Creative minds behind Leif-designpark: Keizaburo Honda, Takashi Ueno, Mizuho Naito und Mamoru Naito.
Photo © Leif.designpark
Upholstery collection “Hug“ and tables “Lily“ (De La Espada) reminding plant roots. Photo © Leif.designpark
Recyling, revisited: Fallen birches deliver the material for “Camome“ (Daniel). The baskets remind milk drops.
Photo © Leif.designpark
Sense for nature: The veneered plywood of “Flower Cup Chair“ (De La Espada) opens up like a calyx. Suitable companion: table “Lily“ (De La Espada). Photo © Leif.designpark
Form follows function: bench “Lin“ (De La Espada) is available is or without flower pot. Photo © Leif.designpark
Wooden patchwork: „Tone“ (De La Espada) reminds traditonal Japanese parquet floor. Photo © Leif.designpark
Never more light blue or pink: kids chair “Kids Tone“. Photo © Leif.designpark
East-west-connection: “Tou“ (De La Espada) with typical Japanese Rattan. Photo © Leif.designpark
Leif in the park
May 9, 2014

Uta Abendroth: What is the meaning of your name, Leif.designpark?

Mamoru Naito: Leif’s overarching concept is that of a virtual drawing board or table in the form of a park. As we see it, this park is bounded by a low hedge, meaning it can be easily accessed from all sides. Our incentive is to keep joining forces with constantly new partners to expand Leif.designpark. Giving us the opportunity to work together with people from very different walks of life or disciplines on various projects. The word “Leif” is a blend of “life” and “leaf”, which are two fundamental concepts for us, namely creating life and respecting nature.

How did you come up with this idea of setting up a creative team?

Takashi Ueno: We three went to the same university: Musashino Art University in Kodaira in Tokyo. We took the same classes and soon began considering the idea of doing something together at some point or other. After graduation back in 2001 we went our own ways, to start with that is. In 2006 we got back together and began collaborating. We attach utmost importance in our team to the individual ideas of each member and their special personal skills.

Is it difficult to make a name for yourself as furniture designers in Japan?

Keizaburo Honda: It is not that easy to establish yourself as a furniture designer in Japan. But there is no rush. We are happy to take our time and to gradually introduce our work to a growing audience.

When embarking on your career, what was your focus: your own home market? Or was it clear from the outset that you would look further afield, seeking to reach an international audience?

Mamoru Naito: We never really set ourselves any boundaries. Either as regards where we wanted to be engaged, be it nationally or internationally, or for whom or with whom we wished to work. It was pure coincidence that our first exhibition in 2006 just happened to be in Milan.

Many of your designs are made of wood. Not only the way in which the material is finished, but also how it is shaped has a very natural look-and-feel, the “Flower Cup Chair” being a case in point. How did you come up with this look?

Mamoru Naito: We begin by exploring possibilities and weigh up the options: What can be made of wood? And in what shape? We often look to nature for inspiration. The approach involves developing a whole host of different models and prototypes. And the characteristic appearance of our items is the result of this process.

In Japan tradition and craftsmanship are paramount. How does this impact on you?

Keizaburo Honda: For us Japanese tradition and craftsmanship are elementary and we hold them in high regard. We are good at adopting things from the past and translating them into a contemporary vein. Japanese artists and craftsmen have always specialized in specific fields, in which they treasured certain techniques that they would then pass on from generation to generation. And along with these techniques they passed on the stories behind them, the traditions and the skills. So yes, these things have a tremendous influence on us. It’s the setting in which we develop our concepts, create and design products for what people need in our time.

The comfy chair and sofa in the “Hug” series are a surprising step away from the chairs, benches and tables you have made in the past. These lounge pieces are somewhat large and voluminous. Have they been made for Western customers especially?

Mamoru Naito: The idea was to conceive “Hug” – the sofa as well as the comfy chair – both for private homes and for public spaces. We tried to keep the design as compact as possible as we wanted “Hug” to be an appropriate size for Japanese homes with their reduced footprint, while nonetheless taking center stage with its sweeping silhouette. Of course you find all kinds of individual, hugely diverse lifestyles in Japan. And the rather voluminous sofa style with a very low center of gravity has been popular here for quite some time.

Since 2008 De La Espada has produced many of your furniture designs. How did this contact come about and can you describe how such a collaboration between Japan and Portugal works in practical terms?

Takashi Ueno: We met Luis de Oliveira, the founder and owner of De La Espada, for the first time in 2007, at the Salone Satellite in Milan. And we have worked closely together ever since. We tend to communicate a lot via email, sending drawings and renderings back and forth, and we speak on Skype. And of course we have paid a few visits to the factory, which is some 100 kilometers south of Porto.

The furniture tradition in Japan is still very young, and yet international design heavyweights such as Jasper Morrison and Benjamin Graindorge look to Japan for inspiration. What is the secret?

Mamoru Naito: There is no secret, if you ask me. There is a lot of variation in how people from other countries perceive Japan and the degree to which they let themselves be inspired by Japan. But I do think that many designers embrace Japan with open eyes, very aware of what is going on – possibly taking a very different stance compared to the Japanese themselves. And the same applies to us: When we are travelling to other countries, getting to know foreign cultures, we see many things from a very different viewpoint, take a closer look and let ourselves be inspired by the exotic.

Oki Sato from Nendo and Naoto Fukasawa are among the designers most coveted in the West, while Tadao Ando and Shigeru Ban are the most highly esteemed architects. Are these “global players” role models for you?

Takashi Ueno: If you are from Japan and want to become a “global player” you need to be exceptionally talented and to be really, really good. Of course we respect those designers and architects. The chance to work internationally is very attractive and a very worthwhile aspiration. And yet we firmly believe that there is a way for each of us to develop our own potential. So the answer is no, we don’t really have any role models as such.

How important are European trade exhibitions for you?

Mamoru Naito: Compared to those in Japan, European design fairs are extremely important for us because they pull a large audience of very enthusiastic people who take a real interest in the product and its design. Independent of the fact whether it was made by a famous designer or some young, budding talent.

Are there any projects that have left the realm of furniture design?

Keizaburo Honda: We have done various interior design projects, including restaurants, cafés, bars, hair salons, private homes. And some public art and graphic design. Nevertheless, there is always a design element in what we do.

And what can we expect to see from you in 2014?

Mamoru Naito: Last year we developed several designs for the “Camome” collection, which is produced by Daniel in Yokohama. We were also involved with the art direction alongside the furniture. We will be adding several more pieces to the collection this year. Plus we have launched a hybrid design, a crossover between a luminaire and a speaker. And for late October we are busy organizing and promoting an event called “Design Atrium Tokyo”, which will run during “Tokyo Designers Week”, which we are hosting for the third time this year.

MORE on Stylepark:

Monomade in Tokyo: In Tokyo “urban manufacturing” is not just a slogan, but lived practice day in day out. In Taitō, one of the oldest districts, furniture are being made in tiny workshops.
(25 December 2013)