A Talk for Art Center Branding Atelier

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Photo on right courtesy of Oliver Seil.

A few weeks ago, I was asked by my friend James Chu to do a talk for the Art Center Branding Atelier. I don’t speak much about my years at Giant Robot magazine these days and branding isn’t exactly my specialty. But how could I say no? It was an honor to be asked and it would be both fun and interesting to discuss about the old days with new perspective.

Well, fun for me anyway. Why would a generation of students that has never read or even heard of the publication I helped make care? And what’s the big deal about a magazine that promotes indie, arty, and underground Pan Asian and Asian American culture? Today, Asian influences are not only part of the mainstream but are seen as powers in business, drivers of taste, and arbiters of cool.

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I started off the talk by informing the audience that it wasn’t always cool to be Asian in America. When I was growing up, Asian culture was only present in popular culture through dubbed or knock-off versions of kung fu movies, lame commercials, and horrible stereotypes in TV programs. Asian athletes in the public eye were limited to ice skaters–although I remember Duk Koo Kim being pummeled by Ray Mancini on broadcast TV–and Yoko Ono was the only musician in the spotlight. And she was hated. There was no foodie scene yet, either, although sushi was “exotic.” By the time I got out of college, Asian American magazines seemed to just celebrate car models and actors on lousy shows. In other words, the brand of Asian popular culture was lousy.

But Eric Nakamura and I had no interest in the tiny sliver of the mainstream occupied by Asian Americans. We became friends by going to the same punk rock shows and contributing to the same zine, Fear of Grown Ups. We were part of the same DIY culture but appreciated the underrated aspects of Asian American culture. Although we grew up in different parts of Southern California, we were both obsessed with stuff like punk and noise music, Hong Kong action movies, underground cinema, Japanese robot toys, Asian candies, and Asian skateboarders and other underdogs that no one was writing about. So we made our own magazine. Looking back, we were sharing a lifestyle, and effortlessly so–unlike shoe companies or auto manufacturers who spend millions to position themselves that way.

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As the magazine grew glossier and popular, so did our interests. We made a road trip to rice fields and took skateboards to Manzanar. I remember Margaret Cho describing our take on the concentration camp for Japanese Americans during WWII as “punk rock,” saying that we were reclaiming history. Writing the Yellow Power collection of articles was another significant moment for Eric and me. To this date, I don’t know if there’s ever been a more comprehensive collection of interviews with Asian Americans who fought alongside the Black Panthers and others in the racial equality movement. The spirit of protest continued in later articles about Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and The Cove.

To mix social, ecological, and political commentary with bands, films, and art wasn’t an obvious move but it worked for us because we simply wrote about what we wanted to. Some of it was on the verge of becoming very popular and cool–the Japanese artists who took part in Takashi Murakami’s Superflat show at MOCA, for example–but we still uncovered a lot of uncharted terrain before the Internet provided instant access to everything. Early Chinese-Jamaican producers of reggae, the cybertecture of James Law, and tricked-out semis in Japan–our magazine mixed high and low, old and new, East and West, sometimes in one article.

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Of course, we didn’t invent awesome Asian popular culture and it inevitably gained a media presence outside of our pages. I used to watch Stephen Chow movies at Chinese movie theaters in the San Gabriel Valley, but when Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle came out, they were handled by mainstream distributors. The benefit was that we provided easy access to filmmakers like him for press purposes, and even got to present a preview of CJ7 complete with a Q&A when it came out. However, it also meant that our role as sharers, facilitators, and builders of culture was being diminished. A lot of what was uniquely in Giant Robot–cool movies, rad music, new art, designer toys–was being covered elsewhere. (Without our superior curation or genuine tone, of course.)

