Lone Star

Until recently she was half of a celebrated partnership. Now, a year after opening her own studio, Tomoko Azumi talks about life and design without Shin.

It’s March in the East London neighborhood of Hackney, and Tomoko Azumi is having a red day. She’s matched a red-striped Buddha shirt to her shoes and to a scarf that hides a poultice on her neck (yoga injury). Even her to-do list is written in the color of urgency: Red marks the chores she must tackle before traveling to the Milan furniture fair and then to Japan, where she’ll present ideas for a light fixture in Osaka and visit her father in Hiroshima.

That she is surrounded by so conspicuous a color is fitting. A year after separating from Shin Azumi, with whom she spent 19 years—including 13 in marriage and 10 in a celebrated professional partnership—she’s now alone in the spotlight. The pair, hailed by this magazine in early 2004 as one of design’s power couples, actually began dismantling their many-layered relationship that year, having finished their last joint project, the Nextmaruni chair for Japanese manufacturer Maruni, a curvy, finger-jointed seat that was CNC-routed from a single piece of oak and upholstered in white leather. At the beginning of 2005 they stopped appearing together in the media, and they announced their divorce shortly thereafter. In April 2006, Tomoko celebrated the first anniversary of her t.n.a. design studio; Shin officially launched his solo practice about the same time last year.

Like Boym, Vignelli, and Eames, the word Azumi has long signified two identities behind a single surname and a highly resolved body of work. In the Azumis’ case, a prolific decade resulted in sinuous products and furniture, plus the occasional moody restaurant or exhibition space. Simple material palettes united the oeuvre, which was invariably labeled “Japanese,” but the work had the kind of built-in warmth that eludes severely pared-down design. Products such as their Airswitch lamp for Mathmos, which flares on and brightens with a wave of the hand, invited gesture; spaces, including Restaurant Conscious in Osaka and the Restir boutique’s Music Tube in Kobe, harbored textured surfaces that beckoned touch.

Tomoko says that while the Azumi studio didn’t restrict her creativity, she is still untangling her identity from the unit. “This process of divorce gave me a lot to think about—about what’s important and what could be the symbol of my life,” she says. “I brought environmental design to the team, and Shin taught me product design. But we did everything together. We developed concepts and aesthetics, and business strategy, too. I’ve had to discover who I am, how I feel, how to find solutions to every details by myself.”

It started with “sleeping time.” Tomoko devoted late 2004 to just a few projects: teaching at the Royal College of Art, designing an exhibition booth for the British furniture maker Isos Collection, and completing the furnishings for an organic Mediterranean-French restaurant in Tokyo called Argo. “With the change of situation I had to be brave enough to take off for half a year,” she says.

She kept the Hackney studio space, a former toy factory that she and Shin found in 2002 and subjected to a two-year renovation. “It really is a child of mine. It’s adapted to my needs,” Tomoko says. She personalized it further, filling surfaces and walls with prototypes and research images and hauling in 1920s-era flea-market finds, such as a Raj chair that seems at home in the space.

The pair also divvied up their projects. Tomoko explains: “Our clients aren’t large companies. They devote their time to one or two precious objects each year, and they can’t risk hiring the wrong designer for the work. So we thought it’s probably convenient for people to find out what’s done by whom. I chose pieces that represent my point of view. They’re like guidelines for what I want to do next.” Each designer’s portfolio, however, still faithfully cites collaborations that were too close to parse. When it’s pointed out that the pair appears to have amicably worked through the professional aspects of their divorce, Tomoko laughs. “Well, that you have that impression is nice,” she says.

The process was so quiet that Tomoko still gets emails addressed to the couple. Only once did a potential client disappear after learning the team had broken up. Others, like Maruni, are happy to embrace twice the talent. At the Milan fair this year, the Hiroshima-based company exhibited 12 armchairs by different designers. Shin claimed the Azumi work-in-progress, but the show’s organizers “thought it was a pity to lose me, so they gave me a special project designing tables to accompany the existing chairs,” Tomoko says. Her nesting set with frosted-mirror tops “looks a bit like a small pond after the rain.”

The tables are characteristic Azumi, minimalist yet sensual pieces that invite interaction. Indeed, it’s not so much how as what Tomoko designs that’s been altered. Although the Azumis concentrated on furniture and accessories in the last years of their partnership, Tomoko now considers products a sideline to exhibition design. Of course, her experience with goods remains useful. For the Craft Council’s touring exhibition “Table Manners,” a show of plates, bowls, and table accessories by 18 renowned contemporary ceramicists, she created a dramatically lighted series of dining tables with integrated panels for text. These displays, which are subtle powder-coated steel forms with acrylic surfaces, are flat-pack for easy travel.

If Tomoko’s shift of typology from product to spaces is a declaration of independence, it has also provided an opportunity to mine experiences and interests that defined her long before the Azumi studio was established. Tomoko earned a B.A. in environmental design at Kyoto City University of Art in 1989. She’s also revisiting old materials: The last time she worked with paper was as a graduate student at the Royal College of Art, and although she says she instilled the characteristics of paper in the thin, folded slats of her Shadow Bed for Benchmark Furniture (2004), the material itself has resurfaced in her solo work. She used it in the 2005 and 2006 Isos displays, the new Square Moon pendant lamp for the British company 2PM, and a two-layer paper screen with silhouettes of Alvar Aalto’s Savoy vase, which Iittala commissioned to celebrate the icon’s 70th anniversary. Having spent hours in childhood watching shadows move across the paper screens in her traditional Japanese home, she’s long been enamored of paper’s translucency, its visible pigments and fibers, and its easy transformation from two dimensions into three.

Tomoko’s search for identity has involved tapping into the latest trends, too. An Italian furniture manufacturer, which she won’t name but says produces goods for other upscale companies, has invited her and three other designers to launch its first series of proprietary furniture in 2008. Tomoko says she will encourage the company to embrace renewable materials and to minimize waste and energy usage.

She’s also pursuing new collaborations with architects and landscape designers; one project currently in concept stage involves remaking a hospital courtyard into a rehabilitation garden in Newcastle, U.K., and includes her first attempt at outdoor furniture. And she will use a two-year research fellowship at London Metropolitan University to explore rapid prototyping, 3-D printing, laser-cutting, and powder- and liquid-sintering technologies as sources of creative inspiration—along the lines, she says, of the experimental products created by the Belgian company Materialise MGX—rather than as research and development tools. She doesn’t know what to expect from the fellowship, except a shift in perspective. Whereas before she started her design process with function and context and then selected an appropriate material, “this is the opposite way of thinking, starting with the material itself and then figuring how to fabricate with it,” she says.

Charting these unknown contrasts sums up Tomoko’s continuing process of self-discovery: Traditional craft and high-tech, products and spaces, past and future. “There are new fields I want to explore, and I have nothing to stop me,” she says, adding that she’s making changes outside of the studio, too. “I am shifting my way of living, little by little, which I hope will have a positive influence on my design,” she says. For example, after 18 years of neglecting a favorite exercise regime, she’s cycling again and enjoying it. “I discovered that you need fun in your life somehow. I like to work hard, but that’s not everything.” *

David Sokol is a freelance writer based in New York.

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