World View: Letter from Japan
The World View series shines light on the creativity and resilience of designers around the world as they confront the challenges wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. Working with contributors around the world, we reach out to creative talents to ponder the power of design in difficult times and share messages of hope. In and around Tokyo, a city that has so far avoided the worst of the pandemic, design studios Rhizomatiks, Gen Suzuki, Akira Minagawa and Drill Design find that having to stay in comes with its own challenges, but unexpected upsides too, reports our Japan editor Jens H Jensen
With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics delayed for a year and a state of emergency declared (for parts of the country from 7 April, and nationwide from 16 April), Japan is finally starting to face the realities of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Although schools were closed in the beginning of March, and everyone has been wearing masks as a precaution since the virus emerged, there has been relatively little disruption to normal life until now.
Seiichi Saito, one of the founders of multidisciplinary creative agency Rhizomatiks, has seen a lot of his business put on hold: ‘We were doing a lot of work related to the Olympics, but now that it has been pushed back to 2021, we are trying to figure out if and how we will be able to postpone these projects.’ Saito is also one of the creative advisors for the Japan Pavilion for Expo 2020 in Dubai, opening in October, but is worried that this might also get postponed.
Despite having just moved into beautiful new digs, designed by Schemata Architects / Jo Nagasaka, the Rhizomatik team have been asked to work from home, and most meetings now take place online via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. They have also started a Friday evening public gathering on live streaming platform Twitch, called ‘Staying Tokyo’, which presents talks and DJ sessions as a way to keep everyone connected and entertained during the crisis. ‘We wanted to finding a way for you to participate in an event from home’, Saito explains. Those who tune in are encouraged to donate to the Covid-19 solidarity response fund for the WHO.
Product designer Gen Suzuki is also feeling the strain of having to work remotely with his team and clients. ‘We work with clients in Japan, China, Singapore, South Korea and the US, so we are used to online meetings, but now all our local and internal meetings are also done online,’ He also bemoans the loss of visible facial expressions. ‘ The other day I had a meeting with a Chinese client, and as everyone was wearing masks it was super difficult to read their reactions to our design!’ Suzuki explains, incidentally over email.
While he hasn’t yet developed anything new in direct relation to the pandemic, he has been working with an American client for some time on a wall-mounted monitor that can keep track of a person’s vitals – body temperature, heartbeat, breathing, etc. while that person is lying in bed beneath the monitor. ‘This was originally developed for use in nursing homes, but it might also be a good product for patients with infectious diseases such as Covid-19,’ Suzuki continues.
Textile designer Akira Minagawa, founder of the Minä Perhonen fashion label, has also been forced to stay in and work on his designs for the S/S 2021 collection. At this time of the year he would usually be travelling in Europe for Milan Design Week, lectures and meetings, rather than working alone in his studio in Tokyo (staff have been asked to work from home for the time being).
Minagawa has nonetheless found an upside to the current situation: ‘Some commissions have been cancelled due to the virus, so I have more time to focus and come up with new ideas.’
For husband-and-wife Yusuke Hayashi and Yoko Yasunishi, collectively known as Drill Design, the birth of their first child mid March has added to the disruption of their daily schedule. ‘Our studio is in the same house as our home, so we are struggling to balance work, house chores and the baby,’ Yasunishi explains over e-mail.
Staff have all been sent home and work remotely, but much of Drill’s work involves construction of models and prototyping, which just cannot be done from a distance. "It’s all a bit stressful with the baby crying, questions over the phone from our staff and Zoom meetings that won’t connect.’ She continues. But luckily they also seem to be enjoying the wonder of their new family member. ‘If I had more time and energy, I would record all the different expressions on our baby’s face. It’s simply amazing.’ §