When too many things ‘spark joy,’ it’s a Wonderwall life


Staff Writer

Masamichi Katayama, the founder of interior design firm Wonderwall, has a lot of friends. But as he glances around the empty meeting room of his studio, he says, “I feel a little lonely.”

A month ago, the same room housed numerous objects and artworks, while a huge ox head (an art piece by Simon Fujiwara) presided over meetings and a menagerie of stuffed animals watched from a window on the floor above. These are the “friends” Katayama misses — all of which, in April, were moved to the Tokyo Opera City Gallery for “The Encyclopedia of Masamichi Katayama: Life is hard … Let’s go shopping,” a large exhibition of the designer’s collection of books, CDs, antiques, artwork and many, many other things.

“I actually don’t see myself as a ‘collector,'” Katayama says, explaining his accumulation of more than 500 objects. “I’m ‘meeting’ items and falling in love. It’s about encounters.”

Ever since his Space Odyssey-like interior for A Bathing Ape in 1998, Katayama has been the darling of fashion brands in Japan. Even if you’re not familiar with his name, you will likely have wandered into his work. Uniqlo, A.P.C., Thom Browne and Nike are just a few of the major brands Wonderwall has created spaces for, not to mention more unusual clients, such as a Shinto shrine shop in Fukuoka Prefecture and a tiny bar inside a former bank in Kamakura.

Katayama says, the goal of Wonderwall is to “bring extraordinary experiences into physical outlets,” which he does with meticulously researched materials, unconventional display units and an unparalleled attention to detail. Inspirations come from the buildings themselves, but also from an array of sources — films, music, art, antiques: his “friends.”

This is the first time you’ve made your entire collection open to the public. Aren’t you afraid visitors may try to interpret something about you based on your possessions?

No, not at all. Many people posted on SNS that it’s surprising that I have so many different kinds of things when my own design output is more minimal with a clean aesthetic. But my work is not always so simple, and my pieces are also experiences to me — I think that’s why it’s eclectic. The influence on my output just manifests in a very different way.

Do you have a Buddhist-like animistic appreciation of objects then?

Well, I always say “my collection is like my friend.” I talk about some of the artworks like they are people, too. For example, “This one is so quiet, but he’s also so charming — I want to be friends with him a long time.”

If I’m in a gallery and looking at artworks, they sometimes speak to me, “Take me home, take me.” And I’ll take the new friends who speak really loudly.

From that perspective, I think the Buddhist thinking of inanimate objects is close to the way I collect. These things make my life better, because they are such good friends. Even though some are really stubborn and complicated.

Do you really speak to them?

Ha, I do … sometimes. Though I’m not sure if I’m talking to myself or to the objects. I do feel like I have a relationship with them. But I’m not their boss. We are equals and friends.

Take Ryan Gander’s artwork, for example. Sometimes his concept makes you ask questions. It’s the same with Simon Fujiwara’s art. And if you ask questions, they answer back. But you don’t know if those responses are true or genuine. Your questions also depend on your state of mind, so you keep asking. And the answers are not always the same.

Marie Kondo, the tidying expert, says you should personally thank unneeded objects and then throw them out.

I understand that concept. It’s the same as mine.

Really? In what way?

OK, I don’t throw things away. But if I don’t need it, I don’t buy it. It’s the same, but a kind of reverse concept!

If someone were to ask me do we absolutely need this or that, the answer is probably no. But I need it. I think maybe I’ve just met more “friends” (objects) than Ms. Kondo.

But your collection is so eclectic and includes some odd things — contorted plants, taxidermy specimens, antique ephemera. Some of it doesn’t seem “necessary” in life. You’ve even said of some purchases, “This artist is mad. It’s creepy. Who on Earth would buy this if I didn’t?”

Things that don’t necessarily look “beautiful” really appeal to me. I have a curiosity about fragile, uncanny and scary things. When you see something like that, you want to see more. That feeling is very close to beauty. I think everyone has the same desire or feeling, but mine is a little stronger. I don’t buy things for their beauty. I get them because they make me curious.

Is that what you mean when you say your objects are also “experiences”?

Yes, experiences in life are limited unless you go search more out. Seeing antiques, stuffed animals, an artist’s thinking, the strange shape of succulent plants — looking at all these things gives me a wider life experience. If you look at vintage items and antiques, for example, you start imagining the era it was created, how was it used, what it was like back then. It’s hard to explain or give an example how that turns into design and output, but all these influences gradually diffuse into another experience or design.

