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Frenchman evolves design in ‘limitless’ Tokyo

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Gwenael Nicolas sits in his Tokyo design studio, a setting evoking a borderless canvas that he says reflects his eagerness to design without limitations.

By Ayako Hirayama / Japan News Staff Writer Gwenael Nicolas constantly craves the unexpected. The Tokyo-based French designer always looks to the future and seeks new possibilities in his work. His mission, he says, is not to simply create something new by breaking what already exists but to evolve things and to make people curious.

“I’m not a revolutionary. I’m evolutionary. I want to make things move forward,” Nicolas said in a recent interview with The Japan News.

The results include his work on Ginza Six and Uniqlo Megastore, both iconic commercial facilities in Tokyo. Nicolas is also prolific overseas, designing interiors for luxury brands, including Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana and Issey Miyake.

His desire for designs that make people wonder “what is this?” has led him to seek a career in Japan. After reading books and articles about people who contributed to creating Tokyo when he was studying design in Europe, Nicolas decided to “go to the future” in 1991 at the age of 25, when Japan was still enjoying a robust economy.

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  • Satoshi Shigeta

    This photo provided by Curiosity Inc. shows the interior of Ginza Six in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, which was designed by Nicolas. A feng shui point of view was incorporated into his design to guide people up from the ground floor to the sixth floor.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Nicolas looks at a design at his design studio in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

  • A Buddhist altar, or butsudan, designed by Nicolas

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Nicolas smiles during an interview with The Japan News.

“They were always talking about what to do next and what they have in mind for the future. But when you’re in Europe, you always talk about history. The way of thinking is different,” recalled the 52-year-old designer, who is now sought after both in Japan and abroad. “It was 1991 but it felt like 2000, 2010, 2020.”

Nicolas said Japan was “more than expected.” He remembers his first day in Japan well as he felt like he was “flying in the middle of the city” on a bus from the airport to central Tokyo, as he saw a futuristic view filled with lights and neon and intricate designs of infrastructure and buildings. For him, Tokyo appears to be limitless, offering creators more opportunities than Europe, where designers are often restricted by rigid regulations and traditions.

“Everything is possible here. You don’t have to justify why you want to do something,” he said.

“A designer in Europe has no power. After school, I wanted to create my own designs. I didn’t want to learn. I wanted to take action,” said Nicolas, who earned his master’s degree in industrial design at the Royal College of Art in London in 1991 after studying in Paris.

Among the people he sought to meet in Japan was Naoki Sakai, known for his futuristic design concept for Nissan’s Be-1 car. Nicolas sent around 20 “love letters” to him, but received no response. He then changed tactic and sent seeds in a box as a metaphor for their future collaborations. The following day, the Sakai side contacted him, and he eventually received an offer. His first project with Sakai was to design a Buddhist altar, or butsudan in Japanese, for an exhibition in three months’ time.

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ But I didn’t know what it was. The next day, I went to a butsudan shop and panicked. I didn’t know where to start,” he recalled.

Yet the challenge of creating an object unknown to him helped him define his design philosophy: Don’t design under others’ rules. His rules put importance on “designing time.”

“Every design I have now has three steps,” he said. The first step involves a surprise resulting from looking at something cool and modern, the second is to make people understand it intellectually such as by touching it and observing it closely, and the third is to increase their attachment to it over time.

He believes we are currently in a design age in which “everything is too easy.” He wants people to learn about and appreciate objects. “I want people to be more open and give time to curiosity. That’s the point of my design.”

Born in 1966 in Brittany, which he calls “the middle of nowhere,” Nicolas grew up in a big family with six siblings. One of his brothers is an architect, and another is a movie director. Being between what he calls the infinity of architecture and the finitude of the digital, he tried to put the two together. This has led him to be where he is now. “Now, in my interior projects, I use digital and lighting to control time, so the space changes all the time,” he said.

In 1998, Nicolas founded his company and called it “Curiosity.” With about 30 employees of different nationalities, the Tokyo-based company designs a wide range of items from cosmetics, graphics, architecture and interiors both in Japan and abroad.

Nicolas has raised his profile by designing the interior for Ginza Six, which opened in 2017 with more than 200 stores and attracted about 20 million visitors in its first year. He said his goal was to create Ginza Six as a core, from which people can discover more of Ginza and Tokyo and rediscover Japan. To this end, he aimed to infuse the facility with the essence of the best of Japanese hospitality. The facility is also designed like a maze to make the floors feel like alleyways in Ginza, so that people can “encounter” shops when they turn a corner.

“The concept is to create happenings and recreate life in this space. Otherwise it’s just a box,” he said.

He also placed emphasis on adding a “human touch” to prevent the retail floors of about 47,000 square meters from looking industrial. The use of materials of many different textures evokes a human sense of “imperfection,” while indirect warm lighting from the ceiling helps visitors stay comfortable in the space.

His design was selected for being created through the eyes of customers and superbly guiding people to all corners of the vast space, according to the public relations section of Ginza Six.

While his eagerness to surprise people through his designs remains strong, Nicolas also wants to be surprised himself. He is interested in designing a Toyota Lexus, a symbolic product of Japan, for example. But he asks, “Can you design a car that doesn’t look like a car?”

“Why does a building look like a building? Why does a chair look like a chair? I don’t understand. It’s boring,” he said. The challenge is to shift a brand’s image dramatically while retaining its identity. “My idea is to flip it around, but say this also can be you. That’s very important,” he said.

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