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Interview with Tetsuo Shibata

Home > Designer Interviews > Tetsuo Shibata

Editor Frank Scott (FS) from DesignPRWire has interviewed designer Tetsuo Shibata (TS) for A’ Design Award and Competition. You can access the full profile of Tetsuo Shibata by clicking here.

Interview with Tetsuo Shibata at Sunday 10th of May 2020
Tetsuo Shibata
FS: Could you please tell us more about your art and design background? What made you become an artist/designer? Have you always wanted to be a designer?
TS: I have a broad based art and design background that started with fine arts education at UCLA since my original plan albeit still indecisive at the time was to be an independent artist traveling around the world exhibiting and promoting my art work. Some of my teachers were well known practicing artists who all taught me the importance of experimentation and pushing ideas through to the limit rather than simply acquiring techniques. It is not an overstatement after all these years that their teaching had tremendous influence on my artistic career regardless of the medium I am involved in. I only went into design field to supplement my fine arts study I was about to finish and soon realized that I could use design as a public expression of art instead of merely being an individual artist only interested in self expression. With fine arts education under my belt, I took series of design courses including graphic art, product design, textile, ceramics and industrial design taught by Nathan Shapira who studied under Gio Ponti and encouraged me to go into architecture. In architecture school, I studied with such progressive architects as Patricia Patkau, Julie Eizenberg, Carlos Jimenez, Ricardo Legorreta and Frank Israel. Through my career in public arena working on a variety of large scale building types, I always go back to those early days of studying fine arts and try to apply important lessons I learned back then to my design.

FS: Can you tell us more about your company / design studio?
TS: About 5 years ago, I left large architecture firm in Baltimore, Maryland to devote my time and effort on furniture design and small scale residential design. Currently, it is a large studio space that includes wood shop, laser cutting shop, milling machine room, drafting room and office space I share with two other highly skilled craftsmen. At the studio, there is a large inventory of unused materials for my personal use and for someone like myself who is interested in both design and fabrication, I consider this studio a laboratory space for creative inspiration that is rife with every materials and working tools one can imagine. Most of the projects I work on are furniture and product design that I build myself and I take full advantage of the shop’s fabrication and technical resources to concentrate on production of my pieces from concept to finished product.

FS: What is "design" for you?
TS: I always believed that people who are very observant, actively involved in community, listen to people well, up-to-date on current issues and are open to other people’s ideas and suggestions are also good creative people whether they are musicians, writers, artists, craftsmen, poets or designers. So I try to adhere to that dictum because design as opposed to art has a profound effects on society and people living in it it. Where art may be one man’s expression of society’s state of affairs in general but design is a reflection of state of mind of society’s collective mass. Design is volatile and tied very much to economy and accessibility and like fashion it tends to come and go. Good design, in my opinion, should be accessible and durable to those with average means and not just to those with power and influence and should transcend momentary trend of a particular period. Good design that withstands the test of time is also the one that didn’t insist on its superior design or viability but deferred to opposing points of view and ideas and accepted both opportunities and limitations posed by various forces in society. On a more personal perspective, design means finding that seemingly unattainable solution one feels strongly about. Maybe I find it inadequate about the current product design that does not serve my interest so I’m prompted to come up with something better. So from early on, I learned how to compromise by listening, accept criticism from others, work in stages, set realistic goal, do a home work by knowing the materials and their cost, research up-to-date hardware or technology that is available, estimate how long it would take to design and build and suggest alternate design solutions as points of reference. And if you do all of these things, there is a greater chance of success in coming up with a design solution that would make both parties happy.

FS: What kinds of works do you like designing most?
TS: As an actor or an artist would say, it is the work I am working on now that I am most interested. Needless to say, designing is a full time job and if I am lucky enough to be designing something that is meaningful to me personally, it seems as if my whole life revolves around this activity. I feel this way probably because I do enjoy designing things and would not be satisfied until I am happy with the results. From my experience, this process is sometimes endless and painful and I consider designing to be not just a pursuit of solution but also a discovery process in areas I had not ventured into before. Having said that, I do gravitate towards designing architectural and furniture projects that are modular. On a smaller scale, I built modular cabinet out of plywood that consists of 14 individual pieces in the shape of cubes and cuboids that can be stacked together in several different configurations depending on size and location of the space within a house they are being installed.

