Industrial designer Nao Tamura is concerned not only with aesthetics, but with responsibility.
Nao Tamura’s New York loft contains little to distract her from her work. The furnishings are minimalistic and the high white walls bare, but who needs flowers and pictures when you’ve got a roof terrace with a view of the East River?
The Japanese-born designer has been living in New York for several years and moved just a few months ago from Brooklyn to an attic apartment in Midtown, which also serves her as a studio. This is where Tamura, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design, designs measuring jugs for a popular kitchenware manufacturer, elaborate light installations for a famous glass manufacturer, perfume bottles for a Japanese fashion house, and handwoven rugs for a well-known Spanish brand. Tamura has never confined herself to one medium or design form, and her clients range from tech giants to long-established Italian design companies.
Ms Tamura, you design a vast range of objects. Do you ever worry about your work’s impact on consumption and the environment?
All designers should be responsible for thinking about how their work impacts the environment, and I think most of them do that. But we are living in a fast-paced world. If, like me, you work for large companies, they give you a commission and a deadline and expect you to deliver your design within a tight time frame. You create a digital design first, and only sometimes get to develop a model. This unfortunately leaves you with little time to think about sustainability.
How do you deal with that?
Working in a consistently sustainable manner is a formidable challenge. You should scrutinise yourself, the world, and your client, especially if you are a creative. I occasionally design mass-produced electronic devices such as smartphones and cameras. After a while, I’ll say to myself, “Stop, what are you doing?” And then I’ll seek out a project that reminds both me and the public how important it is to slow down now and then. When I’m designing something, I think less about shapes and colours and more about the stories and messages I want to share. That’s why nature inspires me so much: it reminds me of my responsibility.
You were born and raised in Tokyo. Is your love for nature connected at all to your background?
It certainly is. Japan is a small island constantly overwhelmed by nature’s energy. Earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tsunamis – the Japanese people experience these catastrophes at their doorstep, which is why they are so attuned to nature. In Japan, people eat seasonally. I could tell by the dishes my mother prepared whether it was autumn or spring.
Nature is still a major inspiration for designers, despite technological advancement. Why is that?
Everyone is connected to nature. Everyone knows what a tree is, everyone has to live with the weather. I think nature is the perfect ambassador for my work. In 2010, I designed a line called “Seasons” for an Italian tableware manufacturer. The line contains leaf-shaped plates made of recyclable silicone. Seasons reminds people that, like the seasons themselves, everything is part of a cycle. Unfortunately, people today no longer value what is old.
Seasons is a good example of how you merge technology and nature.
I try to strike a balance between the kind of work I take on. Sometimes I design electronic devices for large companies. This work is important because it provides me with a regular income. It also involves designing products that people need, and as a designer, you want your designs to be used. Other times, though, I like to design beautiful, precious objects that give me visibility.
Are technological advances changing the possibilities of design?
Yes, in lighting design. Some developments in LED technology have opened up new possibilities to designers. We are now working with tiny lights instead of large bulbs, which affords us the freedom to be far more creative and experimental than before.
Do such developments make you want to work more on low-tech jobs and crafts?
They definitely do. Especially because certain handcrafted products such as furniture last longer, and I want to design things that last. I love working with glass. It’s a stubborn material; in fact, you could almost see it as a living organism, and in that sense it’s the opposite of plastic. If you force glass into a certain shape, it dies, but if you give it room, it will reward you with the most beautiful light. In industrial design, you enjoy the luxury of being able to plan out almost every detail in advance. When I’m designing a glass object, however, the finished result is in many ways completely beyond my control. To date, I’ve had all my glass designs produced in Murano, near Venice, where they have been maintaining the tradition of glass-blowing for centuries. I will certainly continue to explore this kind of collaboration with local craftsmen and -women.