Thursday 22 June 2017

Alchemists of Minimalism: Tommaso Nani and Noa Ikeuchi

Alchemists at work at Palazzo Litta in Milan. Designers Tommaso Nani and Noa Ikeuchi of Mist-o examine their glass designs for Ichendorf.  Portrait by Ilaria Cilli
Tommaso Nani and Noa Ikeuchi create designs evoking the beauty of simplicity and a Zen-like purity of form. This Italian and Japanese duo discovered a common language and opened their studio, Mist-o, five years ago in Milan and Tokyo, aiming to create a cultural bridge between Europe and Asia. Today, their clients include iconic Italian brands such as Cappellini and Tod’s. Last year, they received the EDIDA Young Japanese talent award by Elle Decor Japan. Jeanne-Marie Cilento asks them 10 Questions about their life and work. Portraits by Ilaria Cilli at Palazzo Litta in Milan

Designers Noa Ikeuchi
& Tommaso Nani
ON a hot summer evening in Rome, standing high up on the grassy knoll of the Emperor Trajan's imperial forum, jazz music drifting up to the leafy crowns of maritime pines, Milanese designers look disdainfully across to the ancient exedra of the red-brick market below. Their Roman counterpart, Apollodorus of Damascus,Trajan's loyal architect, designed the market in the 2nd-century and its complex of grocers, apartments and the world's first shopping mall. The stylish Northern Italians are more interested in seeing their own new sleek designs exhibited in the great, vaulted hall, still strewn with ancient fragments of Corinthian columns and reliefs of ancient battles. Despite their Modernist forms, some of these 21st century pieces were hand-carved in Carrara marble, linking this new generation of sophisticated architects back to their forbears 2000 years ago. One of the designers who looked on with pleasure at this baroque party, held at the heart of the emperor's former Roman kingdom to celebrate the opening of a new Italian design exhibition, is Tommaso Nani. Warm and jovial in person and interested in everything around him, the designer creates pieces that are so stripped back to their essence they seem Japanese. And there is a strong element of Japan, as Tommaso Nani works with Noa Ikeuchi at their studio Mist-o in Milan and Tokyo.

Speaking to a keen audience in Milan
at their Palazzo Litta exhibition
The duo opened the design studio five years ago and their work includes slim, fine furniture and small, limited edition objects and interior design projects. Both Tommaso Nani and Noa Ikeuchi live between Japan and Italy, working in the two countries to develop their own design language. Even if their backgrounds are very different, they discovered a shared sensibility for the poetry of simplicity with a certain formal discipline combined with functionality. The designers work with artisans all over the world and they believe this working method enhances their understanding of local cultures. Today, their clients include well-kown Italian brands such as Cappellini, Ichendorf, Living Divani, Oluce and Tod’s. In 2016 they received the EDIDA Young Japanese talent award by Elle Decor Japan.

Noa Ikeuchi and Tommaso Nani
with their glassware designed for Ichendorf 
1. Where did you grow up and does this place inspire your creative work?
I grew up in Italy, and Noa in Japan and the cultures of our countries have been an important influence on both of us. The societies shaped each of our personalities in a very different way. I am much more a “city boy” ~  I grew up in Milan which is a big town that gives you a lot different influences, stress and forces you to live fast ~ more or less like every big city in the world. However, Noa grew up in the countryside, on the Izu Peninsula, South-West of Tokyo on the Pacific Coast, a part of Shizuoka Prefecture. It is set amid nature and, of course, life is slower and calmer. Later he moved to Tokyo before coming to Italy to study.

We have both been shaped by these different environments and our work is a reflection of that. The interesting thing is that we met when we were quite young and became good friends at around nineteen years old ~ an age when humans are still very receptive to stimuli, so we influenced each a lot with our different ways of being. Together we shaped our vision of the world and our way of seeing design. It is difficult to define ourselves, but in our work we are looking for a sort of delicacy mixed with a strictness and functionality that gives life to logical, simple shapes. We try to give them a unique character, and perhaps our designs can be seen as a sort of summation of our way of being.

 "In our work we are looking for delicacy mixed with a strictness and functionality"

The Mist-o exhibition of Ichendorf glassware
 at Palazzo Litta during Milan Design Week
2. Why did you choose design as your artistic metier?
If you are a curious person, design gives you the possibility to explore many different things and not to repeat the same day every day. Of course, there is a routine, but it is a profession in which you can learn many different things and it gives you the possibility to deal with various projects and situations. For example, you can be involved in designing small products hand-made by an old artisan, but also design products for the mass market that come from a big, technological machine. Or sometimes the project involves both of those things, starting with a primitively crafted object and ending up with an industrial product. Good design is not easy and is often much more complicated than this, but there is always a new journey at the start of every project.