FS: What was the first thing you designed for a company?
TS: There are many small scale projects I designed for companies I worked for such as a roof structural system for tram station at the museum in Los Angeles, upper level elevator extension for High School gymnasium in Minneapolis and a proposed drafting studio for an architecture school in northern Minnesota. But the project that is most indelible to me was the town square I designed for a small town in northern Minnesota when I was working for an architect there. It was primarily an outdoor landscape design project that included a wooden trellis, field stone fountain and terraced flower and plant beds. Layout of the square is modern in design as meandering walking paths essentially subdivide a square into different plants, flowers, shrubs and tree zones. They are accented by those structures that are placed strategically so that a visitor is forced to take a detour to investigate and to engage with each species of plants and to rest in a sequential manner, much like a traditional Japanese garden. It was made more unique by the fact that the clients of this project were people of the town including high school students, professional landscape company, banks and business people who all wanted to transform an abandoned block with dilapidated houses and they all volunteered their time to build it themselves under the supervision of landscape company

FS: Which aspects of a design do you focus more during designing?
TS: When I design and build my furniture and product pieces, I like to spend a lot of time sketching ideas I have in my head. This is my personal brainstorming session and I try to be ready to document any ideas that come in a flash at an unexpected time and place. It could even come while I am sleeping so I keep a sketchbook with me all the time. More formal sketches and hand drawings are done on larger tracing papers along with sketch-model building and this is typically the beginning phase of design and is also the most creative and satisfying phase of design process. When I look at past projects of mine, I am amazed to see a strong link between this simple idea represented in my initial concept sketches and a final product that retains semblance of original concept albeit in different shape and form after going through refining process as the project progresses.

FS: What makes a design successful?
TS: In a complex world we live in, I believe it becomes ever more crucial to consider both social and environmental issues in evaluating design. No product design is considered to be successful if it uses child labor in the third country to produce it or if it is produced unsustainably by wasting and degrading precious natural resources. E-scooter in recent years is making visiting museums, restaurants and attractions in cities much more convenient, less physically exhausting and takes up less space on sidewalks than bicycles. But it make me think twice about its value if the greenhouse gases from manufacturing, collection and charging make them less green than walking or bicycling, not to mention many accidents it causes with pedestrians. Charles Eames’ Wire Chair, to me, is a successful design because it is a light weight product that can be carried and stored with ease and it is elegant in its form and appearance and durable in resisting minor bumps and kicks. Bike Trailer for kids is a good design because it is attached to the back of a manpowered bicycle which does not contribute to pollution. It catches two birds with a stone by allowing parents to bond with a child while exercising and saving them money by not having to hire a baby sitter. Rule of thumb, then, for design to be successful is that it meet users’ requirements both from aesthetic and practical point of view, it use production method that is sustainable and does not contribute to conspicuous consumption, it use as much natural and local materials as possible to harmonize with surrounding and it conserve energy in transportation and heating and cooling of buildings.

FS: From your point of view, what are the responsibilities of a designer for society and environment?
TS: Having been in architecture field for many years, I see the urgency by many architects to switch their practicing methods and approaches from business-as-usual to ones that are more in line with the ever more rigid requirements of LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and its certification process. And this is a good thing if practitioners are truly concerned about the state of global environment and are taking proactive measures to reduce carbon emission through their practice. Burden of much of breakthrough efforts to mitigate environmental catastrophe falls on engineers, scientists and biotechnologists but designers are in unique position to promote these scientific achievements through collaboration to come up with new and innovative products that public can benefit from. There needs to be organizations that promote interdisciplinary approach to solving problems and to think more deeply about our environment every time hurricane devastates coastal cities or brush fires in California keep burning for months on end, destroying homes and adding more CO2 into atmosphere. The herculean efforts by doctors and nurses to save the lives of virus infected patients are prompting designers all over the country to make themselves useful by producing masks, face shields and Personal Protective Equipments on their 3D Printers and Sewing Machines and donating them to those in need. It is a deed I can only describe as admirable and courageous and it certainly makes me very proud to be a member of design community.