There are a lot of reasons why the magazine ran its course after 16 years, but I didn’t really dwell on them during the talk. Eric can provide a better view of the very real business concerns, including the dearth of advertising, costs of printing and shipping, and rise of digital media. And perhaps the independent spirit that made our magazine personal and unique also kept us from gaining mass appeal and reaching our business potential. But I can’t complain since I made and kept so many friends through GR and am proud of all 68 issues. It was so hard to let go at the time, but now I realize that projects come and go–and it’s not always anyone’s fault because there are economic, cultural, and other forces beyond our control–and you have to appreciate them for what they are.

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Then I shared how it’s fitting that I would write for interTrend nowadays. I think the Asian advertising company perfectly handles Asian culture in the post-Giant Robot America. They work with Fortune 500 clients such as Toyota and State Farm, but use hardcore pop culture references like Hatsune Miku and Ultraman in their campaigns instead of just replacing white actors with Asian ones. And to be involved with Imprint Culture Lab has been perfect, too. Promoting and growing interesting culture (Asian or not) is something I’ll never stop doing.

During the final seconds of the Art Center talk, I brought up the Save Music in Chinatown series of benefit concerts that my wife and I have started. As great as it was to share ideas on paper or via the Internet, to create something in real life is special. And for Wendy and me to help the kids in the neighborhood where my immigrant grandparents and in-laws have spent time (and now our daughter) is even more awesome. What I wanted to convey to students is that you never know where your creative endeavors will take you, or how you might be able to help others.

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A week after the event, it’s hard for me to recall all the details about the talk. It was based on the slides you see but was largely improvised–and a lot more funny–but the general point was that we are all our own brands. And if we live and work with honesty and passion, we will present ourselves well, gain satisfaction, and be respected. For an Art Center student, I don’t know if my spiel was as professionally applicable as Alyssa Tryon’s talk about maintaining standards at Disney or inspiring as Oliver Seil’s description of how Belkin was saved by design. But hopefully I conveyed the pure joy of working with friends (not only Eric but also Wendy, Pryor, Kiyoshi, Margaux, Cate, and so many others) on something you love.

Thanks to James and Vincent at Art Center for having me. Thanks to Alyssa and Oliver for allowing me to share the stage with them and try my best to talk about a topic that they actually know about. And thanks for everyone who came and listened–especially Nicole who identified herself as a hardcore Giant Robot reader and fan. With the magazine being out of circulation for four years now, that was pretty cool.

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To this day, Eric runs the Giant Robot gallery and a shop in West L.A., providing a crucial hub for indie and international artists and crafty people. Get the scoop at giantrobot.com. And  please follow Imprint Culture Lab via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, too.

7 photography tips & tricks with your smartphone

If you’re trying to shoot photos with a smartphone, the guys at COOPH made a video on how to shoot interesting photos with cardboard, binoculars, car reflectors, etc. My favorite would have to be the last one because I thought the only way you can shoot underwater photos was through a waterproof case. I was wrong! Check out their youtube channel for more videos like this.

8 Quesions with: Sunyoung Lee of Kaya Press

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Of course, I would eventually meet Sunyoung Lee. She and I dove into indie publishing around the same time and have specialized in digging up and sharing Asian and Asian American culture that isn’t lame. And she happens to be the publisher at Kaya Press, which not only released my friend Ed Lin’s badass debut novel, Waylaid, as well as his awesome follow-up and first mystery, This Is A Bust, but has also released the very cool proto-noir fiction Lament in the Night by Nagahara Shoson and Casio Abe’s excellent essays on Beat Takeshi.

Now that we’re pals, I hit up Sunyoung with Imprint’s eight questions. And then she blew me away with an avalanche of words, details, and energy.

How would you describe your job?
I’m not terribly organizational minded, so I’ve always seen my job as being a kind of cheerleader–making everyone believe that Kaya Press and the work we do actually matters. Needless to say, when it was just me working at Kaya, this involved quite a bit of self-delusion! Especially given my previously mentioned lack of organization-building skills. And yet here we still are, 20 years later! Mostly due to luck and delusion! Another victory for the persuasiveness of magical thinking!

