If you’re the sort of person who likes art museums but loves art museum gift shops, then you’re likely to be familiar with the work of Yoshie Watanabe and Ryosuke Uehara, two designers who are currently the subject of an exhibition at Tokyo’s Ginza Graphic Gallery.
As senior staff members at Tokyo-based design company Draft, the pair are responsible for a string of popular items made under the company’s D-Bros line of products, including “A Path to the Future,” a series of packing-tape rolls that are designed to look like a four-lane highway, or a pair of train-tracks; and “Like the Wind Like a Song,” a notebook with a page-marking ribbon that extends from the stick of a leaping rhythmic gymnast depicted on the front cover.
The most popular of Watanabe and Uehara’s creations — one that has sold over 600,000 packs in museum shops around the world to date — is a delightfully simple flat-pack plastic vase called “Hope Blossoming Forever.”
The two designers, who recently resigned from Draft to make their own company, Kigi, spoke with The Japan Times as they prepared for the current exhibition, which features most of their works to date, including the vase series.
“The mechanism of the vase is the same as a shampoo refill pack,” explained Uehara, referring to the plastic packs that stand up when they are full of liquid and can be squashed flat when empty.
“I was working on the label for a refill pack, and one night I filled it with water so that I could check the height the label should be at. Then I went home. The next morning I came to the office and Watanabe had left a flower standing in it,” he said.
With that, the seed of an idea was planted in Uehara’s mind and soon enough he and Watanabe had figured out a way to shape the pack so that it resembled a narrow-necked vase, and then added graphics that made it look like a real glass vase when filled with water.
“The interesting thing is that Watanabe left the flower there without really thinking too much about it,” Uehara said, explaining that the head of Draft, Satoru Miyata, had deliberately created a work environment where such unintended “accidents” could take place. “The office had a garden in it, which he made us look after, and the consequence was that people were always doing this kind of thing — leaving flowers here or there or decorating things.”
Miyata created the D-Bros line of products back in 1995 — nine years after Watanabe and two years before Uehara joined his company.
“Twenty years ago, when you went to home-ware shops or museum shops you would only see products by foreign designers,” explained Watanabe. “Miyata thought that was a wasted opportunity considering how many designers there were in Japan.”
Both Uehara and Watanabe now say that the chance to do product design in addition to the usual design-company staple of advertising work has been a crucial turning-point in their careers, and in their new company, Kigi, they hope to carry on doing a broad range of work.
Watanabe, who creates the delicate illustrations that adorn many of the D-Bros products, says she hopes she will still have time to do her own drawing. She also added that she would work with Uehara on one of his goals, which is to establish a new way of conducting long-term brand management for client companies.
And, of course, they both want to continue developing products that will keep stocking the shelves of the world’s art-museum gift shops.
“Draft will outsource the art direction for D-Bros products to our company,” explained Uehara, “but eventually we’d like to make our own brand, too.”
“Kigi Exhibition: Ryosuke Uehara and Yoshie Watanabe” at Ginza Graphic Gallery runs till May 30; open 11 a.m.-7p.m. Free admission. Closed Sun. www.dnp.co.jp/gallery/ggg.