardless of their age. While my grandfather had a lot of prior influence on me, I feel incredibly drawn to antiques as they often offer new experiences. This is why I end up spending a lot of time visiting museums overseas and travelling to see craftsmen in remote villages only few know about in Asia. I can also recall my mentor, who owns the largest collection of Hokusai’s sketches, introducing me to his ancient Chinese pottery collection, which is over 1000 years old. While they were only about 10cm in diameter, I remember they were incredibly valuable.
I So it seems your passion for antiques isn’t just about it’s age; it can’t be found in a rusty teaspoon sold in a flea market. What you’re more interested in are the values embedded in the objects that have been appreciated and thus preserved to this day. Objects that were intentionally preserved for their inherent value.
KS Indeed, I always feel greatly inspired by them. On the other hand, I also love rural craftwork with its rustic feel to them (laughter).
I I know your “product geek” tendencies very well. (laughter) Your office is filled with objects all the way from Japanese Yayoi Era (300BC- 300AD) pottery to modern industrial design. Even if the intention of the object was as a gift for a king or for an ill family member, you can feel that they were carefully made and carefully used.
KS Indeed, I think this feeling goes back to our conversation about the use of right materials. Objects that have been preserved have great balance between the design direction and the materials they are made from. Historically, the relationship between maker and user has been much closer – materials used were also sourced locally. Illustrated by the fact that these objects were not traded based on currency, they seem to show an economy that’s much more intimate and not like today that’s on a much larger scale.
I It seems like you can also acquire new experiences from this kind of insight as well. Why did you think going to Kyoto was necessary for your practice?
KS I think it’s an inevitable part of the journey if I really want to make something new. Whether it’s a lost skillset or a passion for culture, I think Kyoto has kept something important that we had forgotten behind. Tokyo on the other hand, is a very fast moving city. As its being constantly rebuilt, it’s a chaotic mix of architecture that’s always looking to dominate over each other. It’s hard to say that they are rooted properly in the city – but I think it’s also what creates Tokyo’s unique character.
I Kyoto also has a long history of upheavals and thus has it’s own cycle of change and evolution. However, like most European cities, we can observe the history of the city in its landscape, which is a huge plus. From temples and shrines to traditional Japanese confectionary, our history is embedded and visible in our environment. As objects serve to remind us of our roots, they have a clear idea of what to preserve and what to leave behind.
KS That’s true, I think Kyoto has a great balance between conservation and development. What surprises me every time is its bold and delicate character. For example, the temples are designed to have a very bold impression – yet also feature richly detailed ornamentation for their guttering. The seasons also provide another layer of character and there also lies its culture at the base of the design. I’m happy to know my thinking has matured for this city and I can’t wait to study it in-depth.
I If you open a new office in Kyoto, would you consider collaborating with businesses from the Kansai region?
KS Of course! The Kansai area is rich in its local culture and we would love to work with different kinds of local businesses. It would be fascinating to find out what kind of products would emerge from such collaborations. Obviously, we wouldn’t limit our practice to just Kansai. Japan is a very diverse country and includes many different kinds of cultures and attitudes, all the way from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Osaka has it’s own culture and so does Kyoto. Every city has something new for us and we would love to go visit all of them.
On revisiting the essence of Japanese design
KS Recently we’ve felt the need to pursue and uncover the true essence of Japanese design. To define Japanese aesthetics that people have continued to cultivate for so long. Modern Japanese design has become mostly about cute characters and Manga, but I think it’s not truly representative. There are many distinctive aesthetic qualities in Japan such as "Kuzushi (breaking down/)" and "Mitate (replacement)”. I feel such expressions have fallen out in modern Japanese industrial design. I feel that it’s important to study them again in order to bring them back to Japanese culture.
I That’s true, attributes like "Kawaii (cute)" and "pop”, or "Minimum" has become all too common in modern Japanese culture. There is nothing wrong with them, but it feels like they don’t express the sense of tension and boldness typified by traditional Japanese art and design. The word "Iki (stylish/ cool)" has almost died out as well. Previously, Japanese design was much more avant-garde, fearless and cutting-edge. Its also not just defined by ‘Wabi Sabi’; what happened to influences introduced by great Japanese artists like Hokusai, Hiroshige and Rosan-jin? Previously you mentioned that you want to reintroduce these expressions back into Japanese culture – how do you intend to do so?