The nitty gritty of my particular job as publisher at Kaya is another thing entirely, of course–writing and replying to emails, arranging for contracts, combing through manuscripts, sending out printer specs, coming up with ideas for events, assisting publicity, etc. etc. But most of this other stuff, other people could do better than me. My particular skill seems to be the one I just described–articulating the importance of the work that we’re doing and planting seeds in people’s imaginations! Plus keeping this puppy alive, by hook or by crook. Plus giving a shit. That’s what I think should be our unofficial motto: We give a shit. We really do.

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What are some projects that you are currently working on?
You know how there are places in the world where you can see two oceans collide up against one another? Someone was telling me about that recently. Standing on some kind of a mountain or cliff where they could see two different oceans: Two different colors of water, which I also imagine to be undergirded by differently paced currents with different temperatures, bumping up against one another. That’s kind of like the way things work in publishing, too. There are two different seasons in every year (Spring and Fall) but at any given time the two are always running up against one another.

So, for example, when you’re working on promotion for your Fall season–as we are currently in the midst of doing–you also need to be working on editorial and production of the Spring season.

Right now, we’re working on promoting two titles that came out this Fall: Fox Drum Bebop, the debut novel by 81-year-old Gene Oishi about the PTSD afterlife of the wartime incarceration on a Japanese American Nisei, and American Canyon, an experimental hybrid prose meditation (text and four color video stills and photography) on the layering of cultures (an Indian American family building a life on the remains of an American Indian settlement in a Northern California suburb) and memory (family histories overlaid with present-day experiences) and filial impulses (undertaking a Hindu pilgrimage, despite American-bred skepticism, at the request of one’s mother).

At the same time, we’re working on editorial and production (design, printing, etc.) for our forthcoming titles: Crevasse, a collection of poetry by Hong Kong based queer poet Nicholas Wong, who uses English, his second language, to write about the glories and betrayals of the body, and Lydia’s Funeral Video, a performance piece by comedian and playwright Sam Chanse about an apocalypse-obsessed young bank teller who’s being given directives by her unborn fetus. LFV has been an interesting design project, since we are always trying to figure out new ways of getting the nuances of performance–e.g. expressiveness of voice and face and gestures, lighting, etc.–onto the printed page. The idea is to try to make the reading experience analogous to, since it’s obvious that it can’t replicate the experience of the performance.

And that’s not even mentioning all of the other working pieces that need to be kept aloft and in motion–all of the event planning, administrative tasks, etc. that we’re always working on. (If I’m going on too long here, it’s just because it can be a bit overwhelming!).

Anyway, going back to the beginning of this answer, not sure that that ocean metaphor really works in this instance but it does address the feeling of what it feels like in the midst of this work, and I guess also specifically publishing Asian diasporic writings within the context of the larger world of publishing. Like feeling two oceans butt heads with one another, or watching the seam that forms at that moment of impact.

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If there is such thing as an average work day, what does it look like?
It’s very static. A lot of peering at a less-than-perfectly clean computer screen from a hunched position. Or, to put it another way, my average work day looks like a gelatinous blob-like creature, semi-transparent with strange, semi-frictionless skin, which is the only way I can explain the way that time dissipates off it so confoundingly with rheumy, bloodshot eyes that gaze into the emptiness and the emptiness looks back.

Ha ha. Actually, there is also a lot of meeting up with people and shooting the shit and exchanging ideas. That’s actually the fun part, but it goes by so fast and so easily that it doesn’t feel like work. The work part of the day looks as described above.

Where do you find inspiration outside of books?
People. People are endlessly fascinating.

Do you have a favorite post-work destination?
Holing up at home! Or retreating into myself. Though, to be fair, that’s probably only right now and only because I’ve been mostly meeting with people recently. So being alone seems like a pleasure that I’ve had too little of.

