When asked how his design process works, Teruhiro Yanagihara, creative director of the ceramics collaboration project 1616/Arita, says, “My brain is initially ‘where I create.'”

Where They Create: Japan, by Paul Barbera and Kanae Hasegawa.
312 pages

Yanagihara’s comment in “Where They Create: Japan,” Paul Barbera and Kanae Hasegawa’s photographic compendium of creative workspaces, is a reference to how his studio — then a beautifully preserved old house in a remote forested area of Kyoto — was a space for the “final” stages of his projects. The actual “designing,” he says, takes place in his mind while traveling and meeting people.

“Where They Create: Japan,” which is filled with striking images taken by Barbera and accompanied by Q&A interviews by Hasegawa, is more an exploration of such creative minds than it is of the studios and offices they work in. If you’re expecting wide-angle shots and schematics, hoping to glean tips or inspiration on space management and practical decor, you will be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for an informal introduction to many of Japan’s leading designers, artists and architects, then this is a great primer.

The forewords by various Japanese culture enthusiasts, including former footballer and traditional-crafts advocate Hidetoshi Nakata and Monocle publisher Tyler Brule, offer insight into not only some of the differences between Japanese design processes and those overseas, but also a possible reason why so many of the images in the book are close-ups of objects on tabletops, ephemera in display cabinets, tomes crammed into shelves and artworks tucked in corners. Most of the physical spaces are, in fact, surprisingly small.

“Creative agencies internationally are upscale with over 30-60 people,” writes Brule. “That is where I find the biggest differences, where beautiful design studios overseas have been designed to accommodate big teams, in Japan you have strong brands who are often working in quite small and albeit nice spaces.”

As atelier space is at a premium, the items chosen for display are invariably special. Why does artist Takahiro Iwasaki, for example, have a shoebox filled with unused toothbrushes? And what is the significance of the Einstein portrait unceremoniously taped to a makeshift wall of bubble wrap in architect Sou Fujimoto’s studio?

The reasons are often personal and, fittingly, the book itself has an intimate feel to it. Barbera notes that the studio selection process was “organic,” through introductions via acquaintances and his collaborator Hasegawa, and sometimes even from chance meetings. His images often focus on the details that caught his eye and, in a similar manner, answers to interview questions reveal information about the subjects that suggest a friendly intimacy. You rarely get a sense of the depicted spaces in their entirety, but if you read between the lines, or the walls, the details brought to the fore have much to tell about their occupants.

The open-plan design of graphic designer Rikako Nagashima’s studio, we find out, was conceived to accommodate her cat; Oki Sato of design unit Nendo confesses to not going out much in Tokyo, but loving the city’s soba noodle establishments; and architect Kengo Kuma tells Hagesawa that in order to stay “fully immersed” in his surroundings he always drives to his studio with the top of his convertible BMW Mini down — even in winter.

Individual traits that infuse the creators’ work can also be deduced from pictorial details. The projects and eclectic objects lined up on the central tables of artist Kohei Nawa’s Sandwich studio, for example, reveal the wide breadth of influences and creativity of his students and coworkers, while the collections of Masamichi Katayama (Wonderwall), including stuffed wild animals, 3-D printed miniatures of himself and cans of Ryan Gander’s “Artist’s Shit,” showcase the interior designer’s sense of humor.

Barbera notes that he discovered in all his subjects an “unwavering work-ethic” and “constant craving for absolute perfectionism,” which are affirmed in both the interviewees’ admissions of exceptionally long work days (architect Tadao Ando says, “My day starts with work and ends with work”) and close-ups of creators’ meticulously executed projects.

The most surprising revelations, however, are almost hidden away in the text and come in the form of a few minor criticisms of the design process in Japan. It seems the obsession with perfection that unites the subjects of “Where They Create” may also be their weakness.

“They care about every little detail, which makes the process much longer,” notes fashion director Nicola Formichetti in his foreword. “Western companies are more flowing and free, which allow for more creativity and instinctual reaction.”

Likewise, artist Mariko Mori, who spends most of her time in New York and London, says, “Japanese people are very conscious and don’t like to take risks or do unprecedented things, but art often requires technology or craft which has not been applied in a certain way.”

It’s true that perfectionism can sometimes thwart innovation, but when it works, a designer can achieve something sublime. This book highlights what enables them to reach such heights of creativity. As it’s said, “God is in the details.”

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