Kenzo Minami is a conscientious designer, probably not surprising considering he studied philosophy prior to starting his career. The Japanese born Minami has made a name for himself with his bold graphic style that walk the lines between art and design. His work has been presented alongside names like Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat, and his commercial clients extend from Mercedes-Benz to Nike to his most recent collaborative endeavour with Eastpak. We caught some time with the designer to chat about his personal journey from Tokyo to New York and the ways in which his work has evolved along the way.
Can you introduce yourself for us?
My name is Kenzo Minami. I’m from New York. Well I’ve been here nineteen years, so I guess I can say I’m a New Yorker now. I’ve done a bunch of graphic based projects really, I’ve done some TV stuff but I’ve ended up in graphics. I’ll spare you my life story.
So you were born in Japan, but studied in New York right?
Yeah, I was born in Japan and I moved to the US when I was eighteen or nineteen, I studied philosophy in Japan for a year and then I moved here to study Industrial Design. I ended up doing set design while I was in school and started shooting some stuff for TV, but it’s tricky to do TV stuff in the US. A lot of the stuff I was doing back then art directors were telling me “Oh it’s too insane” or whatever, so I started doing side stuff. It’s a usual story for a lot graphic designers or artist-types, just to keep your sanity you do your own thing. Which basically started rolling, and I started getting hired for the side stuff.
So you say you’re a New Yorker now, but does your Japanese background inform your work at all?
I think so; I just came back from Japan five days ago. Because I’ve been away from there for almost half my life you kind of start appreciating where you come from. I think now my Japanese side is coming back with a vengeance. You start to appreciate where you’re from and your family. It’s a lot to take in; you first start noticing when you step out of that culture. You’re finally aware of what you’re made of when you step outside of it.
Do you think as a designer or a practicing artist that that move to New York was a step that you had to take? Could you do what you do now from Japan?
I ask myself that now; I mean whatever you do you’re a product of your environment I guess. I’m pretty sure whatever I aimed to or I ended up doing, I had to be in New York to do it. It’s weird because I can only look at it in retrospect. I moved here before the Internet was firmly a part of our lives, physically being in a place still meant something. If you wanted to experience New York you had to be in New York, each city had a specific sort of colour to it. You can almost virtually experience that life now. I was in Japan last week and I’m basically connected to all my friends from Instagram or Facebook or whatever, I’m constantly getting the feedback on what my friends are doing 24/7.
It’s really tricky, after all these years I think I’ve finally come to love New York again as well. One of the great things about being a New Yorker to me is that you gain the right to complain about it. You see it in a Woody Allen movie or whatever, but it’s very true. You actually have to earn the right to bitch about it. I’m pretty sure there’s something to be said for living in New York, but I think you can be pretty much anywhere at this point.
As someone who works across as many mediums and practices as you do, how do you keep your art and design work separate?
I’ve been fortunate in the past few years to basically be hired for whatever I wanted to do anyway. So the whole idea of commercial versus my own work was getting blurred in the first place. Also I’m kind of in a strange place because I’m hired more or less as an ‘artist’ type, but I’ve never actually felt like that anyway. I come firmly from a design background. Especially in industrial design, it’s essentially about problem solving; it’s very reactionary in that way. You know how some people think that people become designers because they wanted to be artists but couldn’t be? I’m almost the opposite.
It makes sense in a weird way, but I always have that dilemma. I’m almost playing the part of the ‘artist guy’, like this is what an artist type would do and then I give it to a client. But if I’m hired by a client as a designer I’ll approach it completely differently. Sometimes what I do and what I actually like personally are completely different. I really don’t think I’m an artist, you know how sometimes people think that their soul is like shouting? My soul doesn’t shout anything. I’m not saying I’m an empty vessel, but what I do is little more logical or rational as opposed to emotional.
I mean you’ve been listed alongside names like Warhol and Basquiat who are firmly in that art world. How does that feel coming from your design perspective?
I think that’s even more fitting in a way, when you think about Warhol right he knew exactly what he was doing in terms of his place according to the art world and the commercial world. I don’t think he did things randomly because he felt like it; he was much smarter than that in terms of art versus commerce stuff. Even Picasso was aware of that; he was a very smart man, which doesn’t make him less real or anything. I don’t think he’d go into a new period for some random reason, I think he knew exactly when to go into a new period according to what’s good for his sales. It’s nice to be among names like that, and it’s almost strange how I ended up being there. But just among those names I think it’s fitting, in terms of what they were and what I think I am.
Do you want to approach this as an all-encompassing lifestyle? Like you’ve got the art side and you’ve got the design side, does it all feed back into one practice?
For me so far, yes, I think so. It’s one of those things where you’re either actually aware of those elements of your life and you actually think about that, or some people I guess just do it. I tend to be a person who’s thought about it, but at this point I don’t think I’ve got to a point where I have a grasp of what that means. In general how you end up defined isn’t really exactly how you see yourself, but how whatever is connected to you defines you. We define ourselves by reference, what we like, or worst case now we live in such a cynical hipster period that people have started to define themselves by what they don’t like. But in a way that’s where we are, or how real life seems to work.
What’s keeping you motivated? What’s pushing you?
I think if you’re in a creative field everyone goes through a period where you just don’t know what’s motivating you anymore. In the beginning I think your motivation is as juvenile as you just wanting to get your name out there or you want to be known or famous, or if you ask Freud it’s because we all just want to get laid or be loved. Eventually you move on to what I think is a little more mature period where you start to think a little bit bigger than yourself, in the beginning of course you think about your first name, then you think in terms of your last name. You’re a part of your family and you want you want to do well as a part of that. Then you start thinking bigger than that, in terms of being a human being. You really start to think in terms that are bigger than yourself, but of course sometimes you need encounters to make you humble, to make you think “Okay what I do is silly, making things pretty and what not”. Then you get to a point where it’s like we’ve all got something to contribute and be a part of something, but it doesn’t make sense for me to like go to India and start digging a well. What I should be doing is contributing with what I’m good at, or what I seemed to be designed to contribute with. Then it really comes down to simplifying and coming to something very fundamental “Am I having a good time? Am I enjoying all this?” And then you really come back to where you started, but not for the same reasons. I think that’s where I am right now.
The Kenzo Minami X Eastpak line is available at the following stockists:
Un1son, Leederville WA (08) 9443 6622
The Store, Melbourne VIC (03) 9663 0065