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As a kid, what did you want to be when you grow up?
I was obsessed with the Tom Wolfe book The Right Stuff at one point and wanted to be an astronaut. I don’t know why this seemed more of a possibility to me than becoming a baseball player, which was my other preoccupation as a kid. I had stumbled onto the book The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn and was so mesmerized by it that I became obsessed with Jackie Robinson, Joe Black, Roy Campanella, and backwards in time to Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, and then forward to Roberto Clemente–who, I would find out later, wrote poetry!–and Bob Gibson, etc. Oh, I remember why. I sucked at even just softball, perpetually assigned to right field, stuck at the end of the lineup, as if by delaying my appearance at the plate as long as conceivably possible. I might in fact conveniently manage to disappear before I actually took a hack at the ball (something that I also, in my heart of hearts, longed would happen). But for some reason, it seemed perfectly plausible that I could, somehow, become physically fit and tanned and good-looking enough in aviator glasses, with a little wicked smile and a crew cut, and good enough at a subject at which I actually always sucked at, math, to become an astronaut. Or at the very least a fighter pilot, a la Chuck Yeager, breaking the sound barrier and all. (Somehow the being white and male thing–this was way before Sally Ride, so I was mostly picturing myself in the 1960s and 1970s world of U.S. aeronautics–never fazed me. My junior high school was named after Alan B. Shepherd, Jr. which might be what made the whole enterprise seem more possible.) Then I realized that you had to have better than 20/20 vision to be an astronaut and my hopes were dashed.

What are you reading for pleasure at the moment? (Is there such thing?)
Haven’t had time for anything over the last couple of months, though I distract myself all the time with the unnecessary perusal of online news and the endless rehashings of the serial story about Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed on reddit. The most recent books I read were: Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. The Bulgakov book is crazy. You have to just read it and think, what the hell was Bulgakov thinking? How could he possibly have conceived of this particular story and structure? And how the hell does it work? Where does its punch come from? Because it does punch you in the gut somehow. Or at least it did me. Ruth’s book is, as a mutual friend succinctly put it, written as if her heart had been broken. I guess I could say that about both of the books, in fact. And actually, this morning (the virtues of getting up early!), I just started Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward which is blowing my mind already and I’m just about 15 pages in.

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Are you a book collector? Do you have a prized possession or holy grail?
I know people who organize their books in multiple ways, by subject, author, size, color, etc. I have friends who lovingly wrap their books in cellophane covers and have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the contents of their personal library. I am not that way. So I would say, although I have a collection of books, I am definitely not a book collector. Hmmm. Maybe I’m a book hoarder? That might be a better description of the chaotic piles of books that exist in our house and that are only occasionally arranged in some modicum of organization by the grace and generous efforts of my husband.

That said, I do have a couple of rare, first edition signed copies of Younghill Kang’s books (East Goes West, which Kaya republished, and The Grass Roof), thanks to Steve Doi, collector and purveyor extraordinaire of Asian American books and paraphernalia. But I prize those as much–and in fact probably more–for the fact that they were gifts as for their inherent value.

I’m pretty sentimental, so my most prized possessions are always things that have been given to me–probably because the gifting itself adds another layer of history to them–it makes them precious in and of themselves. Otherwise, I prefer to not get too attached to one particular specific instance of a given book. I’d much rather buy again and again and again my favorite titles and give them away to friends whenever I can. There’s something comforting in knowing that my favorite books can be bought over and over again–that I don’t have to be too attached to any specific instance of them. For example, whenever I go to a used bookstore, the books I always look for: the Library of America edition of James Baldwin’s essays, edited by Toni Morrison (open that book up to any page and you’ll get a lesson in precision and urgency in language that you will feel like an electric charge), Isaac Babel’s Selected Stories (the Penguin edition with the greenish spine and the photograph of a bespectacled Babel grinning maniacally. I love in particular Babel’s childhood stories), and the Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. (Those last two, to my mind, are some of the most brilliant articulations of an Asian American consciousness–or rather, of an Asian American consciousness that I can relate to–that I’ve ever read, though neither of Babel nor Ishiguro are Asian American.)

