Sinclair Smith is the Director of the SVA GroundFloor Incubator, and a founding faculty at MFA Products of Design. Upon his return from leading the SVA Destinations Summer Program to Yame, Japan, department chair Allan Chochinov sat down with Sinclair to talk about the adventure, the highlights, the challenges, and the gratifications.
Allan Chochinov: Let’s start at the beginning Sinclair. How did the entire Yame project start?
Sinclair Smith: A Japanese friend told me she knew some people coming to NYC from Japan for a design conference and asked if I’d talk to them about design. Since I was a young child in the late 70s and my father lead architectural tours to a Japan that was still so culturally exotic on the pre-consumer-electonic, pre-flattened globe, I have had an acute case of “Japan envy.” So I will talk to anyone from Japan about anything.
My friend brought her colleagues to my office and they said they worked in Tokyo in PR and represented a community of traditional craftsmen in a small city on the Western Island of Kyushu. They told me that the craft community there was struggling to find the next generation of apprentices to carry their craft traditions and asked if my students would like to move to Japan to become traditional craftspeople. I said, no. My students come to SVA from all over the world to join a global economy that deals less and less with traditions and handwork. They are unlikely to move to a relatively unknown rural city to dedicate their lives to traditional craft and they are as unlikely to be truly embraced there if they tried.
AC: A tricky beginning!
SS: Yes. I suggested that this is a problem that needs to be resolved in Japan by attracting an otherwise disinterested generation of young Japanese designers to alternative and existing career paths. And I suggested that by combining some of SVA’s resources, most notably the SVA MFA PoD collaboration with MoMA Design Store, we might show these young Japanese designers how cool traditional craft can be when translated into contemporary form.
Our goals are to expose the world to this incredible craft community, to inject new ideas and contracts into their local craft economy, and to attract the next generation of craft apprentices so these traditions will stay alive.
So I proposed a Summer program that came to be called SVA Made in Yame that takes designers—from anywhere, not just SVA—to Yame City to observe ten traditional crafts and to design contemporary products using those tools and techniques. Prototypes get shown to our partners at MoMA who have the option to license the designs, manufacture them in Yame and distribute them globally. Our goals are to expose the world to this incredible craft community, to inject new ideas and contracts into their local craft economy, and to attract the next generation of craft apprentices so these traditions will stay alive.
AC: And I know that summer programs are a lot of work to plan, and a bit of a highwire act to pull off! (We did two summer programs at Boisbuchet back before the MFA program started.) You actually did a “dry run” of the program ahead of time, correct?
SS: I did a reconnaissance mission to Japan a few months after the aforementioned introductory meeting to see Yame for myself and plan the program itinerary and curriculum. And you’re right—these programs are an enormous amount of work to plan, especially considering that the program itself only occupies two calendar weeks. The year that followed had its ups and downs and eventually, with amazing support from SVA, the local government in Yame, and a corporate partner in Japan, we decided to run a short pilot program that was fully subsidized by our partners in Japan.
AC: Tell us about who attended this program?
SS: I invited five established product designers of varying backgrounds and expertise and we spent 8 days in Yame. (They were Sigi Moeslinger and Masamichi Udagawa of Antennae Design, Alexandra Dymowska, lead designer for brand strategy at Cadillac Design, General Motors, Ian Collings, product designer, sculptor and former co-founder of Fort Standard, and product designer Panisa Khunprasert, MFA 2016 Products of Design.) We saw all ten craft workshops: washi paper making, wood working, lacquerware, metal engraving, urushi and maki-e painting, paper and silk lantern making, bow and arrow making, spinning top making, Kasuri weaving, and stone working. I worked with the designers for two days on their sketch concepts to find design solutions that would effectively communicate the traditional materials and crafts used to make them, but would also be financially viable to produce by a brand like MoMA Wholesale and appeal to their broad network of contemporary design retailers.
AC: And how did it go?
SS: The final presentation of design concepts to the craftsmen and stakeholders in Yame was a big hit, and solidified our belief that we had a winning program on our hands. My presentation of the designs to MoMA and their positive feedback only added to our conviction. We made some adjustments to the program itinerary based on the feedback of the designers and went full steam into marketing this past June’s trip.
AC: Okay, so let’s fast forward to the SVA SVA Made in Yame program that just wrapped up. I want to ask you about the highlights and challenges. Let’s start with the highlights!