FS: When was your last exhibition and where was it? And when do you want to hold your next exhibition?
TS: Unbuilt Washington Awards, 2018. I entered my residential design in theoretical projects category that refer to exploratory work without clients. CAD drawings and photographs of a scale model were exhibited and featured in AIA DC’s downstairs gallery space and website for 3 months. Series of small scale abstract foam models were also exhibited at the same AIA office in Washington DC just prior to my leading Model Making Workshop in 2012. I am working on another furniture project and when it is finished, I would like to exhibit it in local art gallery in town, though, there is no specific date or gallery I have in mind.

FS: How would you describe your design style? What made you explore more this style and what are the main characteristics of your style? What's your approach to design?
TS: While I am not overly conscious of any specific style that would describe my work as a whole, such words as eclecticism and experimental might be more apt to describe both my furniture and architectural design as they do not fall neatly into a specific stylistic category. They are synthesis of diverse ideas, movements, cultural iconography I had seen in various places around the world. Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism, Dadaism of fine arts and Constructivism, International Style and Modernism of architectural movement are some of the stylistic elements that greatly influenced my work. But style is not restricted to these more widely referenced movements of the past. They can be found in narrow, cobblestone streets of a Greek island town, millennium old wooden columns in Japanese temples, crumbling mud wall of a church by the main square in Havana, Cuba, sedimentary red rock formation of a Grand Canyon or even in microscopic cell formation of a plant. These naturally occurring images and processes of degradation and corrosion are integral part of my surface and textural quality of my work that contribute to the development of style.

FS: Where do you live? Do you feel the cultural heritage of your country affects your designs? What are the pros and cons during designing as a result of living in your country?
TS: An experienced architect I met in Minnesota once told me “ It’s not where you Iive that matters for creative endeavor because your vision and character you already possess do not know any international boundaries that prevent them from being expressed.” After artists and architects of Bauhaus in Germany were forced to flee their own country after the Nazis in pre-world war two dismantled the school, some of the best works were created when they came to the states and continued to disseminate their movement’s principle ideals of bringing art back in contact with everyday life through teaching and practice. In the age of globalism and multiculturalism we live in, it is unfortunate that many people coming to the US from other countries are very quick to want to assimilate into mainstream of society by hiding their cultural heritage and to not contribute to diversity that brings us all together. I believe designers have both opportunities and obligation to impart cultural values and traditions through their work and let others learn and appreciate its endemic quality of the piece they are creating. I try to do this all the time by reinterpreting traditional forms and icons I respect very much and infusing those forms into my work in a subtle yet intelligible manner. A government may censor artists’ work for being provocative and critical of its policy, but it is the universal message they send to the rest of the world through their art work that transcends any censorship, political ideology or national origin.

FS: What are 5 of your favorite design items at home?
TS: Isamu Noguchi's paper lamp, ceramic dishes from Bizen, Japan, Alvar Aalto's glass vase, traditional mask made by African tribe and an old antique sewing machine part I picked up in a junkyard in Minnesota

FS: What skills are most important for a designer?
TS: This varies greatly among designers depending on their age, experience, education and medium they are involved in. I mentioned earlier about the importance of analog method in the process of creating my own work because it is the way for me to see, to be in touch with the physical world and to communicate with others to gain their input and feedback. Being confined to the digital ivory tower, some of the more underrated skills designers tend to overlook is the ability to be a diplomat who can negotiate with various agencies, industries and non design professionals that are not familiar with what we do as designers. More often than not, designers are not actively involved in politics and business dealings necessary to get the project completed and there are too many barriers placed between departments and different specialists within the company that prevent communications and idea-sharing that are so important in doing the type of collaborative work I talked about earlier for projects to be successful. So regardless of a person’s area of specialization, level of experience, ability to negotiate or read technical documents, diplomacy, while it is not the most important one, is always a good skill to have, especially at the beginning of the project that may require, say, going to a design review panel at the department of planning to procure an approval or to consult with healthcare professionals to gain their input on the physiological benefits of a medical product.

