Live, Work, Play

09 october 2013 / interior / adele chong images © takumi ota

01 The duo’s retail installation Magic Tent at Diesel Shibuya; 02 A solo exhibit at the Diesel Denim Gallery titled Heart of Shapes features the designers’ favorite motifs; 03 A detail from the lauded residential work Ellipse Sky; 04 Mist of Arch, a lighting-cum-wall design for a Japanese department store; 05 Designers Manabu Sawase and Keiko Uchiyama.


For this Tokyo-based husband-and-wife studio, good design stems from achieving unity between life and work.

Keiko Uchiyama’s typical day is fairly routine. At 8am, she and husband Manabu Sawase enter their Tokyo-based design studio, newborn baby and black Labrador in tow. With the help of two staffers, the couple diligently clean and organize, taking time to tend their small garden before diving into the day’s affairs. Come lunch, Uchiyama tears herself away from her design briefs long enough to prepare a communal meal shared by both staff and family.

If all this sounds very homey, it’s deliberate – and done with relish. Not so long ago, Uchiyama and Sawase found themselves with their noses against the grind, functioning like a “typical Japanese firm” as they strove to keep up with incoming commissions. Since becoming parents, the young designers have made it a point to revise their all-work-noplay ethos, establishing a workable equipoise between drive and domesticity. “Now, we spend more time with our friends and family,” says Sawase. “We travel the world together to balance work and life. That keeps us happy and more inspired.”

Happily, this conscious shift in livework dynamics has not detracted from the couple’s award-winning namesake practice. On the contrary, the move is almost an occupational prerequisite; it is precisely this balance mentioned by Sawase that sustains the duo’s optimism and their holistic approach towards design. “Our work reflects an interest in day-to-day activities with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, society and nature,” he notes. “These inseparable relationships inspire me the most.” If their varied backgrounds are of any indication, the current working arrangement has brought them full circle, harking back to their original ambitions as designers.

Born in Seattle and raised in Sitka, Alaska, Uchiyama studied architecture in the University of Oregon before transplanting herself to Tokyo. There, she met Sawase, who was then honing his talents as a young designer on the rise. Prior to launching Keiko + Manabu in 2005, Uchiyama worked for SANAA and cut her teeth on prolific projects such as the Prada Beauty building in Hong Kong and the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art. Although her time at Pritzker-winning SANAA provided a wellspring of ideas, Uchiyama cites her inspiration as Sitka and as a grandfather with a taste for lively aesthetics (“He lived in a house surrounded by cherry blossom and pine trees, and always had a scotch on his modern violet Italian sofa”). Sitka’s mix of nature, building typologies and cultural life made a lasting impression. Natural phenomena coincided with urban reality; as a teenager, Uchiyama often encountered sea otters or seals on her daily walk to school. “It was usual back then,” she reminisces. “But compared with my life in Tokyo, it was pretty wild.”

Sawase is just as keenly aware of design’s ability to both define and enchant. “My earliest memory is as a two year old at the construction site where my uncle designed and built my father’s house,” he says.

Perusing the couple’s wide-ranging portfolio, it’s easy to comprehend the logic behind projects such as Mist of Arch, a series of backlit wall designs created out of whimsical cookiecutter shapes, or Heart of Shapes (for the brand Diesel) wherein the aforementioned motifs are reiterated in an interactive installation. Simultaneously exhibiting technical prowess and an audible love of play, the works, which encompass everything from jewelry design to urban planning, touch on the tender gray areas between design and object.

Arguably, no work showcases this more than Ellipse Sky, the duo’s design of a four-story residential building in Tokyo. Fashioned as a home for an obstetrician and his family, as well as a few lucky tenants, the project, featuring a sensual draping of concrete arches and curves, is lauded for its sensitive treatment of the industrial material and its tidy juxtaposition of hard and soft elements. A robust building that also lays claim to softness and intimacy, balance again, rings true as the operative word here, as does that one key ingredient that so often goes amiss in many communally-oriented designs: joy.


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