SS: Wow, where to begin? The greatest highlight has to be the quality of friendship and care that quickly develops between the designers and the craftsmen. The community in Yame is extraordinarily warm and welcoming. The workshop visits, group meals and outings quickly feel like a huge family gathering. And it is common for a designer with an expressed interest in a particular craft to be invited to that craftsman’s home for a meal. It is a wonderful experience to have and to share with the designers I bring there.
Having your mind constantly and completely blown by the quality of craftsmanship and the endless beauty in every corner of Japanese culture...it’s almost unbearable how thoughtful they are about everything.
Another highlight is being so far off the beaten path. There are very few foreigners in Yame. In ten days, maybe we saw five other foreigners outside our group. Other highlights are having your mind constantly and completely blown by the quality of craftsmanship and the endless beauty in every corner of Japanese culture. It’s almost unbearable how thoughtful they are about everything. And the food. The FOOD!!!
AC: And the challenges. Maybe let’s focus on two forms of challenges—the “design challenges” and the “cultural challenges”?
SS: The design challenges are plain. We are dealing with manual craft traditions that entail intricate material and ornamental execution. These traditional objects are not cheap. The material and labor costs are high. Our goal is to increase awareness of the crafts, essentially by creating contemporary, lower price point “entry models” for mass consumers. We hope broad distribution of these products will generate new revenue for the craftsmen and increased interest in their traditional goods. However, the program is in its infancy. We have not yet brought anything to market, so we don’t yet know the limits of form and function that are created by the material and labor costs. Drumroll please...
It never ceases to amaze me how much gets lost in translation—not because it cannot be translated, but because things that English speaking people might feel is appropriate to say in the moment in English don’t seem appropriate to say in the moment in Japanese.
The cultural challenges are real. The language barrier is very intense, even with interpreters. It never ceases to amaze me how much gets lost in translation—not because it cannot be translated, but because things that English speaking people might feel is appropriate to say in the moment in English don’t seem appropriate to say in the moment in Japanese. So the essence of a question from a designer may get completely dropped by an interpreter in an effort to make the question more diplomatic.
Design is a tricky business, requiring difficult questions that probe into aesthetics, economics, culture, behavior, psychology, emotions, etc. It is hard to find interpreters who know extensive design and craft vernacular in both languages. It is even harder to find interpreters who understand the nuanced cultural differences between how Eastern and Western minds think, and who can interpret accurately and diplomatically in both directions. Having experienced this challenge on my two previous trips, this time I brought with me a very sharp, former design student as an assistant and chief interpreter. Manako Tamura is highly fluent in both languages and was able to catch many of these nuanced misinterpretations and ask for clarity.
Our manners and boundaries are very different. But the Japanese are incredibly kind and gracious people, so even while we may fumble through many situations, they are quickly accommodating and generous of spirit. The process is very humbling. We all spend a lot of time laughing at our inability to communicate sufficiently. It winds up being the deepest communication of all.
AC: This sounds like an amazing experience. From a personal perspective, what were some of the most gratifying moments of the trip?
SS: I have always been in love with Japan. I studied Japanese design at Pratt. And yet I had never had an opportunity to go—even for tourism. Creating the opportunity to travel to Japan with purpose, to have an impact on design and on people’s lives overwhelms me with honor and with pride.
Being a student of Japanese design—so deeply imbedded in its roots while there in Yame—and to continue my role as a teacher is too much sometimes. Everyday when we are there, I wonder what miracle lead me to this dream come true. The most gratifying moments are when I allow myself to realize that I created this. Two wonderful strangers from Japan walked into my office in NYC and asked for help, and this is what resulted. I get to share it with the designers we bring who are immediately in awe of what is happening over there. I get to watch them become good friends with the craftsmen, just as I have. I get to share it with the craftsmen who love the designers. We share this with the local restaurateurs and government officials. We share with our partners at MoMA Wholesale. And eventually, if we play our cards right, we get to share it with the world through globally-distributed product design. It’s an intimate project with big scope and a lot of moving pieces. Pulling it off with the help of everyone involved, especially our incredible team at SVA Destinations, is the most challenging and substantive work I have ever done. It all seems to work really well so far. And that is very gratifying indeed.
To learn more about the SVA Made in Yame program, visit madeinyame.sva.edu/.