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Sunyoung give props to managing editor Neelanjana Banerjee, board member and development specialist Jean Ho, publicity ace Zoe Ruiz,  and undergraduate helpers from USC. Find out more about the books and the business at kaya.com. And for more articles, events, and announcements, follow Imprint Culture Lab via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Refold

It’s pretty amazing what you can do with cardboard packaging, when you think about it. Architecture for Dogs contributor (and 2014 Pritzker Prize winner to boot) Shigeru Ban builds entire buildings out of cardboard, using reinforced poster tubes, for example. Similarly, I think the packaging on the Wanmock Kit designed by Torafu Architects is a work of art in of itself. And here’s something really innovative – where the packaging actually is the product. Refold is a portable standing desk Kickstarter project from New Zealand which was successful in funding recently, and landed a ton of design blog features and design awards in the process. It was so successful that they decided to establish additional manufacturing here in the US, in order to cut down on carbon footprint. Come for the flexible, foldable, portable, affordable & 100% recyclable design; stay for the fun NZ accents.

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Why relationships trump data

No matter how technologically advanced the world gets, most REAL business gets done in person: at dinner, over drinks or in some type of social environment. I’m a strong believer that nothing can replace the experience of an in-person interaction to determine if a particular individual is legit. Whether it’s getting consumer feedback, building a team, or finding funding you need to be able to uncover the subtleties of a person through some face to face time to gather that raw data.

In the video below, the CEO of Rent the Runway touches up on this philosophy and how building genuine relationships can impact your business. Other speakers include the founder of ZipCar and the co-founder of Flickr.

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Note: video is hosted directly on Inc.

Gimmick Music

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We’re no stranger to a little extra something when it comes to getting music, whether it’s bonus tracks or exclusive packaging. It’s a simple gimmick, but we’ve all grown to expect them and now we’re living in a evolving marketplace and the gimmicks are too. I’ve culled 3 different ones that present an interesting take on the gimmick.

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Wu-Tang A Better Tomorrow
For Wu-Tangs 20th anniversary album they teamed up with BoomBotix to create a limited edition speaker with several songs from the upcoming album. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to contain the whole album?! must have run out of memory. It’s an interesting gimmick unfortunately I think the speaker company is benefiting more than the Wu on this one.



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Soundgarden Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path
Soundgarden is offering an exclusive song for completing a simple game of memory. A questionable gimmick but an easy way to give away a free song? Not sure why it looks like a game from ten years ago. Seems like there wasn’t much creative thought on this gimmick but does offer a simple way to get the exclusive song.



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OK Go Hungry Ghosts
Finally OK Go is always looking for ways to innovate and for the release of this album they were thinking really out of the box having the album available in a new format… DNA. I can’t even begin to get into this gimmick but lucky for you check out this article with The New Yorker

Night Market Noir: Ed Lin, Naomi Hirahara, and Steph Cha talk murder

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My pal Ed Lin was in SoCal last weekend to attend Bouchercon, an annual gathering of mystery writers and fans from around the world. Did you know about that scene? I didn’t and and totally should have checked out the annual event because it was based in Long Beach this time around. Crap. Luckily, Ed and two other writers who also happened to be Asian American gathered for a reading on Saturday night in Downtown L.A. to give me a taste of the convention and save me the drive. It took place in the loft of a patron of the arts and featured catering with Lee’s Sandwiches and Martinelli’s. Fancy!

After some introductions and thanks, Ed gave a reading from his newest book. Night Market‘s narrator is cynical and a little stupid, and obsessed with finding out what happened to his youthful crush who vanished after they went to their respective colleges in the U.S., inexplicably became a scantily clad Betel nut beauty who hawks the unhygienic snacks from behind glass on the roads outside of Tapei, and then was murdered. Ed reads with gusto, and the book is a real hoot with its keen descriptions and sly observations of Taiwan and as well as a kick-ass mystery. Would love to hear a book-on-tape version read by the man!

