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11 Feb 2008

Masamichi KatayamaIt has been ten years since his first major commission in Tokyo, but Masamichi Katayama’s name is still relatively unknown in Europe. Even given the vast gap in knowledge and understanding that still sits between the otherwise mutually appreciative Eastern and Western design industries, this is surprising. In the last decade Katayama has masterminded more than 100 flagship interiors projects. His client list includes B&B Italia, Marc Jacobs, Dean & DeLuca, Chloé and Harrods, among many others. Furthermore his portfolio of product and industrial design is just as impressive.

Certainly it is amazing that Japan has managed to keep this considerable talent within its borders for so long. However, since the noisy expansion of fashionable retailer Uniqlo in London and across the US recently, Katayama and his company Wonderwall finally look set to make the transition and go global.

In Japan, where the climate for retail and office architecture and design is one of the most favourable and exciting in the world, Wonderwall enjoys an impressive reputation. Katayama has managed to both inspire the young generation and the media with constant innovation, and to draw the attention of the corporate world with professionalism and great results. His status is cult-like across the board – and where other designers might roll out the same signature success stories, Wonderwall’s clients and customers know by now that this is one company that can always be relied on to surprise.

After studying interior design at Osaka Design School, Katayama co-founded H Design Associates in Tokyo with Tsutomu Kurokawa in 1992. His first major commission, for urban and hip-hop clothing brand A Bathing Ape (BAPE), came in 1998 – and the resulting space in Tokyo’s Harajuku district became an instant hit. Pioneering for the time, Katayama developed the store as a place of entertainment rather than commercialism – hiding the shopfront from the street and creating a secret and elite space. Once inside (customers accessed the store via a dark corridor), the hangers, rails and shelves one would usually expect to find were in short supply: instead visitors found themselves in a futuristic architectural light show. Katayama agrees that this was probably the most major turning point in his career so far and set him out on the road to success: “I broke down the conventional theory of fashion retail design that was interrelated to their new branding strategy,” he says. “The project gave me confidence both personally and professionally.” Since then Katayama, with Wonderwall, has gone on to design almost 30 new stores for the BAPE brand worldwide.

The approach – of designing an experience rather than simply a showcase – is one that is still apparent in much of Katayama’s work, and he sees his time at H Design Associates as his real education. “At design school in Osaka, I learned many skills and the technical aspects, but not really about design,” he says. “Then I worked at a small office for a few years after college, but again it was to learn more about the technical aspects. Basically I taught myself design when I left.”

Katayama disbanded H Design Associates and set up Wonderwall independently in 2000. “It was a natural transition. It wasn’t as if I felt the pressure to establish my own company, I just followed what I believed in. I did not really have a vision per se back then except for the interest and the ambition to design. Actually my vision is still about that and it’s still evolving.”

Today Wonderwall has a staff of around 15 designers, and Katayama feels the balance is right. Visitors to the Tokyo-based HQ will find it more homely than the average design studio, lined with shelves on which Katayama stores “the things I like” – a huge selection of CDs and books, special-edition skateboards and art. Although, he says, “I do not call it design,” the music, movie and art-filled office is certainly where he finds much of his inspiration – even the name of the company originally came from a CD sleeve. “I had to choose the name to register the company rather abruptly,” explains Katayama. “I was looking at the CD rack where the word ‘wonder’ caught my eye. I first liked the sound, then ‘wonderwall’ came to my mind. I also knew there was a movie called Wonderwall starring Jane Birkin and then there’s the Oasis song. One of my friends told me ‘wonderwall’ in the song means ‘final destination’ – it was just a coincidence, but a pleasant one.”

Although the Wonderwall style is distinct and consistently surprising, whether designing retail spaces, offices or products, the approach is extremely client focused. “I try to provide a service, an interior design program, close to the company or the owner’s philosophy and hope to be part of making their business successful,” says Katayama. “I am happiest when a concept is conceived, realised as a plan and approved by the client.”

That said, it’s at the ideas stages where Katayama himself excels. He admits that “the follow up work (to confirm if the plan is correctly executed) is like the hangover – the best part is when an idea really comes together”.
At Wonderwall, building an interior is about building a total concept. Each project is a theatrical production. For one subsequent BAPE store, Katayama packaged T-shirts as if they were canned food in a fridge, while in another a giant glass-enclosed conveyor belt was looped over a colourful checkerboard carpet carrying trainers. T-shirts move through another store – Beams T – on a carousel.

The approach is not restricted to retail either: at the Start Today offices in Mihara, Japan, which were completed in 2006, the single floor warehouse was transformed using a series of simple industrial modules in a sharply defined sequence that immediately lends the space a dramatic rhythm. The visual playfulness – though physically somewhat stark and gallery-like – is emphasised by a superimposed rock music soundtrack.

In another office scheme in Tokyo, the design plays instead with a sense of perspective and depth. Split along a single main axis, with key office functions relegated to each side, evenly spaced pillars create cloister-like corridors and an unusual but inspiring series of public spaces dividing the compartments.

Katayama says that the starting point of his process is to cut out every unnecessary detail, and conceive of the new, most important element: that touch of playfulness. Ultimately, he explains, this might be the one thing that other designers disregard as unnecessary – especially in terms of usability, but for Katayama – who believes interior design should be magical – playfulness is the central most crucial cornerstone of every project. Aside from this departure, Wonderwall is respectful of conventional and traditional aspects of architecture, considering all the details from lighting to materials afresh for each project, and with function and comfort as paramount concerns.

Uniqlo is not the first time Katayama has been commissioned outside Japan: Tyler Brûlé, Wallpaper magazine founder and champion of his own brand of impeccable stylishness (that happens to be particularly prolific in Japan), picked up on Wonderwall as early as 2005. The studio was subsequently commissioned to design the sets for The Desk, Brûlé’s short-lived current affairs programme with BBC 4, and the resulting graphic wooden screens have been recycled as chic desk dividers in the offices of Brûlé’s branding and communications agency Winkreative in London. Before this, Katayama curated a window display for Paris boutique Collette in 2002, and a series of cult fashion stores for BAPE: the Busy Work Shops in Japan, London, New York and Hong Kong, but nothing to generate more than a few ripples of appreciation, and certainly nothing on the scale of Uniqlo.

So is Wonderwall’s “final destination” worldwide domination? Not really, although it might just happen along the way. “I do not like the word ‘dream’ because it sounds like it will never happen,” says Katayama. “But I do want to try new things. For example, I’d like to design hotels, but it’s more about being involved in a project that is challenging rather than the specific scale of the project. Ultimately I would like Wonderwall to become a company that is truly respected, that is able to create great work that expresses the power of design within society.”

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