People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Motomi Morii: Japanese roots, Nordic aesthetic

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

When architectural designer Motomi Morii, 38, thinks of her childhood, she thinks of her grandparents’ old house, filled with the smell of lumber.

“The best memories for me as a child come from that house,” she says. “It was an old house. That part of my family ran a lumber company, so the house always smelled of hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood. In the backyard, there were fig trees and a stream. All the neighbors were friends, and we had festivities and local fireworks.”

These trips to her grandparents’ house in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture, are the basis of Morii’s interest in craft and design, as well as her understanding of the importance of history and culture in design. She says that her family “were old-fashioned people, so they made everything by hand. I was attracted to the practicality and aesthetics of what they made.”

Although Morii felt kinship to the older aspects of her community, as she grew older, she began to feel at odds with those around her. The suburban lifestyle, living in a new house and going to cram school to get good marks did not suit her. For Morii, these things were not what was important, and they were far from the world of wood and craft that she loved so much.

As a teenager, she dreamed of different places and ideas, and found an outlet through music. “The station near my house had two directions. One going to Nara, where my school was, and one going to Osaka,” she says. “I often skipped school and went to Osaka. I was already into experimental music at age 16. At that time there was only radio, and I had to go to Osaka to discover new music. I loved (American minimalist composer) Steve Reich.”

Around the same time, Morii decided she had to see the world. “I wanted to leave Japan ever since I was in junior high school,” she says. “I wanted to see something bigger. I felt the world was big and I didn’t want to stay in small Japan. Not necessarily small geographically, but small in terms of opportunities around me. I wanted to discover things by myself.”

She eventually made her way to Paris, where she lived from age 19, studying architectural design at ESAG Penninghen. “The focus in architectural education at the time was deconstruction,” Morii says. “People like Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. The movement was theoretical, and I couldn’t agree with its design approach because it was not practical.”

Later, Morii turned away from deconstruction, and began to revisit the more practical elements of design. She studied furniture and product design in Finland, a country famous for its woodcraft. She studied at Aalto University, a design school in Helsinki, and apprenticed with renowned architect Alvar Aalto’s furniture maker, Kari Virtanen. For her final project she created a modular glass and wood shelving system, designed to be both affordable and of good quality.

Throughout her career, Morii has dealt with a range of projects, but her focus remains on high-quality, well-designed and well-thought-out ideas. She goes beyond her training in architecture and furniture and has taken on the design of everything from high-end housing projects to wine carrier bags.

Since 2009, Morii has lived and worked in New York. There, she indulges in her love of experimental and improvised music, and takes part in various Japanese cultural events around the city. Most importantly, for Morii, New York provides her with constant inspiration and opportunity.

Now, Morii has her sights set further afield. After co-founding her own company, FROM, in February, she has worked on projects in Iran, and is in talks with companies here in Japan. She believes she offers a unique perspective when compared to other Japanese firms and architects. “Most architects in Japan don’t think about proportion when they design western style buildings,” she says. Were Morii to do projects here, she’d like to bring her “mix of Japanese and Nordic aesthetics” to the table.

As for whether Morii ever wants to leave New York, she says: “I feel like I’m fortunate to have a green card, and to have had the chance to establish my own company. I have access to many things in the U.S. and Europe. That’s something I want to keep. At the moment, there are more possibilities in the U.S. than in Japan for me. And in New York, there’s a sense of freedom. When I’m in New York, I always feel the same way as I felt the first time I left Japan. It keeps coming back to me. It’s as if the streets are saying, ‘Motomi, it’s your first day.'”

But no matter where Morii goes, or where she works, her thoughts keep returning to her foundational childhood experiences. “Near my grandmother’s house, there was an old Shinto shrine,” she says. “Beyond the torii gate were four pillars, tied together with thin rope, making a boundary. That space was magical, and the rope was telling me not enter. It’s a very Japanese sensibility. Later, when I studied architecture, I read books explaining the theory behind this. My basis for understanding that space, however, is still based on the feeling I had of the place as a child.

“As a child, I was reading the boundary between the place that belongs to my world and beyond, which is the gods’ space. Crossing the border was like leaving Japan for a new world. Ever since I first went to France, I understood that the world is full of different cultures and worlds. And that idea of understanding a world that I don’t yet know has kept me going.”

For more information on Motomi Morii and her company, visit f-r-o-m.com.

Profile

Name: Motomi Morii

Profession: Architectural designer

Hometown: Yoshino, Nara Prefecture

Age: 38

Key moments in career:

1999 — Left Japan to study design at ESAG Penninghen in Paris

2003 — Interned at Kengo Kuma’s office in Tokyo

2005 — Moved to Finland to study furniture and product design at Aalto University

2009 — Moved to New York

2013 — Started work at Robert A.M. Stern Architects

2018 — Formed FROM Architecture D.P.C. with partner Matteo Fraticelli

Misses about Japan: “The kindness between individuals on the street. For example, an old man thanking me over and over for giving up my seat to him.”

Likes about New York: “New York feels so free. When I walk down the street every day, it’s like the city is telling me, ‘Motomi, it’s your first day. Just do it.'”