Is there a particular work that you think exemplifies the personal importance of your collection?

I have Ryan Gander’s “Alchemy Box.” This looks like a cardboard box covered in black plastic. On the wall to its left is a list of all the items the box contains. Except you’re not 100 percent sure that all those things are really inside the box. You could open it and find out — but if you do, the value of the art disappears.

That box constantly tests my desire and my trust in the artist. There’s also mystery. I have a strong relationship with Ryan, I know him well. He is a really nice person, so I think it’s all in the box. But it’s art, and if the box is empty, I think it may be a better artwork. Depending from which perspective you look at the box, the answers it offers changes.

It doesn’t look valuable, but Ryan’s approach is so appealing. That black box keeps me thinking. It keeps my brain working and makes my mind very flexible. This is how art can be a “friend.” That’s what I mean when I say I talk to art.

People constantly change their minds — the mind is unstable. Conceptual art, therefore, has a fragility. You know Japanese education is very systematic — it’s right and left, black and white — so art like this shakes my foundation. You don’t buy the “Alchemy Box” because there are things in it. You get it because of its deep and multilayered story.

Several of the pieces in your collection are by young up-and-coming artists. Is the experience of supporting such artists also part of the joy of ownership?

Of course. I think of it as investing in possibility. It’s very intriguing to deal with young artists. When I see their value, I like to make a difference — a statement that I like them. I think it’s important to do this. When I meet young artists (such as Keisuke Sasaki and Koichi Enomoto), it makes me particularly delighted. They are, after all, a part of their art. They help me understand what they’re thinking and what their aims are, and that makes me not only happy but also inspired.

It’s also easier to buy. (laughs) Ryan’s work was affordable when I bought them. Now the prices are getting high. I’d never sell them, though. It brings me joy, not monetary value.

Now the subtitle “Life is hard, Let’s go shopping” makes much more sense …

Well these items I have actually really are my shopping history. But shopping isn’t a bad thing — I mean, I do design retail spaces. (laughs) But I also wanted to make this exhibition accessible and simple. Art exhibitions are usually intellectual and academic. I wanted the younger generation to see these things, so I wanted to make sure that it sounded like something that is easy to enjoy.

The layout of the exhibition makes the conceptual art the climax. I wanted people to think about the meaning of art by the time they reach that area. That’s why I also asked for it to be a “photo-OK” exhibition. People can take pictures and can look things up later. Then there will be another relationship or history between the visitor and the artist.

Do you think young people are scared off by the academics of art?

I do. Art is such a flexible word. People casually use the word to describe anything unique. But I believe that art is a form of concept. I hope people will think of the true value of things. Not just of art, but in life.

“The Encyclopedia of Masamichi Katayama: Life is hard… Let’s go shopping” at Tokyo Opera City Gallery runs until June 25. For more information, visit www.operacity.jp/ag/exh196 or wonder-wall.com.

Three wonders of Wonderwall

Intersect by Lexus, Aoyama, Tokyo

Auto manufacturer Lexus’ modern glass building houses a cafe, bistro, retail space, gallery and more. Wonderall reflected the brand through warm-colored woods; fresh white, black and aluminium fittings; bright LED lighting; and an unusual wall entirely composed of white-washed car parts. bit.ly/intlexus

Pass the Baton, Gion, Kyoto

Set within a 120-year-old traditional Japanese townhouse in Kyoto, Pass the Baton is a secondhand goods store specializing in the well-loved items of fashion and design gurus. In keeping with the concept of recycling, the building’s structure was kept intact, with sections renovated and new details added, such as flooring created from left-over timber and an artistic display of the house’s original roof slates. Vintage furniture was selected to display items and lighting was switched to Japanese lanterns, making the space nostalgic yet modern. www.pass-the-baton.com

A-Factory, Aomori

A local revitalization project by JR East Railways, A-Factory was inspired by a poster for the 2005 “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” film. Focusing on cider brewed on-site using local Fuji apples, the warehouse-like space has an atmosphere of a farmers market, with large barrels of cider as a centerpiece. Modern lamps hang from high ceilings, wooden crates display local produce and open planning allows visitors to observe the bustling market place and cafes. www.jre-abc.com