It takes a special sort of talent to mastermind the world's first 3D photobooth, a replica Lady Gaga speaker, or a radio signal-repellent fashion line. Tokyo Journal's Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie talked with Masashi Kawamura, who alongside his partners at Creative Lab PARTY, has done all three. Established in Tokyo in 2011, and with a recently opened New York office and world-wide projects in the pipeline, it's fair to say that PARTY is just getting started.
TJ: Could you tell me about your background? You were born in Tokyo, and then...
KAWAMURA: I moved to San Francisco in kindergarten, and then came back to Tokyo in high school. I started to get into coding and design at university, and got my first job at a Japanese agency called Hakuhodo. Then I spent about ten years working for advertising agencies in different cities: London, Amsterdam, New York...
TJ: So what did you do with Hakuhodo?
KAWAMURA: I was a commercial film planner, which is a niche title and special to Japan, where TV commercials are considered the main form of advertising. The way it forced me to only do TV commercials was good training but a little limiting for me. I saw the outside world doing more integrated communications and was like, “Wow, I gotta put myself into that group.”
TJ: And tell me a little bit about PARTY?
KAWAMURA: PARTY is a company I started in 2011 with four partners – that’s Naoki Ito, the chief creative officer; Qanta Shimizu, our chief tech officer; Hiroki Nakamura, a creative director, and me. Each of us had been having success in the advertising, communications, and design world, but felt the structures of these agencies were limiting to our desire to push the boundaries of creativity. Now, we specialise in projects that merge storytelling and technology, and we call ourselves a lab to make sure that we don’t forget our experimental and innovating spirit. It’s the first entity I’ve been in that I feel like change is part of the culture.
TJ: So do you consider yourself a design company, a think-tank?
KAWAMURA: It’s difficult. Right now we’re working on a CI (corporate branding) branding project for a Taiwanese shopping mall, digital content for clients, and products including a watch, too. We like to do everything, so it’s really hard to define one main position.
TJ: Is most of your work commissioned?
KAWAMURA: Currently, it’s about 60 percent commissioned and 40 percent selfinitiated. But we want to create more selfinitiated opportunities so instead of waiting for clients to tell us the product, we can make a cutting-edge product of our own and try to sell that.
TJ: What kinds of self-initiated projects have you worked on so far?
KAWAMURA: The most successful one was our 3D printing photo-booth exhibition: the “Omote 3D Project,” which sold out in two weeks. Our idea was to innovate traditional Japanese family portraits, which, despite technological advances, hadn’t really changed for decades. So we started this small pop-up business in Harajuku where families could be scanned in 3D and receive small figurines of themselves. Some celebrities from L.A. flew over specifically, and afterwards some asked to use the technology in their own campaigns. So it really paid off to keep some of the IP (intellectual property), as we were then able to use the system for commissioned projects.
TJ: What kind of clients have you worked with?
KAWAMURA: I think the biggest have been Toyota, Google, Intel and Sony – tech companies, who tend to understand what we do more. But we also love music, art and culture. Recently we were lucky to do Lady Gaga’s promotions, creating these life-size Gaga dolls fitted with bone conduction speakers, which Gaga took with her on TV shows. But we also can’t say, “no” to smaller music groups. So, big global brands to small local bands. We really believe that it’s not the brand’s size but the opportunities for innovative work.
"...design education is such an important fundamental skill-set that's lacking from the education system"
TJ: So what has attracted these big brands to you?
KAWAMURA: I would love to know myself! I think there are a lot of digital companies out there, and also a lot of design companies, but it’s still scarce to find a place that can truly merge those two sides together. Though we’re still small I think our work has travelled around the world well enough to get attention, but that’s why we thought we’d have a New York office, just to have one leg outside, making sure the work spreads.
TJ: Like Akio Morita?
KAWAMURA: (Laughs) Yes.
TJ: So what’s the smallest client you’ve taken?
KAWAMURA: I think we’re probably our smallest! I guess music videos or TV shows. Often when you want really experimental stuff, the budget just doesn’t come along with that. We’ve done freebies for musicians because we love their music.
