Design Visions From The East And West
A bustling metropolis steeped in some 400 years of history, Tokyo remains an irresistible enigma to many outside of Japan. Once the ancient Edo city that flourished from the Tokugawa reign in 1603 to the end of the Meiji Restoration in 1912, the capital is now infused with a sense of pride in its development of traditional crafts on one hand, and the cultural integration of Western influences on the other. Temple, shrine, and traditional garden architecture strengthen the roots of the city’s historic past, while cosplay street fashion, pop graffiti, and digital and robotic technology push the society toward a new era.
Throughout the 20th century, repeated hardships, both natural and human-caused—the colossal earthquake of 1923, the atrocities of World War II, and the Tohoku tsunami of 2011—have reminded the Japanese people of the fragility and transience of life. For some, the patience and perseverance learned from such events has yielded high-quality and refined craftsmanship that fed an already robust and refined design industry.
The Japanese proverb “nana korobi ya oki” (which means “fall seven times, get up eight”) is embodied by a culture that tends to think and act collectively, working together to rise after every fall. Yet a new generation has emerged—one with more globally connected and individualistic minds that are developing unique and unconventional styles in product design, graphic art, fashion, and interiors. Design-forward events including Designart Tokyo, Design Festa, Interior Lifestyle Tokyo, Tokyo International Art Fair, and Fashion Week Tokyo are flourishing, showcasing the creativity and innovation of established and emerging talents.
Tokyo’s infrastructure is ever-changing, with developers and architects constantly adding to the rapidly evolving skyline and inserting green spaces and technological advances (for example, Kengo Kuma’s Daikanyamacho Project and the Tokyo Torch Tower by Mitsubishi Jisho Sekkei) that cater to the shifting needs of residents and visitors. The contrasting threads of cultures and ideas—East and West, traditional and modern, homogeneity and individuality, noisy pachinko parlors and silent rock gardens—add to the vibrancy of the Japanese zeitgeist, weaving together to form one of the most exciting modern cities to watch.
Although Tokyo’s rich history is integral to what the city has become, we’re looking to a handful of contemporary designers and architects—as well as some hotels, shops, and restaurants to visit—who are shaping the creative soul of Tokyo today, from one of the world’s most renowned architects to an interdisciplinary art collective that works in a digital format.
© ANREALAGE/Masaya Tanaka
In fashion’s futuristic scene, Anrealage (a combination of the words “real,” “unreal,” and “age”), launched in 2003, has emerged with a revolutionary approach to apparel ideology, crossing boundaries between real and unreal, and analog and digital platforms. Envisioned by acclaimed designer Kunihiko Morinaga, the brand embodies its mantra, “God is in the details,” with innovative, technology-infused runway shows that create an explosive fantasy of intertwined shapes, silhouettes, geometric patterns, and tantalizing colors. For the Spring/Summer 2021 Home collection, garments were shaped into brightly colored polyhedra meant to function as wearable, tent-like houses. The Spring/Summer 2022 collection, Dimension, was presented in a virtual space with CG avatar models walking on a glass runway and floating in the air. The Autumn/Winter 2022–2023 apparel line Planet took viewers to the moon, its optical-white and puffy garments, some literally filled with air, reminiscent of classic space suits. The collection, like all of Morinaga’s work, pushes sartorial boundaries, tapping into a zeitgeist created by the limitless minds of a new generation that are virtually connected to significant changes within our borderless world.
© ANREALAGE/Masaya Tanaka
The Japanese apparel market is considered one of the largest in the world, and consistently makes waves at international runways in Paris, Milan, and New York. Designer Tsumori Chisato has been a household name in contemporary fashion since her early work with Issey Miyake in the 1970s. She debuted her own line in 1990 and started showing her collections in Paris in the early 2000s. Her eye-catching prints are either created in pencil and hand-painted watercolors, or rendered digitally, then made into fabric for pants, dresses, tops, and other women’s garments. The designs draw inspiration from Japanese culture, contemporary art, fantasy, and cats, as well as other animals. Tsumori’s collections are widely recognized for their nods to manga and bohemian “cuteness.” In 2017, the New York City Ballet asked her to design costumes for its 2017 Fall Fashion Gala (dancers wore the surrealist results for choreographer Justin Peck’s Pulcinella Variations). The designer’s whimsical streak continues with her Autumn/Winter 2022–2023 collection, Tsumori’s Kingdom, which depicts a medieval world steeped in fantasy, borrowing motifs from the Louvre Museum, Eiffel Tower, and the fairytale Puss in Boots.
