Naomi Hirano has always found herself between worlds. Born to a Japanese father and a Malaysian mother, Naomi spent her childhood jumping between Southeast Asia and Tokyo before going to New York City for art school. She moved back to Tokyo to pursue her interests beyond fine art, eventually starting her current role in an advertising agency.
In 2018 Naomi started a passion project called Stand No More that brought her back to creating art again. I visited Naomi’s home studio in Tokyo to discuss her creative process, her thoughts on traditional craft in Japan, as well as her vision going forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about Stand No More.
Stand No More is a collection of drawings, chairs, objects, and conversations. There are two facets: one is an outlet for me to continue my artistic practice, and to make sure my hand is always moving. The other is bringing that collection of thoughts and sharing that with people so they can give me feedback, or repurpose it, and from there, create more conversations around the idea of art.
I have to ask — why chairs?
I used to make collages out of furniture magazines, and those became drawings and paintings, which I created a lot of because I just never got tired of them. About seven years ago, I had the opportunity to work at an architecture firm where I met people who saw my drawings. They were like, “Let’s make a chair!” and we ended up making something together. From there, it just evolved into its own thing along the way.
You lived in New York for several years to train as a painter. How would you describe your relationship with art?
Like every fine arts student, my dream was to be a self-made artist who made their living off selling paintings. Little did I know, the path to get there is quite elitist and reserved for the few who do all the right things or those who are connected with the right people. After four years of art school, I ended up hating the very thing I had wanted.
When I came back to Japan, I knew that art as a career wasn’t something I wanted to pursue. That allowed me to seek out different kinds of experiences, such as working in architecture, startups, or advertising. I think that inspired a better vision of what I had envisioned for myself — which was to create a space where different creatives can come together to “make” something. But it doesn’t have to be a painting. It can be anything. We can make conversations and learn from each other.
Why did you move back to Tokyo?
The simple explanation was to be closer to my family. But, I also thought it would be a great opportunity to get back in touch with my roots. I was born in Malaysia but lived on and off in Tokyo in an [international] community, so I felt out of touch with what it means to be Japanese. Having a Japanese passport but not necessarily understanding the culture and history was something that bothered me. So, being able to come back and live and work with other locals — as well as a wider scope of expats and other mixed-raced Japanese — I feel like I had the opportunity to grow in unexpected ways.
How did your intentions to reconnect with your culture tie into Stand No More?
For two to three years, I worked at a startup that focused on attracting foreign tourists to less-publicized areas in rural Japan. To achieve this, we worked with traditional craftsmen in the Kantō region to create beginner-friendly, experiential workshops so people could learn more about Japanese culture and history.
This experience helped me realize that a huge part of Japanese tradition was being slowly pushed to the wayside. A lot of these craftsmen, many of their businesses are family-owned and have lasted over a hundred years. To see that die out after so long — I don’t want to say it’s sad because things come and go — but there’s something beautiful in what they know. It’s important to preserve their knowledge and tradition of making.
Part of the objective of Stand No More is to deliberately create conversations with people who come from tradition, such as people who have maintained a well of knowledge that is currently dying. I specifically choose to work with Japanese craftsmen in order to think of how we can sustain their craft, or to see if we can use what they know and evolve it into something else.
There is a perception of craftsmen being traditionalists who don’t like change. What was your impression after working with them so closely?
They were all surprisingly enthusiastic about the idea of creating something new. I was very encouraged, because you’ll find a lot of people who want to use the techniques they’ve honed for years, but in a different way. This is the exciting part — I think new opportunities and technologies emerge from this kind of collaboration.
What is the process behind making each piece of work?
It’s a real, two-way design process. I normally do a set of drawings and then pick several that I connect with, or that I feel have character. From there, I pass the basic drawings to the craftsman and he works his magic. He comes up with the technical aspects on his own — I don’t give him any CAD drawings or renderings. It’s not a one-way thing where I am the designer and I direct him, as a lot of his input goes into the chair as well. It really feels like we're designing it together.
