For a designer, it is important to think about the story you want to tell in a given space, says YUZAWA Sachiko, professor of Tama Art University and winner of the 8th TAKIFUJI Art Award (1987,now the International TAKIFUJI Art Award). From public buildings to functional and charming furniture, she has expanded her design horizons without restricting herself. (Interviewer : SATO Yuki, August 2019)
Designing Stories in Space
——When did you start teaching at Tama Art university?
I started teaching part-time in 2004 and became a teacher in 2015, so officially this is my fifth year. At last year’s graduation ceremony, I sent my students off by saying that we were classmates.
——Do the students remind you of yourself in the past?
Yes, I do. However, my major at university was fine arts and this school is mainly about architecture and design, so from a professional point of view, it may be different. But Michelangelo and da Vinci thought of art and architecture as one, so it’s not that different.
For example, the amazing thing about the Sistine Chapel is that each of the ceiling paintings acts like a keystone in the whole space, but also creates a dynamic composition for the whole building. I started to think that art is inevitably born in space, and I wanted to work with space. My interest shifted to not just look at the artworks, but also, I wanted to be inside of it, and that’s where I am now.
——When you applied for the TAKIFUJI Art Award, the reason for your application stated that you wanted your work to make use of space. So, space has been a theme of yours since you were a student?
Yes, it has. However, when people ask me if I am an interior designer as a profession, I feel uncomfortable. At this university, everyone is searching for what they want to do. In that sense, I feel that the students who don’t limit themselves to a particular field, but always searching for something, are very similar to me.
——So, you’re saying that design is a very broad field?
For example, the chair here is a structure that supports a human being, but a large public building is the same structure in my mind, the only difference is whether it is large or small in scale. On the shelf, there is a one-fifth scale model of the human body, which I use as a reference when making furniture. It’s fun to think about how it would look if I made it much bigger.
——There are a number of works that have curved ends.
It’s called “metamorphosis”, and as a symbol of transformation, it expresses things that change and have no shape, like water, air and flow. I have been making them since I was a student.
Awards that pushed me back
——Why did you apply for the TAKIFUJI Art Award.
I was struggling to find enough money for my artwork. I had to work a number of part-time jobs to pay for the materials, the exhibition space and the transport for the artwork. Some of the jobs were underground, in dark places, washing dead bodies. It was a time when many high-rise buildings were being built in Nishi-Shinjuku (One of the business centers of Tokyo), so I also cleaned windows of high-rise buildings. I was afraid of heights, but I was paid by the end of the day, so I put up with my fear and worked alongside the students in the mountain club.
——How did you feel when you won the award.
I was very happy. I immediately used the scholarship money to buy the art materials I needed for my next project. I was so relieved that I wouldn’t have to take a part-time job, and that I would have more time for creation. Nowadays, there are awards for students, but I don’t think there were any at the time. It was a pure award, and I was grateful that I was allowed to use the scholarship freely.
——Did it give you a lot of confidence.
I don’t think I thought about it that much, but when I realized that there were people who supported me, I felt a push.
——So, you got a job after graduation.
wanted to continue making art, but I got a job. My mother was also working, and from my childhood I thought it was normal to be financially independent. If you don’t have an income, you can’t live, and if you can’t live, you can’t produce. I don’t want to rely on anyone, and I can’t. It would be ideal if I could sell my artworks and eat, but when I’m making artwork, I don’t care whether it sells or not. On the contrary, I thought that I had to be financially strong in order to protect myself, because I was creating with a pure heart. The TAKIFUJI Art Award taught me that if I continue to work with integrity, there are organizations that will recognize me.
——As a student majoring in oil painting, it must have been difficult to find a job.
I had no information about job hunting, and I started late, after the summer holidays, but my sister, who is a junior college student, gave me some advice. It just so happened that there was a secondary recruitment around October, and I joined a company called Tanseisha, which does design, planning and construction. The company mainly builds cultural spaces like museums and commercial facilities. I was assigned to the design department, but I couldn’t draw at all, and I think I was a useless employee. We were all very busy and there was no way I could be taught from the very beginning, so I had to take action myself and went to the field as much as possible and learn as much as I could. I didn’t hesitate to ask stupid questions. I was desperate to learn the job.
——You didn’t assert yourself much, did you?
I knew that I shouldn’t assert myself until I reached a basic level. I knew that I would have to work extremely hard to convince the people around me of my ideas, and I had to study building regulations and I had to get my architect’s license. But in my personal life, I continued to work very hard on my own artwork.
Work that became epoch-making
——When did you feel that you were able to do what you wanted to do.
It was after I experienced the John Lennon Museum*¹ in 2000. This project came about as a result of a number of coincidences. About 10 years after I started working, Koichi Nasu, a contemporary artist who lives in Germany and whom I respect, offered me the use of his studio while he was temporarily back in Japan. I was fascinated by the chaos that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and wanted to visit. I was ready to quit my job, so I talked to my boss and he granted me a leave of absence. When I came back to Japan for a while, I went to the company to say hello and they asked me if I would be interested in working with Yoko Ono.
——Was it a job you couldn’t refuse?