3. How did you get your break into the design world and have your work manufactured and sold in stores or galleries? 
We started with the Salone Satellite in 2010 at the Milan Furniture Fair because it is a fantastic place for young designers to show their first projects and fresh ideas and show them to a large and cultured public. From that point, it took us some years to established our studio and to find the right companies who were interested in manufacturing our ideas, but in that period we kept doing research to feed our ideas and start shaping our design language. Mostly in the last few years we have worked with companies that produce and market our projects, but we are very interested in collaborating with galleries or editors, it is something we are looking for, especially to explore more deeply the cultural research behind a design.

Hand-weaving the Daydream Daybead,
designed by Mist-o for Living Divani.
Photo: Alberto Strada
4. How did you and Noa meet?  How has working together had effected your design careers so far?
We both studied in Milano and we first met at university, we were class mates. We became friends and for the first year we were just close friends, and after a while we realised we have similar aesthetic sense, and that we are both very curious about each others culture and very interested to see things from a different perspective. We came from places that are almost polar opposites, so this mix was perfect to fulfil our curiosity. This was the experience that had the greatest impact on our design career, not a specific person or a training but this very personal and unique exchanging of culture.

5. Today, your studio is based between Milan and Tokyo ~ what does each city give you creatively?
If you are curious, both cities give you have many opportunities to experience and to learn beautiful things. Both cities are full of energy, and both have a sort of very unique intimate atmosphere. Milan is a city that is quite small in size but the quality of living and the atmosphere is very European and yet it feels international. Tokyo is a huge city, but it’s replete with small things, tiny gaps between buildings, narrow streets, short distances between very different districts… So I always find this contrast very unique and fascinating, and it also gives you a feeling of warmth.

"Tokyo is a huge city, but it’s replete with small things, tiny gaps between buildings, narrow streets, short distances between very different districts…"

Ichendorf Tequila Sunrise Carafe by Mist-o
2013-2016. Photo: Aberto Strada
6. Do you find your creative process when designing is more rational or instinctive?
It is very instinctive at the beginning, we start quickly from a rough idea without thinking too much of designing the right shape or doing something pretty. We try to keep a sort of fresh approach. But later our process is very rational and logical, and we try to find the essence of a design, in order to give life to a clear concept, and not just to design a minimal object. We look for a deep and comprehensible simplicity. We also have to be very clear and logical to understand each other, we both work on all projects together so we need to eliminate all the unnecessary things that creates "noise" in the process.

7. What do find the most challenging aspect of working as designers? And what is the most challenging aspect of your work technically?
The most challenging aspect is also the most interesting ~  to keep the uniqueness, freshness and even naive approach to design, in order not to repeat ourselves. And this means you have to be extremely curious and you should have broad cultural interests and a fascination with many different things to feed your creativity. Technically the most challenging aspect is that design is not only drawing a pretty shape, but it is always a new journey with a lot of unknown endings. For example, new technologies and new production methods, different budgets and contracts plus your relationship with the clients are not always the same. Each time we have to be very quick to understand a situation or a context and learn to deal with the people involved. If we take on a project we want to know as much as we can before we start designing, in order to make the journey as smooth as possible. We are still quite young and I think the more our careers grow the more we learn, but with design there will always be unknown and unexpected situations to deal with.

 "We try to keep the uniqueness, freshness and even naive approach to design, in order not to repeat ourselves"

Fruit bowl prototype by Mist-o designed in 2011
Photo: Alberto Strada
8. What part of the designing and making process gives you the most happiness? 
Every part of the design process has something that gives us happiness: when you come up with some good ideas or when you solve some problems with the design, or when we take the pictures of the final products, and many other things ~ we are passionate about our work! But also being a duo as designers sometimes can also be frustrating, for example when one of us thinks he come up with some great ideas and the other doesn’t agree…We have to put our ego aside and find a common ground and it is not always easy. But most of the time this leads to unexpected and better solutions. It is probably the part of the job that every creative duo has to deal with.

9. Do you have a set schedule of working creatively everyday or is the process more fluid?
Our team is geographically spread all over the world for most of the year, so the work process is well organised. For example, when we are in different countries we make a Skype call every day (early morning in Italy, late afternoon in Japan) to update on the what has happened during the day and to decide about what are the most important daily tasks. On the other hand, the creative process is fluid and it takes time, although you always have to deal with deadlines and appointments so the process is not random and programming is crucial.
"Design is a discipline that if it is done well and with deep thought and research can offer positive improvements to life"
Mist-o's Atlantis Flower Vase designed for Cappellini.
Photo: Alberto Streada
10. In our digital age, what does design give us as an art form?
Design is something with a very wide meaning and it can be applied to almost every aspect of life, both physical and digital, but the real issue is what kind of culture you bring to it, which is that certain uncontrollable thing that gives the elegance and the character to a design.
In any age, good design should improve our lives.  Through design you try to solve things: you try to find a solution to both very small problems to big issues dealing with social and economic hardships. Design is a discipline that if it is done well and with deep thought and research can offer positive improvements to life.


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