FS: Which tools do you use during design? What is inside your toolbox? Such as software, application, hardware, books, sources of inspiration etc.?
TS: As I mentioned before, I use sketches and model building extensively during design phase. Computer rendering is useful at the beginning only if the project is large in scale and there is a need to put it in context. Google maps and its photographic images are always great tools in familiarizing with that context without having to set a foot in remote locale. Unless it is a research project, I do not read magazines or books to gain inspiration for the current project because an impetus to kick start any of my design project is concept based and any outside images I may see for inspiration are just distraction so I like to accumulate as much drawings and sketches of my own as I can which become my personal repository of ideas for the project. Some designers jump right into 3d computer rendering and feel comfortable, but the actual creative freedom that digital tools give you is rather limited and one-dimensional in my opinion because they become over dependent and tend to avoid contact with the physical world, not to mention the unhealthy work habits they can develop. Digital tool while it is useful for large scale project with massive layers and post-production rendering capability lacks tactility, ability to improvise, artistic vision in terms of color, texture and materials of the real world, accidental beauty like spilled coffee staining your drawings and models, and ability to change and manipulate designed object quickly. It is always a good idea to combine both methods because keeping up with the current technology is of utmost importance in a digital age we live in. As for me, a wood shop with a variety of industrial materials on hand and tools I work with such as pen, pencil, paper, hotwire cutter, laser cutter, milling machine, power tools and spray painting booth are just as important as computer renderings.

FS: What was your most important job experience?
TS: This project was fairly small and brief in length of time I was involved in but was significant in terms of my design contribution and construction detail drawings I developed on my own and the most fun I could ever expect to have in a creative office. I was assigned to design a company’s library space within the Minneapolis architect’s office. We chose translucent glass channels as an outside partition that enclosed the library space within. The glass channels of different height, mimicking the jagged exterior brick walls of a History Museum in which the office is located, were tied together with wires and attached to the vertical members of 3 inch steel tubes that were anchored to the concrete floor and a ceiling to support the weight of the channels and books. The interior wall/ bookshelves was laterally stabilized with horizontal members of steel tubes and 3/4 inch plywood shelves bolted down to the tubes and would have the width of about 14 inches which would accommodate those large Sweets catalogs, product catalogs and building code catalogs. There were no doors since this was an interior library space separated from the rest of office studio space where everyone worked. It was centrally located in a very spacious office with high exposed concrete ceiling so that it was visible from all angles of the office and was important that it presented well to visitors and consultants coming in from the front door.

FS: Who are some of your clients?
TS: Mostly artists, designers and craftspeople interested in my furniture work.

FS: Do you have any works-in-progress being designed that you would like to talk about?
TS: I recently designed a mobile ramp shelter to be used by large airport employees not having access to break rooms. It can also be used as a mobile clinic by extending seats at the back of a shelter for treating injured employees. It is similar to airstream trailers of the 50s in shape and size but the inspiration came from loading fiberglass containers onto airplanes at the airport in Minnesota I worked long time ago. I presented this to the airline company's management and they were eager to pursue it until the pandemic hit and was placed on hold.

FS: How can people contact you?
TS: E-mail is best.


FS: Thank you for providing us with this opportunity to interview you.

A’ Design Award and Competitions grants rights to press members and bloggers to use parts of this interview. This interview is provided as it is; DesignPRWire and A' Design Award and Competitions cannot be held responsible for the answers given by participating designers.


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