Yes, it was very attractive. The client’s idea was to create a spiritual core that would attract artists from all over the world to come and visit the museum, which would only be open for 10 years in a corner of Saitama Super Arena. I thought about how to design the relationship between the exhibits and the people, the space and the time. In other words, a script for the creation of space. At the top of the stairs, on the ceiling, there is a very small letter “YES”. The idea came from an episode of the encounter between John Lennon and Yoko Ono. On the screen, words from Yoko’s poetry collection “Grapefruit Juice” appeared, such as “Listen to the sound of the earth turning”. Then it would disappear and other words would appear. I want people to not only look at the exhibition, but also to feel it with their senses such as hearing and touch. I hoped that by being there, visitors would be able to encounter many things. It was a big challenge, but I was very touched when Yoko said “Thank you” when she visited the museum, and it was an epoch-making job for me, winning the Display Design Encouragement Award in 2002.
*1 A limited time exhibition facility on the theme of John Lennon, set up in a corner of Saitama Super Arena. His guitar, clothes, glasses, and other items had also been displayed.
——The “Sakata Dream Club”*², which won the Display Industry Award in 2005, must have been an unforgettable project.
It was a big project that took three years to complete. The project was to revitalize a corner of the Sankyo Soko (warehouse) in Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture, which was built in the Meiji period and is still in use today, and turn it into a museum, shop and café while retaining its original appearance. The changing views through the wooden lattices invite the visitor’s gaze. It was more difficult to renovate the building using the same methods as in the past than to build a new one, but it was worthwhile. I also had the opportunity to work as a curator in a museum. We had a very limited budget for the exhibits, so we had to ask for help from the local people, and together with the person in charge we went door to door to the old families to ask for help. The result is a collection of valuable drawings and kimonos. We were also lent some wonderful sake vessels, as sake brewing was very popular in the area, and we felt the power of the people of Sakata, who overcome even the lord’s authority. It’s been a while since the building was completed, but I hope to visit one day to see how it looks now.
——Is there a set of rules that you follow when you work?
People tend to think that the role of a designer is to decide on the shape and color, but I think it’s important to think about the theme and feelings you want to put into the space before creating the shape. I want to discuss the unformed parts of the story, the narrative, and make sure that we both agree on what we want to create. I always think the place, the people who are there, the people who will come, the things that are already there etc., and these things should create a good relationship. I want to be open to the fact that things change over time. In that sense, this is also a metamorphosis.
*2 This is a tourist and product museum that was built by renovating a rice storage warehouse. In the museum, there are exhibits such as the Kame Kasaboko (festival car), which was made in the Edo period by the Honma family, a wealthy merchant in Sakata.
Handwork reminds us of what’s important
——I heard that you have built a mountain lodge in Karuizawa called “ASSOCA STYLE”.
It sounds like an Italian word, but it’s my habit of saying “A, soka (oh, I see in Japanese)”. It means a place where awareness is born. This is where I do my work
——You have a wood-burning stove, don’t you?
You can burn wood, but we thought that when you become old you won’t be able to split firewood, so we use pellets (fuel made from hardened fine wood shavings). The stove is like a huge air circulator, because it sucks in a lot of air and expels it through the chimney. It also sucks up all the smells from the room. We also have a solar ventilation system, so it’s not too hot in summer and not too cold in winter.
——The furniture is also very nice, isn’t it?
I made most of the furniture myself, including chairs and shelves. This step stool in the lab has string hinges, right? Most hinges are made of metal, but that’s not very interesting, so I thought it would be charming to use fabric, which is used for folding screens. I’m currently working on prototypes for various pieces of furniture, which I hope to sell commercially in the future.
——In your introduction to the university, you write that you want your students to become people who can use both their minds and hands to send out messages that affect people’s consciousness.
When you use your hands, thoughts arise that you are not consciously aware of. We notice things as we work with our hands, don’t we? When we are stuck, our hands help us. If your hands are slaves to what you think in your head, then you will only be able to produce cliché work. There are many things that you can’t see until you actually experience them.
——What kind of teacher are you, Ms. Yuzawa? Are you strict or kind?
I have a lot to learn from my students, and in many cases, they are my role models. When I think about my own school days, I am impressed by how well the students of today are doing.
——Is it your job to find the best in students?
Of course, but not only that, I am also very interested in how young people see the world. I try to tell them what I think, but I want to know more and more about how they think and feel. That’s one of the main reasons why I teach at the university.
Born in Tokyo in 1965. In 1987, during her senior year of Tokyo Zokei University, department of Fine Arts. she won the Excellence Prize at the 8th TAKIFUJI Art Award. After graduated from university, she joined Tanseisha in 1988 and as a corporate designer, she engaged in the design of numerous commercial, cultural, and medical welfare facilities. In 2015, she became an associate professor at Tama Art University, department of Architecture and Environmental Design, then professor in 2020. She won many awards as Japan Display Design Award of Grand Prize 2004, Japan Space Design Award 2013 Grand Prize, Good Design Award, Asia Design Award 2013 Bronze Prize etc. She presides a design association ASSOCCA STYLE.