Designer bucks ‘cost-conscious’ trend

High-quality, stylish products built to last, safe for environment

by May Masangkay

Kyodo News

At a time when people are looking to buy cheap items ranging from daily commodities to clothing and furniture, industrial and automotive designer Ken Okuyama appears to be in no hurry to jump on the bandwagon with manufacturers and retailers.

Okuyama, who founded the design planning and consultancy firm Ken Okuyama Design in 2007 and won fame as the first non-Italian to design a car for Ferrari, is uncompromising when it comes to his stance of offering high-quality products, saying their high prices are worth it because they are also cost-efficient and safe for the environment.

“People go for cheaper products because people are very aware of the value that they get from products, or maybe we simply don’t give people high enough value for them to understand about paying more,” said Okuyama, who has been traveling across Europe and the United States.

Adhering to a philosophy of designing products “modern, simple and timeless,” Okuyama jumped at the chance to flaunt his unique collection, which includes eyeglasses, furniture and a car at Mitsukoshi Ltd.’s flagship store in Tokyo’s Nihombashi district. The store featured works by renowned Japanese artists and designers under the Japan Creation Week exhibit last month.

One of the Okuyama exhibit’s centerpieces was the K.O7 original sports car, which was built with lightweight carbon fiber, stamped aluminum panels and milled alloy pieces, and has a 2-liter engine. These built-to-order cars were produced in Britain, with a maximum output of 100 units per year. Electric car models are set for release in two years’ time.

The Yamagata native, who worked as a design director for Pininfarina S.p.A and chief designer of then General Motors Corp. and helped design the Ferrari Enzo, prides himself on offering products that are not simply mass-produced and dumped on the market in less than a year.

“Products and goods are something that we actually don’t think enough about, but when you think about it, good watches, for example, last for generations,” Okuyama said.

“When you look at what’s environment-friendly . . . using the same product for tens, hundreds of years is probably the most efficient and friendly to the environment and makes your life richer and more enjoyable,” he said.

While Okuyama recognizes that the global economic downturn is making consumers tighten their purse strings, he believes they need to prepare for when the economy rebounds.

With products catering to a high-end clientele and marketing focused on overseas clients, Okuyama’s products are hardly a household name in Japan.

“We have been showing our work only outside of Japan partly because Japanese people like the influence of outside,” he said, adding that he believes the time is now ripe to push his products here because Japanese are “ready” to embrace their concept.

Okuyama said he is determined to promote his products by making them relevant to those who want to enjoy traditional Japanese culture and also use it daily.

“When you see typical Japanese products, they are almost too traditional and you can’t use them in daily life,” Okuyama said.

“It’s almost like when you talk about Japanese dancing, people go all the way to kabuki. Kabuki is great, but you don’t use kabuki in daily life,” he added.