KS We’re actually thinking of creating a book about it. Perhaps something that’s a bit different from Japanese textbooks on design, but more similarly to books that foreign students might learn Japanese culture from. We would also like to introduce quintessential Japanese materials that are important to Japanese design that we previously discussed about. Italy, France, the UK and Scandinavian countries all in particular have a strong aesthetic awareness of their culture and is permeated in areas such as furniture design and fashion. This aesthetic awareness has become part of their ‘culture’. On the other hand, I think Japan still has a long way towards achieving this kind of awareness. While I think it’s also very Japanese to ‘somehow’ carve out a lifestyle, I still want to be able to loosely define what Japanese culture is and express it in a format that everyone can appreciate. Furthermore, it’s a topic I’m very much passionate about - I think this is an important opportunity that can help us reflect and rethink about our culture.
I Does this project also reflect a more personal ambition since you are nearing 36 very soon?
KS I guess it is. It has been 7 years now since setting up our studio, and we’re very grateful for being able to work on so many different kinds of projects. It still feels very challenging and we try to push ourselves forward everyday. While we enjoy our current day-to-day activities, it feels like we’ve reached a limit on the research we can conduct here in Tokyo. Therefore, we’re very excited for this new opportunity to reshape our influences.
I As a designer that can work on so many different kinds of projects, it doesn’t appear like you worry too much – but I guess it’s never easy to create something new.
KS Indeed, we worry a lot about our projects all the time – to the extent my back starts aching (laughter). It would be ideal if we can come up with a solution we’re satisfied with just in time, but sometimes we stumble upon a much better solution 3 hours before our client presentation…. This was exactly the case for our August exhibit at the Yanagi Sori Design Memorial this year. We profusely apologized to the event staff, but had to insist upon this new direction.
I Although you’re apologizing, it doesn’t seem like you regret it (laughter) It seems to me the event staff were also very professional and wanted to create something amazing.
KS Indeed, they also showed a lot of interest for our potential new studio in Kyoto. It felt very encouraging! People we have a lot of respect for also recommended our move to Kyoto. We really want to be able to experience this landscape that embodies beauty within our day-to-day activities. For example, it’s hard to fully appreciate statues of Buddha when they are relocated from their temples to museums in Tokyo. I think one can only truly understand their value when observed within the temple’s austere environment. In other words, we need to be able to pay more attention to an object’s context.
On ‘Why’ and ‘For whom’ we create.
I Listening to your thoughts, it struck me that perhaps your definition of ‘beauty’ also included meanings of ‘comfort’. Not something intellectual, but perhaps something that can be felt more intuitively. It makes me wonder how many products are out there that can feel truly desirable as part of our everyday lives?
KS That’s right. Beauty can be very subjective, but I think the reassuring feeling of ‘comfort’ can be felt universally. A feeling that’s not just limited to Japan, but shared globally.
I I remember you said that you also want to work with foreign companies in Asia.
KS We would like to work with people regardless of their location and I think working around Asia would be a lot of fun! As a judge for the Good Design Award, I’ve seen a lot of fantastic submissions from Asia. Chinese projects especially have been gaining ground on Apple’s design capabilities and I feel both impressed and reassured by their quality of work. Not to mention, they are also very cost-effective. Its a number’s game and it’s hard for Japanese businesses to compete; it doesn’t make sense anymore to aim for the largest market share. We’re also approaching our technological limits so it’s crucial for us now to become more aware of our cultural identity. We need to make history rather than be defined by it.
I Do you mean, for better or for worse, we won’t be able to compete with a low-margin, high sales business strategy?
KS Indeed, I think we need to change how we think about retail. The 20th century was defined by mass production and thus low-margin, high-sales businesses were the norm. However today, its focus has shifted away towards China and other Asian countries. Based on this reality, I think Japanese companies should have changed their strategy by now. In a way, I think they need to have more confidence in their target market. For example, when aiming for 100 million yen in sales per product, until now it was normal to consider shipping 10 million units each priced at 1000yen. However the same sales target can be achieved by shipping a thousand units priced at 10,000yen or a hundred units at 100,000yen. Moreover, the iPhone costs more than 100,000yen per unit but has been able to sell globally at a very high volume.
I That’s true, there is already a firmly established high-end market for quality products.
KS Hermes, Baccarat and Fritz Hansen, for example, have all been making high quality products and as a result they have a market with customers that are happy to pay for their efforts. Japanese companies are also producing fantastic products, so they shouldn’t be afraid to enter this market. What’s more, if they fail to do so, I think they will be overwhelmed by other emerging economies.
I That’s right, for example after the Tohoku earthquake, businesses that survived in the fashion industry were either high-end luxury fashion houses or low-end high-street brands. It seemed to strongly imply what our future can look like, and for that reason I still remember it to this day.
