‘Artistic space consultant’ unites walls and works

by Angela Jeffs

Nob Hagiwara is a brave man indeed. How many top-rank executives decide one day to chuck it all in and pursue personal goals? Not many — and especially not in Japan.

Nob had always wanted to be an artist, and from June 17 you can see how far his dreams have taken him: a selection of his latest work, under the title “Light of England,” will be on exhibition at Crystal Spot, a gallery space just a short walk from the west exit of Shinjuku Station, in the direction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office.

Born in Nishinomiya, and a graduate in architecture from Osaka University, Nob moved to Tokyo in 1966 to take a job with Tohata Architects & Engineers, Inc. “For the next decade I moved around Japan, working at branch offices and climbing the corporate ladder. By the time I quit as director in 1999, Tohata had 300 employees. Numbers have decreased since then, so maybe it was a good time to leave.”

The first project he worked on in his 33-year career with Tohata was a hotel. In 1989 he was responsible for an award-winning sports center in Musashino, and three years later the Big Arch stadium in Hiroshima, “designed in one night.” Actually, he says, he’d wanted to study design but at the time when he was a student, the architecture faculty in Osaka was “hot on technology.” He now recognizes that the emphasis on technology had a positive effect on his designs.

He left Tohata for a number of reasons. His father was ill, and Nob wanted to spend time with him while he could. But Nob also yearned to be an artist, stretch his creative powers beyond the drawing board. “I thought about leaving for six months. Luckily Rosalyn backed me up, saying, yes, go for it!”

Nob met his English wife at an international party in Roppongi. “She’d been dragged along by her host ‘sister’ from a high-school exchange. I can’t remember why I was there.” Anyway, there was a connection and they became friends while socializing as part of a group. The time they were the only ones who turned up for some event was their first real date. They married in 1989, and now have a son aged 14 and a daughter one year younger.

Nob founded Hagiwara Design Consultants in 2000. “Since leaving Tohata I’ve spent much of the time developing my art-design concept Holonic System.” “Holonic” is from the Greek, meaning whole, and also a part of the whole.

Working with specialists, Nob takes a holonic approach to each and every project, “meaning I expand on ideas by alternating between the perspective of the entire undertaking and the individual elements involved.” This can apply to projects as varied as furniture design and his own artworks. He likes the number nine because it offers flexibility, whether designing nine pieces of furniture that can be assembled into a variety of different-shaped tables, or nine pieces of art (3 × 3) that can be seen (and bought) as a whole or individually.

The concept also applies to architectural projects, such as the family’s home, Unicorn House, and Villa Holonica in Ogikubo, a business venture that incorporates Nob’s design studio and a number of variously sized rented spaces for meetings, teaching, workshops and healing. “Rosalyn was going to use it, but our year in the U.K. changed all that. Now it’s open and available to anyone.”

The family went to England in 2003 for a year and a half. This time it was Rosalyn who wanted to spend time with aging parents (Nob’s father having died), and the two families were soon streets apart in Milton Keynes, a “new town” north of London. As a purpose-built community, he thinks Milton Keynes “too big.” But overall the experience was really good, and he’s surprised by how much he misses it.

As an architect, Nob was surprised also by how many regulations applied to what you could or could not do to your own property in Britain. “Having bought a house there, I wanted to add a conservatory, and make some changes inside. Easier said than done. Even the color of the bricks I wanted was not allowed; I had to use bricks that fit in with the rest of the street.”

He was impressed by the fact that billboards were forbidden, and with no electric cables in view, there was a clear unhampered view of greenery and sky. “Oh, that green, I miss it.” Only traffic roundabouts came in for criticism. “They tend to all look the same. So much more could be done with landscaping, planting.”

He had an exhibition while in the U.K., showing locally taken photographs of light and shadow. Some of these will be on display at Crystal Spot from June 17, together with digitally enhanced prints that begin with the shadows but are taken into another realm with color. He will also show holistically influenced silk screen prints.

Since returning from the U.K. late last year, Nob has set himself up as an “artistic space consultant.” Another new concept in Japan, this means he designs building lobbies so that they perfectly complement art pieces. “I don’t sell art, rather I create spaces for art that I select in line with the client’s requirements.”

Japan is far behind Europe and America in choosing art to enhance public and corporate spaces. “In the U.K., on a domestic level you get an architect to design a house and then a decorator to do the inside. Here the cost of a house and its interior is all in. As to big buildings, there again you hire an art consultant to choose suitable artworks. In Japan, art gets bought willy-nilly, with no consideration of its relationship to the space or style of architecture.”

Nob’s health has improved dramatically over the last five years, and “it’s all to do with being happy.” He’s never happier than when being creative. “I could work night and day.” But now is the time to focus and find clients for his consultancy. “Of course, this also creative work. But I’ll be working holonically with others — other artists, architects and executives — rather than drawing the best out of myself in isolation.”