From a young age, Stuttgart-born Megumi Ito always felt “a bit different” from people in her seaside home of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Both her father and grandfather worked in Europe as architects, and the entire family were great fans of the region’s various styles and cultures, which had become an integral part of their lives. On returning to Japan, her parents were determined to instill their passion for Europe in 5-year-old Ito — and they were successful.
Now, more than 40 years later, Ito is a light designer in Vienna, Austria, preparing to celebrate 20 years of running her own business in 2018.
“My family wanted me to have European style,” says Ito, recalling that even the traditional randoseru rucksack for her elementary school days was rejected by her parents in favor of a European-style backpack.
Over the years, she was introduced to the work of Picasso as well as French and Italian furniture and a host of European design styles.
The influence extended to personalities, too. Ito noticed that her family “hugs each other and is very loud and dramatic,” making interactions in her home characteristically more European than “typically Japanese.” This led to her curiosity to travel to Europe to “see what a real European family was like.”
Ultimately, though, her reason for moving to Austria was instinctive.
“I have little memory of my time in Germany and Switzerland, but the knowledge that I was born in Germany was a huge draw for me to come back to Europe,” she says. “As a teenager, I wanted to speak German in a German-speaking country.”
At 20, Ito was accepted at the Vienna University of Applied Arts in Textile Design in neighboring Austria, where she started to learn what she has always considered should be one of her two native tongues: German. But she soon found that language skills alone would not be sufficient to settle into the country; she had to “totally change” her “way of thinking” due to the different order of grammar patterns, the direct style of speaking and even the sense of humor.
After two or three years she was speaking well and had made many good friends. She found Austria a nice place to live and was enthralled by Vienna’s smell.
“Every time I walked on the street I thought it was amazing. The mixture of soap and perfume alongside coffee, cigarettes and wind is totally different to Japan’s smell,” she says.
Her joy at her new environment kept her motivated to attend university, even after she had to repeat classes.
During her sixth year of study, a friend asked her to make some lamps for an exhibition. After working on the project for a month in an atelier, Ito was able to deliver a successful event, which inspired her to leave behind university and set up her current lamp design business.
“I hadn’t thought about making lamps before but it was such a great chance. And then the business came naturally; I didn’t initially think about being self-employed. Making lamps was not destiny: I got a chance and wanted to make the best of it,” she says.
While she admits that sometimes the nerves she feels from running a business hit her “like a wave,” in the past five or six years, her designs have been rapidly growing in popularity.
That increased business is likely the result of the huge variety of light fixtures that she is creating. From grandiose chandeliers to ultra-modern nightstands, soft and warm ceiling lamps to discrete led displays, each design is tailor-made and there is a style to suit everyone. Ito has created lights for homes, hotels and other businesses as well as the Graben Christmas Lighting Competition and Vienna Design Week, either independently or in collaboration with some of Europe’s award-winning architects.
She gets ideas on Instagram and Pinterest or when consuming music, magazines and movies, but says she “tries not to focus on getting inspiration but on the flow” of the work.
“I visit each space to see its atmosphere and understand what is missing because I want to fill that missing part,” she says. “I then tailor each lamp to suit the charisma and personality of both the space and the client, playing with light and shade to create the right ambience.”
Aside from Austria, Ito has sold her lamps to customers in Italy, Germany and Switzerland. Some know exactly what they want, some give ideas and some can’t imagine what the finished product might look like. Despite her great desire to sell to Japanese clients, she says she is unsure of how she can sell to them.
“I don’t know if I can communicate with them (about creating the design) because I’ve been living in Europe for quite a long time and am used to the European way. Sometimes Japanese people don’t say what they think, which makes things complicated.” Yet, on the other hand, she explains that people in Vienna can be “direct” and “very rough.”
Ito returns to Japan when she can, particularly during the Austrian winter, which is “very long and hard,” and to enjoy the seascape of Kamakura. She describes life without the sea on her horizon as the hardest thing about her life in Vienna. But the positives of living in Austria still greatly outweigh the negatives.
“If I had been living in Japan (over this period), I couldn’t have been myself because my family and friends are so loud in giving me advice or judgment. Maybe I couldn’t have concentrated on being myself,” she says. “I enjoy being myself in Europe.”
Once her son graduates from high school in 2018 and becomes independent, Ito is eyeing Paris and New York for further opportunities. The plan follows successful exhibitions of her work in France in recent years. She is keen to be more international in her approach and to try working in a bigger city, at least for part of the year.
Regardless of location, she is keen to keep her same approach to work.
“I’m not serious and I like to have fun. If I make a mistake I try to make fun of it and I try to be strong,” she says. “Whatever you’ve got, if you have a chance, make the best of it.”
Name: Megumi Ito
Key moments in career:
1992 — Begins studying at Vienna University of Applied Arts in Textile Design
1998 — Starts own lamp-making business
2016 — First work is exhibited internationally (in France)
Life philosophy: “Whatever you have got, if you have a chance, make the best of it.”
Strengths: Emotionally strong, fun-loving, resilient
Weaknesses: Artistic moodiness
1992年 オーストリア国立応用美術大学 入学