KS … I really I want to design something now. (laughter) I obtained my knowledge in sales from working on the brand ‘THE’; and I’ve been learning more ever since. In practice, I often set the pricing standards for products that I am directly consulting on. In the market, I’ve discovered that there is a price range, as if by magic, that can miraculously increase the product’s demand. I think planning such pricing strategies is one of my strengths.
I Do you have any other thoughts for markets in Asia outside Japan?
KS Yes, I find that there is real passion in markets around Asia. When I was a judge at the last ‘Good Design Award’ pitch, I was almost moved to tears by some of the projects coming from businesses in Taiwan and Indonesia. They know exactly ‘why they do what they do’. For example, the electric scooter developed in Taiwan was in response to a problem concerning air pollution and how that affects the quality of life for local children. They are able to reach our hearts and minds precisely because they have been developing projects with a problem in mind. While projects that are based upon marketing to generate company growth are also very sophisticated, I think these problem-based projects have something very different about them.
I I guess the term “for Society” seem a bit over the top but at its core, there seems to be an awareness of the people they are designing for. Come to think of it, it really shouldn’t be so difficult to grasp.
KS With the case of Taiwan’s electric scooter, the design of the scooter itself is amazing but the supporting infrastructure is also fantastic. Charging spots for these scooters have been carefully dispersed around the city. It’s also very stylish. It’s hard to improve projects that have been designed poorly at the start, but once we can establish a high standard we can see many organizations emerge out of it.
I I think it will also have an effect on people’s mindsets. With such an attractive city, it might naturally deter littering.
KS That’s right, an attractive charging spot may also encourage stylish rubbish bins. Cities are defined by a gathering of many small things, so everybody provides something beautiful; I think that would make a great city.
I I guess such affection for the city cannot be created from a top-down approach. For example in town squares or your local bars, living standards are raised bit by bit through natural occurrences. I think this is what foreign tourists also find attractive.
KS Pursuing the local essence is what brings us closer to a global presence. It’s the same in Kyoto too, and I think it can also be seen in the Indonesian projects where they used local materials. By utilizing our strengths, we are able to naturally generate global interest.
I So it can creates an incredibly unique presence; by providing something that is only available locally, it persuades global attention. If Denmark started out by trying to design furniture that is globally attractive, they wouldn’t be so popular today.
On further expanding the horizon.
I You seem to want to talk more, but the end is coming soon… Since this interview was so long, I’m not sure if people are still reading.
KS But if you try to express your thoughts properly, I feel 140 letters in a twitter post cannot be enough. I feel responsible for my thinking, therefore it was important for me to create a platform to express it properly.
I That’s right, Twitter can only merely be a ‘tweet’. As somebody that has listened to your thoughts for so long, I feel like you always have the mindset for "improvement". And I believe this mindset is the key for you to become more interesting. How do you think you have changed recently?
KS While my basic mindset towards design has not changed; I think I’m constantly changing. For example, I like to see my designs evolve through trial and error. Recently, I feel like I'm able to draw richer and softer lines than I used to. Perhaps it’s only myself that feel so. (Laughter). While I might just be satisfying myself, it feels great to be so happy. (Laughter) And since I was a student, I've always wanted to create a "society filled with beautiful things". But, in addition to that, I recently started thinking, "In a society filled with beautiful design, how do people live?" I feel like now I’m able to consider people who have experienced what I’ve designed.
I So its not about making ‘somebody happy’, but rather it’s a perspective like you mentioned, ‘For whom and for what purpose?’
KS Too many products surround our modern-day life already, at least in developed countries. As a designer living in this era, I think that "creating beautiful things" is a standard requirement. My ultimate goal is to create timeless design. Also, I have been working on some ideas and suggestions for social issues such as for the environment and for mental health. I think I would also like to continue to work on the projects in Bhutan too.
I You also mentioned working on the synergy between materials and design direction, as well as pursuing a new base in Kyoto. The list of companies you would like to collaborate with keeps getting longer too… Is there anything else I’m missing? (Laughter)
KS This time we spoke mainly about the use of traditional materials, but there are also new emerging materials. A world beyond our imagination is taking shape. Isn’t it enjoyable to be able to see a world that you’ve never seen before, whether it’s something from thousands of years ago or from our future?
I I guess there is no doubt that your passion and thinking will continue to challenge you. (Laughter) But it seems like a lot of fun!
KS I don’t think I can stop until I start carving a Buddha statue or something... But I’m most excited about where I’m heading and I’m happy to be able to prepare for it!
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