People | 20 QUESTIONS

Maurice Eric Zacher: Designs on Japan

by Mio Yamada

Name: Maurice Eric Zacher
Age: 35
Nationality: German
Occupation: Japanologist/product designer
Likes: Umeshu (plum wine) soda, konyaku (devil’s tongue), maitake mushrooms
Dislikes: Selfies, profile pics, lemongrass, hot and humid weather


1. How would your best friend describe you in a few words? I actually asked three friends, but here’s one answer: Mercilessly honest, stubborn, fearless, faithful, eager.

2. When did you first realize you wanted to be a designer? It was when I got my first mobile phone. Everyone in Germany had a Nokia and I hated it. It just felt wrong — bad quality, bad interface. It had a bunch of exchangeable fcovers that people used instead of taking care of the phone. I worked almost one year in a supermarket after school to get a Sony CMD-Z5. I loved the design. By the time I got a new phone most people had already gone through three. That made me realize that I enjoy thinking of ways to make a product better.

3. Minimalist or maximalist? I’d say minimalist, because having too many things can feel like a burden sometimes. But in terms of interior, I guess I am more something in between. I like mixing styles over sticking strictly to one.

4. What was the first thing you made that you’re proud of? A 3-D interpretation of Kandinsky’s “Yellow-Red-Blue” during my last year of high school. My math teacher offered me €200 for it, but I liked it way too much to give it away.

5. Why are you interested in Japan? The first time I came to Japan was before the iPhone was released. There were so many stunning Japan-only products and gadgets. Design-wise, they were really refreshing. Since then I wanted to come back.

6. Do you have any all-time heroes? Naoto Fukasawa and Issey Miyake. They both studied at the Tama Art University, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to study there.

7. You received a scholarship to study at Tama Art University, any tips for those wanting to do the same? I got a Japanese government monbukagakusho (MEXT) scholarship. You have to apply with a research topic at the Japanese embassy of your home country. Your application should clearly expound why it is necessary to do the research specifically in Japan. It’s also a plus to know or at least be in contact with the professor or department you want to research or study at.

8. Is there anything you just had to bring with you from Germany to Japan? One set of my favorite cutlery. I really enjoy this specific set of cutlery. It’s not too heavy, nor too light and it’s been in our family since I can remember. Food just tastes better with well-made cutlery, and this set makes me feel at home.

9. Why do you primarily work with porcelain? I learned how to work with clay and porcelain at Kassel Art University in Germany, but I got most of my skills from a year at Kyoto Seika University and a designers in residency program at the German porcelain manufacturer KAHLA. I like the smell and feeling of liquid porcelain. The whole process of making has a lot of soothing and satisfying aspects for me.

10. What’s your favorite color? I don’t have one. It’s a preference that can vary and always change.

11. What makes you jumps for joy? A weekend free to watch the latest season of a series I like, with a good friend, good food and a glass of umeshu soda.

12. Do you collect anything? Vintage Japanese electronics. For example, I have the UFO-shaped Panasonic TR-005 Orbitel TV, the ball-shaped JVC Videosphere and a yellow Sony Solar Walkman WM-F107, which I just found out is one of the rarest Walkmans now. All are design-history relevant pieces. The product cycle was not that fast when they were made, so they were made differently.

13. You’re asked to design Olympic mascots, what do you do? Maybe I would first look into yōkai (Japanese folklore monsters and spirits) that could be connected to specific sports. Like a kappa (river demon) could represent water sports.

14. Do you have a favorite place in Japan? Three are in Kyoto, but I can’t say where they are, because one of the reasons why I like them is that they’re peaceful and not touristy. I want them to stay that way.

15. Have you done anything weird since you got to Tokyo? During the summer, I once stayed on the Yamanote Line for a full circle, just because I was sweating too much and didn’t want to get off until the train’s air-conditioning cooled me down.

16. What’s your best Japan experience? So many! The two most recent were with a tatami maker and his son from Osaka and people from a textile company in Kyoto that I visited for research. I didn’t know any of them before, but they let me stay at their places, showed me their production processses and even drove me around.

17. What should every designer read? I was always told I should read “In Praise of Shadows” by Tanizaki Junichiro and one of the many books about wabi sabi. I did that and it was interesting, but I would recommend “Elective Affinities” by Goethe or “War and Peace by” Tolstoy. Sometimes you should step out of your bubble.

18. If you could go back in time, which era would you want to live in? People normally have a nostalgic view of the past, but I think we can’t imagine how hard life actually was. I’d much rather go forward 200 years. The only reason to go back would have been to meet my grandfather who died before I was born. I would have liked to know him.

19. Ever destroyed something out of despair? Many years ago, I bought some special-edition Final Fantasy soda cans for a friend, while I was in Tokyo. On the way home, my ex (who is now one of my best friends) and I had a fight/discussion and I smashed the cans on the street. Since then some of my friends and I use “Final Fantasy” as safe word if conversations seem to be going in the wrong direction.

20. Tell us something about yourself that you think most people don’t know. I use two sheets of toilet paper to form a cigarette like shape to wipe my ears dry after a shower or bath, because ever since watching the HBO series “Girls,” I’ve been afraid of using Q-tips.