Tell us about the first chair you made.
So, this chair is called Agnes. It’s named after the American painter Agnes Martin who I really, really like. It’s a simple, heavy chair that I made in 2018. Including me, there were three people involved — I came up with the skeletal drawings, a wood craftsman created the basic structure, and then a tatami shokunin [craftsman] created a customized seat for the top part of the chair.
What is special about the tatami?
I had a conversation with a tatami craftsman who was losing a lot of business because families in Japan were renovating their homes and taking out the tatami room, which is traditionally a huge component in houses here.
We were just talking about ways to repurpose tatami, and then he told me about one of the best parts of tatami — it’s both a natural humidifier and dehumidifier, as it absorbs moisture in the summer, which it then releases in the winter. In it’s own way, it’s really a living organism.
I was just thinking about how people like to put a cushion on hardwood chairs, so it’s also replaceable. You can put your hand below the tatami seat and push it out so it can be sent for maintenance as well. This way the tatami is repurposed, but still has the same function — as a surface for people to sit on.
It’s interesting that you brought together this uncommon combination of traditional crafts to make your chair.
Yeah, the connection between people, place, and material — the importance of that has never been so clear to me. I learned from the tatami craftsman that there are at least five or six different people involved in the making of tatami. For example, there’s the farmer that sows the seeds and reaps the soft rush plant used to make tatami, there’s the weaver who makes the seams to bind the tatami, and there’s the craftsman that makes the tools needed for making tatami. It’s like an ecosystem involving so many different people.
Everything is hyperlocal — the farmer is several kilometres away, or the weaver is in the next town over. Your livelihood is dependent on the community that you’re in and I think that's a wonderful thing. In Tokyo, where you can find anything from anywhere, it’s so hard to understand the scale of locality but with traditional craft, you can get that.
Why is this “locality” important?
I think it brings a lot of humanity to our objects. If you know who made your tatami or chair, you’ll take better care of it so you can use it for a long time. Maybe you’ll even feel that it’s okay to spend more on it than your IKEA chair. It ties back to treating things with respect and dignity so we don’t live in a way that we misuse them, which I think happens a lot. Right now the way we live leads to a lot of waste.
In many ways, this connects back to the conversations surrounding sustainability because you buy better, well-crafted goods that last you a lifetime. I think this is a very different way of consumption, compared to what happens now — fast, quick, easy and cheap.
How do you use the perception of art to get people thinking about the importance of craft?
The idea is to give objects due credit that they deserve. People’s behaviors towards objects, and the perception of an object’s value changes depending on how it is framed. I’m using art to drive a narrative that craft is valuable, so it’s about putting these two frameworks together so people can perceive the work in a certain way. In doing so, I hope they can imagine taking care of it, and in turn appreciate it differently.
What’s the next chair going to be?
I don’t have a name yet for it. So far I only have one chair, but all the chairs I make will have names because I want to give them a human touch as well.
I’ve been doing a lot of travel across Japan this year and that was very inspiring. For the next chair, I am using the library of mental images to create a chair that represents the different landscapes that I saw. It is also going to be much lighter, have asymmetrical legs, and sit more like a stool.
Do you have any advice for people looking to work with craftsmen?
I think flexibility is an important trait to have in the creation process. Being flexible to change your ideas, being flexible to what the craftsman suggests. Making yourself malleable so you’re not fixed on just doing you want to do, but instead let the process take over. I think a lot of designers want their objects made their certain way, but the beauty really comes in when other people get involved as well.
At the end of the day, you don’t have to feel like you have to make your best work on your first go. Your first few drafts you come up with aren’t going to be perfect, but maybe towards your forty-ninth or fiftieth, it’ll start to come together. Be patient for that to happen.
Well, I’m looking forward to seeing your next fifty chairs.
That’s going to take a while, haha! ▲
Part 2 is an interview with Tatsuo Morikawa, the wood craftsman who brings the chairs to life.