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Next up was his buddy Steph Cha. The Los Angeles-based writer explained that she was sick of doing readings from her newest book, Beware Beware, before previewing a draft off her smartphone instead. The short story, which will be featured in a collection of Asian-American pulp fiction, involves a detached young woman coming to grips with the murder of her mother as well as the latter’s involvement in 429 (the riots in Koreatown following the Rodney King verdict). It’s as local as it is personal–and atypically insightful in both ways–and I can’t wait to read it in full.

Naomi Hirahara is another friend of mine, and I’ve recently seen her read from Murder on Bamboo Lane at my local library. But I’ll never get tired of hearing her describe the streets of Chinatown, where my immigrant grandparents spent so much time, my in-laws still go to yum cha regularly, and where my wife Wendy and I have been hanging out since our daughter started attending school in the neighborhood. Naomi was a Downtown L.A.-based news reporter and in my opinion that informs her deceptively straightforward style of writing. Her new series about a young bike cop is my favorite so far!

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Following the readings, there was a general discussion and Q&A session. Immediately they addressed idea of detective fiction being genre work that is somehow inferior to “serious” writing. Cha had an interesting theory that murder amplifies human behavior and simply makes storytelling more intense. I was stoked that Ed talked a little bit about his debut, Waylaid, which isn’t a mystery. It’s a smart, funny, and shit-talking coming-of-age read that fits in your back pocket. Everyone should check it out.

Another key topic was place: how comfortable and familiar the authors are with the settings of their books as well as the research that goes into them. And when the neighborhoods change–sometimes even between when a book is written and when it is published–then what? The fact that Naomi, Ed, and Steph represent three generations of mystery writers added another layer to the discussion.

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Ed, Steph, and Naomi could have talked about death on paper all night but it was conspicuous that they never addressed the death of print, writers eking out a living, or even Hollywood. Coming off Bouchercon, it was a love fest for the writers, the readers, and the curious who were sitting on sofas, dining chairs, and even the floor. Delusional from the mutual excitement, Wendy, my new friend (and publisher of Kaya Press) Sunyoung Lee, and I embarked conversation about indie publishing, art, and punk rock taking over Chinatown and the world.

If that ever amounts to anything, who knows. But small gatherings of like-minded people who are excited about their scene, their city, and their craft are much more valuable they seem and occur way less often than they should. Wendy said, “We could totally do something like that at our house,” and why can’t any of us?

Follow the authors at edlinforpresident.com, bystephcha.wordpress.com, and naomihirahara.com. And for more articles, events, and announcements, follow Imprint Culture Lab via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Snow season is finally here!

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On Thursday Nov. 13th, Mammoth Mountain opened their lifts for people to snowboard and ski down their mountain for their opening day. It looked like a pretty good turn out from looking at the pictures and videos people posted using the hashtag #mammothsopen. For the month of December they are offering a buy one get one deal and they are offering college passes for $299. Unfortunately I won’t be qualified for the college pass but the 2 for 1 deal sounds pretty sweet.

Imprint Presents Koichi Suzuno Video

Here it is ladies and gents, the video from our Imprint Presents Koichi Suzuno talk back on Monday, May 5th, 2014. He’s a co-founder of Torafu Architects, an accomplished Japanese firm which excels in many aspects of design, from architecture, to art installations, to product design. Torafu’s clients include the likes of Sony, TOTO, Freitag, Nike Flyknit, Toyota and more. Koichi’s talk covered several of his most important projects in the last ten years, and was translated on the fly by Imprint’s founder, Julia Huang. I find the way Suzuno-san approaches design challenges to be absolutely fascinating, and as a result, thought this was one of our most interesting talks to date.

Imprint Presents: Koichi Suzuno from Imprint Lab on Vimeo.

Lego-style Barcelona Apartment

More space is not always necessarily better. There’s an art to maximizing dead space and certainly something gratifying behind the ability to materialize the vision for it. Inspired by a balance of space-saving furniture on boats and the infamously clean lines found in Japanese homes, Christian Schallert converted an old 258 square foot pigeon loft into a livable home complete with a restroom/shower, kitchen, living space, and sleeping area. Oh, and its 100 steps to and from the apartment.