1. HARDCORE, created by magma, photo by Tomooki Kengaku. 2. Framed Function, created by Daisuke Motogi, photo by Tomooki Kengaku. 3. Float, created by YOSHIROTTEN, photo by Tomooki Kengaku. 4. daytime_s daydream, created by EVERYDAY HOLIDAY SQUAD, photo by Kengaku.
1. A Room with a Column, created by Haruna Kawai, photo by Tomooki Kengaku. 2. An Urban Nest, created by Kanto Iwamura, photo by Tomooki Kengaku. 3. DAM room, created by Mariko Mukumoto, photo by Takeshi Sasaki.
1. HYO-BO, created by Yuji Kamiyama, photo by Tomooki Kengaku. 2. NEWTOPIA_TOKYO, created by Ocho & Nigamushi Tsuyoshi, photo by Tomooki Kengaku. 3. PLAY WALL ROOM, created by BIEN, photo by Tomooki Kengaku.
1. SUSHI WARS, created by Mako Watanabe, photo by Tomooki Kengaku. 2. The Room With A Pink Carpet, created by Colliu, photo by Tomooki Kengaku. 3. The World After Five Minutes, created by Youta Matsuoka (JONJON GREEN), photo by Tomooki Kengaku.
BnA_WALL—the fourth hotel by Tokyo’s BnA creative collective—is a lodging like no other. Situated in the city’s historic Nihonbashi district, the property is akin to an art gallery, comprising an artist’s studio, café, bar and lounge, and 26 guest rooms designed by 14 outstanding Tokyo-based artists or art collaboratives. Here, each guest becomes a patron, as a percentage of every booking is given to the artist(s) behind the selected room. From the HARDCORE GAME ROOM, by creative duo Magma (Jun Sugiyama and Kenichi Miyazawa), which brims with toys and games designed by the artists, to the in-your-face, colorful SUSHI WARS room, by Mako Watanabe, each accommodation is a fantastical escape from everyday life. The futuristic lobby features an impressive 20-foot-tall art mural that is reimagined by a new set of creatives every two months. It serves as a symbol of BnA’s passion for change, and of the collective’s mission to support a younger generation of contemporary Japanese artists.
VEGAN RAMEN UZU TOKYO
Last autumn, teamLab Planets Tokyo, a dynamic contemporary art museum that utilizes digital technology to create immersive worlds, welcomed the novel dining experience Vegan Ramen UZU Tokyo (a Kyoto location opened in 2020). Featuring art by the interdisciplinary art group teamLab, the restaurant blends gastronomy and digital art in two immersive spaces, Reversible Rotation—Non-Objective Space and Table of Sky and Fire. The former uses Spatial Calligraphy, a process created by teamLab that reconstructs calligraphy in a three-dimensional space. Diners are surrounded by moving images—projected onto mirrored ceilings, floors, and walls—that capture the depth, speed, and power of an artist’s brushstrokes in a way that removes the boundary between the diners and the artwork. In the outdoor Table of Sky and Fire space, a mirrored table reflects the sky and the nearby artwork, Universe of Fire Particles Falling from the Sky. The Tokyo eatery’s menu includes Flower Vegan Ramen, Green Tea Vegan Ramen, and Miso Vegan Ramen, among other varieties, plus a sumptuous selection of vegan ice cream flavors, from mint cucumber to caramel coconut.