TJ: So what type of clients do you not want to take?
KAWAMURA: Oh, that’s kind of easy. If a client’s not trying to do the innovative work that we just love doing, but believe it’s efficient for the brand, then we just have to say, “no.”
TJ: So do you recommend that creative people, living and working in Tokyo, for example, try to visit New York and Paris and other places?
KAWAMURA: Oh yeah, I always do. It doesn’t mean that you have to work and live and die there, but just a great eye-opening experience to see different perspectives and work ethics. Don’t worry about the language so much, just go and test it out. Now that we have the two offices we’d love to do more of an exchange of talents and opportunities, and we’re actually looking for interns in our New York office.
TJ: How beneficial has it been to speak both Japanese and English for your career?
KAWAMURA: … Yes, I have to admit, I feel lucky. I just followed my parents around! My father – typical Japanese salary-man, spent ten years in San Francisco and then went back [to Tokyo]. I had no intentions to use my English in my career, but being the global language it really does help.
TJ: Do you f ind yourself more creative in New York than in Tokyo, or vice-versa?
KAWAMURA: It’s hard to say, my heart’s torn in half. Right now I think that, while Japan has crazy technologies and interesting talents, as a market it is isolated and kind of small. I feel that being here [New York] keeps me up-to-date with the latest stuff and best talent from around the world, and that the chances of building something really new have increased since I’ve been back.
TJ: Do you have any creative or business heroes?
KAWAMURA: Masahiko Sato was my tutor in university and also a famous creative director at Dentsu. I joined his lab in college and was like, “Oh my god, I thought that advertising was cool, but it was actually you!” People like Italian artist Bruno Munari really inspire me, too. He really dives into the creative process. It’s not just about the finished output, but more about how it was built.
TJ: How do you pass your own creative spirit on to your fellow employees?
KAWAMURA: God... I really suck at that! I hope just by showing examples. I’m never a pure business manager guy. I love to get my hands dirty and do things.
TJ: As a company, which project has challenged you the most?
KAWAMURA: That’s hard. We tend to choose the newest, most difficult project on the table, which kills us every time! But I would say the latest is the toughest: We created our first fashion line, alongside designer Kunihiko Morinaga. The clothes are made from radio frequency shielded fabric, so that when you put your mobile in the pockets, you’re disconnected; not receiving or sending data. They’re designed to help you live freer from social media, emails, and phone calls.
TJ: I understand that you were involved in an NHK TV programme?
KAWAMURA: Yes, I conceived “Techne: Visual Workshop” for NHK. I’d seen a lot of programmes on fine art, but not on motion graphics, film, or music videos. So my proposal was to go behind the scenes and educate kids about how film-making works; show that there’s no magic, and [thus] that they could do it, as well. Every episode highlights one film or animation technique, and then we share famous clips and show what method was used to make them.
TJ: Do you read a lot?
KAWAMURA: I read a lot of manga, if you count that. I’m more of a visual guy, so movies and manga!
TJ: I count that. Have you thought much about education – what it should be like?
KAWAMURA: I think education is really cool, and like art in how it almost turns on a switch in your brain, and can change people’s perception of the world. I also think design education is such an important fundamental skill-set that’s lacking from the education system, especially in Japan. There’s this weird thing called “Art, ” but it’s like beautiful paintings and that’s it.
TJ: So what do you mean by design, and how would you implement it into the classroom?
KAWAMURA: For example, every single object is designed for a purpose, right? Take the doorknob; it’s shaped to give you the idea that you can grab it, but also so you can easily turn it, which unlocks the internal [part]. Those types of things you never think about until you learn, but are actually very important and open up a whole different world in terms of how you visualize certain information. It’s not about seeing a beautiful painting on the wall; design and visual information tell you more about how things are used.
TJ: So is there any message that you have for our readers?
KAWAMURA: Yeah, I still love Japan, but I love being out of Japan as well. It’s great to open up and see the outside world. So if anyone’s thinking about working outside, please don’t think twice. Just do it! tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #275 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.