Interview: Yusho Nishioka
Early last year while perusing online, we came across an image of an intriguing, block-shaped object. It turned out to be an incense burner - inconspicuous, yet bold in its assortment of anodized colours, with a simple, sloped form to catch falling incense ashes. Curious to track it down, we were even more enthralled to find out that the object’s designer, Yusho Nishioka, turned out to be based locally in Vancouver at the time.
Still early in the growth of his practice, Nishioka displays a sensitivity in his work that clearly considers the ever-changing spaces in which his designs might find themselves. Scanning over the designs and prototypes shown on his website, there is an evident, thoughtful approach to production and functionality that comes across in all of Nishioka’s works. Elegantly bent aluminum sheets meet to comprise his simple, yet distinct Facsimile Table. For his wooden Tangent Shelf, Nishioka houses superellipse-shaped shelves between two side panels, resulting in a ladder-like unit that could easily be adapted into any space.
Having recently moved to Tokyo with a new position at the Keiji Ashizawa design studio, Nishioka shares reflections and images with Rhythmic Tones through his personal lens. Our conversation spans Nishioka’s itinerant upbringing, the challenge of starting his independent practice, and the importance of self-localization as a designer.
What first cultivated your interest in design? Was design a part of your upbringing?
My father worked as a design manager, which brought about my interest in design and art growing up. When I attended middle school in Sweden, we lived in a house with both classic and contemporary Scandinavian furniture and objects, which my father started to collect. I was not conscious of it at the time, but being exposed to these objects and cultures in my daily life definitely had an influence early on.
From what we gather, you’ve moved around a fair bit. How did you end up going to Emily Carr University here in Vancouver? How has your time in Vancouver informed your practice?
During my junior year attending high school in Beijing, I was looking for a program in North America where I could pursue creative studies and I stumbled upon Emily Carr. I returned to Beijing feeling quite determined to move to Vancouver. Coincidentally, a recruiting rep from the university paid a visit to my high school - they ended up liking my portfolio and I was offered a grant.
During school, I felt that my freedom of expression was nurtured, and there was encouragement to differentiate yourself from others. Living in Vancouver with equal access to both natural and industrial settings was also inspiring. I would often observe the efficiency of the city’s infrastructure, and even the necessity of outdoor performance apparel in daily life - seeing the way things were made for specialized use in the context of the surrounding environment.
"Finding the balance of practicality and elegance is a constant challenge for me."
How did you end up pursuing industrial design? What led to you establishing your independent practice?
The decision to study industrial design again came from my father's influence. He also emphasized that an industrial designer’s job is not only to design functional objects, but to also have an eye for graphic design, photography, and other creative disciplines to create well-informed designs.
After graduating from Emily Carr in 2019, I worked at a contemporary furniture store for a few months. While searching for a design job, I came across the lighting studio/manufacturer ANDlight thanks to another designer. They were only hiring lighting assembly workers at the time, so I started by building lights with the hope of eventually working in their design department. About a year later, they put me up for a position as an industrial designer, where I was able to work on product development and photography, sometimes even installing lights.
While I had this entry into the lighting design industry, I also started to pursue my own practice where I simultaneously started making prototypes of furniture and small objects. I set out to create designs with a mix of personal expression and functional use, independently. Learning how to work on my own was tough but pragmatic, and eventually led to working with manufacturers to produce the objects that started from sketches I created in my bedroom.
We’re big fans of your Inline Block and feel very fortunate to be one of the few retailers currently carrying it. It really strikes a balance between both industrial and more organic elements. How did you arrive at your process of working with the materials for this piece?
Finding the balance of practicality and elegance is a constant challenge for me. I value objects with unique juxtapositions that are seemingly contrary but can coincide harmoniously if done right. When designing smaller table-top objects, I think of how they might be situated when serving their intended purpose, and also when they’re not in use. In designing the Inline Block, the main aspect was the cost-efficiency of machining aluminum to sculpt the sloped form. The anodizing treatment then allowed for a controlled colour, which makes it suitable for mass production. The result was a way to merge this very industrial and precisely made object with the ritualistic purpose of burning incense.
"I’m intrigued by more or less mundane and common objects, and seeing how they are adapted to the surrounding environment."
What brought about your move back to Japan after 22 years abroad? How are you settling in?
There are several reasons, one of which was the desire to live in my home country. Mainly, I got the opportunity to work with Keiji Ashizawa, an established architect I’ve looked up to.
It’s been about two months here in Tokyo where I’m finally starting to feel a little settled. I’m currently living in the guest house situated right above the work studio of the product design department, which is definitely a unique experience. I’m looking forward to moving into my own place this month.
What are your current sources of inspiration? How do you stay curious?
Walking around the city in Tokyo and simply noticing nice details. I’m intrigued by more or less mundane and common objects, and seeing how they are adapted to the surrounding environment. I’m not entirely sure how conscious I am of this, but I do think it's important to experience things first-hand rather than being overloaded by ideas and content on social media, despite its convenience.
How has the pandemic affected your way of living and working?
The ongoing restrictions of the pandemic have definitely slowed things down for me, but in a way that has allowed for moments to reflect on the current place I’m at in my life, and where I might be heading in the next phase of my career. Actually, most of my independent projects so far have been completed during the pandemic, during which I was fortunate to hone in on sourcing partners and materials that were locally available for my prototyping process.
At the same time, I was able to make new connections online and find opportunities from outside of Canada. Back in 2020, I participated in a competition for Asian designers organized by HAY, which I was extremely fortunate to win for a coat rack concept.
Tell us about your new job at Keiji Ashizawa Design. Do you have any upcoming projects that you can talk about?
Since my recent start as a product designer at Keiji’s studio, there have already been multiple exciting projects I’ve had the chance to work on, despite only being a month into the job. The studio’s main focus is developing furniture, working with both Japanese and international clients and manufacturers. What’s significantly new for me is that the studio also works on many interior and architectural projects, which means oftentimes the furniture we design ends up in those spaces. Nowadays I’ve been thinking more about how the object I design will be situated in a certain space.
Currently, my work at the Keiji Ashizawa studio is occupying most of my time. I plan to gradually resume my personal projects and work with local manufacturers and craftsmen. I recently visited the Karimoku factory, which has really got me wanting to develop objects made out of wood. Hopefully, I can start proposing my designs to these companies in Japan and elsewhere as the pandemic settles.
Inline Block by Yusho Nishioka is available in Orange, Green, Black and Aluminum here.
To see more of Yusho's work, please visit his website and Instagram.