Considered one of the most important Japanese architects practicing today, Kengo Kuma, founder of Kengo Kuma and Associates, has spent the past three decades reshaping cities with structures that embrace traditional design elements and integrate harmoniously with the environment. Known for buildings such as the Japan National Stadium (designed for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics) and the Daiwa Ubiquitous Computing Research Building, Kuma has worked at residential and commercial scales, taking on projects that allow him to reinterpret the tradition of Japanese building through a 21st-century lens. He believes in the totality, and importance, of every detail—the softness and hardness of materials, as well as their smells, textures, and acoustic effects. The secret of his designs, which can be deceptively simplistic, has always been his reverence for materiality and dedication to craftsmanship. Take the Toho Gakuen School of Music’s Munetsugu Hall, completed in March 2021, for which Kuma used CLT hybrid (cedar and cypress) panels to form a folded framework that functions as both the interior architecture and the acoustic reflectors for the concert hall. The wooden louvers on the building’s façade are reminiscent of instrument strings, laid out in a pattern that brings visual rhythm to the hall. Another recent project, the Hisao & Hiroko Taki Plaza at the Tokyo Institute of Technology—designed as a lush, mound-like form that seamlessly integrates with the surrounding landscape—stands out boldly with its roof design composed of stepped plantings and bleachers. The structure resonates with the green slanted wall of the adjacent library, creating a unified green valley that enhances the life and activities of the students.
In 2002, Yuko Nagayama established her architectural studio, which debuted with the interior design of Afloat-f, a two-story salon in Tokyo’s Omotesando neighborhood. The space features rows of large aluminum satellite dishes that reflect ambient light into the minimal yet warm salon. Nagayama emphasizes the coexistence of nature with people and living spaces. Her tendency to adopt neutral, rather than primary, colors comes from her embrace of ambiguity, a unique characteristic of Japanese design that yields dynamic spaces. For example, a wall may be painted to appear grayer when shrouded in shadow and bluer when lit by the sun; or, a structure’s curve may distort its height. One of Nagayama’s most significant projects was Expo 2020 Dubai’s Japan Pavilion, a structure inspired by the theme of “connecting.” For its three-dimensional, latticed exterior, the architect integrated traditional Japanese shapes and patterns—hemp leaves, forms seen in origami—with arabesque motifs to aesthetically connect the spirits of the Middle East and Japan. For the renovation of the common area at the Tamagawa Takashimaya S.C. Grand Patio shopping center, completed in spring of 2020, Nagayama envisioned a large atrium as an intimate space that can serve as an indoor park or library, providing visitors with opportunities to browse books and view art. More than 600 light bulbs are suspended from the ceiling like a necklace and woven together to create a cloud-like assemblage that blurs the lines between art and design.
Daisuke Kitagawa established his company, Design For Industry, in 2015 based on the principle of sharing creative enrichment through his work. With an output that includes furniture, traditional crafts, home appliances, robotics, city branding, and more, Kitagawa embraces a design philosophy rooted in “comfortable innovation,” or creating solutions for everyday life. The award-winning designer is part of Tokyo’s vanguard of young creatives, and his works tap into historical craft traditions (he partnered with wood manufacturer Sasaki Kogei on pirkamonrayke, a series of clocks and trays) and evolving technologies. One of Design For Industry,’s products is Frame, a smart-mirror with high-resolution, real-time video capability. The device can create a time lag in a reflection by taking still images, making it possible for a user to easily view the back of the head, which can’t be seen in an ordinary mirror.
Designed by Kenta Nagai, ASKWATCH—the luxury watch store located in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district—fuses traditional and modern concepts in an innovative retail design. Inside and out, the compact, two-level shop exudes a sense of brutalist elegance. The concrete skeleton of the 1970s apartment building was upgraded with kintsugi, the traditional Japanese technique of filling cracks with powdered gold. Beyond the narrow, street-facing façade is a deep, long entrance. This vestibule, finished in blackened steel, is inspired by traditional antechambers (hazama) found in Shinto shrines. A bed of gravel between the hazama and the retail space expresses the tranquility and rustic beauty closely associated with Japanese gardens. Inside the shop, stainless-steel storage cabinets resemble bank vaults, and rough concrete walls further the industrial aesthetic—an ironic backdrop for shelves of high-end timepieces.
This story originally appeared in GRAY magazine no. 63-64.