We’re so excited to spotlight Yuko Nishikawa, a Japan-born, Brooklyn-based designer and ceramicist whose whimsical lamps and installations are crafted by hand and reflect her sense that all things—”animate” or “inanimate”—contain a vital essence. We were lucky enough to correspond with Yuko to learn about her path from interior design to ceramic arts, and to hear about the philosophy behind her work. Read on for a conversation about observation, and the power of objects to change our lives.
1. Let’s start at the beginning—when did you first fall in love with art and design; how did you come to pursue it professionally?
I don’t recall a moment of falling in love with art and design. Rather, I see it as an accumulation of interests and activities that have started from my youth. I have liked painting and making objects since I was a kid, and I don’t know why that is. I remember one of my favorite objects as a kid was a pair of scissors with which the moment Iwas allowed to handle, I cut my own hair, horrifying my mother. Another item was a bag with a broken zipper that slid both directions without closing. I was fascinated by the mechanics of it. I made drawings for friends and organized puppet shows for birthday parties. I played the piano for my school’s music events and wrote a really bad school play.
2. You designed furniture and lighting professionally before you started working with ceramics. What initially drew you to ceramics, and when did you decide to make the jump to pursue it full time?
After I came to NYC I studied Interior Design at Fashion Institute of Technology because I was interested in architecture and space. After graduating I worked for interior design and architecture-related studios and then designed furniture and lighting for a furniture company for nine years. During that time I started renting a space in a communal ceramic studio. I wanted to learn wheel-throwing since I thought it was a cool skill to have. It was one of those fun personal projects I have been doing, things like glass-blowing, welding, painting, and woodworking. I enjoyed working with clay. I think the material suited me because I could touch and form it directly with my hand. Also it is inexpensive material that I can form and experiment with over and over as long as it is not fired. I like the mystery of the way the earth material becomes a permanently transformed material with heat. Ceramic is like the magma of the earth. I built my own studio while I was still employed as a furniture designer as a place where I could play and make artwork without worrying about selling my work to maintain it. I took a sabbatical in 2017 to give myself a chance to make anything I wanted in the studio. In 2018 I left my employer and I have been working full time from my own studio since then.
3. You’re based in Brooklyn, but you were born and raised in Japan. Are there ways in which your culture has informed your craft?
In Japanese culture all objects like tables and teacups have spirits. There are spirits of walls, spirits of the land, and spirits of daikon radishes. When I make sculptures and lamps I look for emotions and a sense of life in them. I look for what the artwork wants to express - are they smiling or chatting or grumpy? I see forms as facial or body muscles. This might have something to do with my upbringing in Japanese culture.
4. Your ceramics are so imaginative and evocative—truly unlike anything else we've seen. What do you hope your designs bring into people's spaces?
I want my work to live and age and to be used and handled by the users so it becomes part of their lives and the work itself also ages and changes with the users. Once objects are made, it now has its own entity. All living things change and I want them to be living objects, not dead.
5. Is there a particular artist or designer that has been influential to your work?
I don’t have a particular artist or designer that I identify as a source of influence. I take in bits and pieces from things and people I encounter as I go. I think about musicians and the way they move people physically and emotionally - they can make you dance or feel happy or sad - and create something that can be shared with millions of people. People can sing along, hum, and playback. Music can take you back to the time when you were listening to these songs. I am searching for a way for my work to do these things that music can do, where people can participate in it and make it their own.
6. How would you describe your artistic style? And how about your personal style?
For my work, I don’t want to have style. I see style as a habit or a ritual and I don’t wish to work out of my habit. There are characteristics, like my handwriting, my voice, or the way I walk, which I cannot escape from even if I want to. I see these traits as haunting. They follow me along, and I don’t even know where I picked them up. For my personal style: I like good quality natural fabrics that feel good to touch and to move in it. I like vintage buttons and stitching details. I like indigo dyes and hand embroidery in pinks and greens on Vietnamese textiles. I like brass animal heads on accessories and belts and fun hats. I used to like more structured clothes but these days I like loose clothes made with lots of fabrics. The only color I don’t enjoy putting on myself is black.
7. Where do you go or what do you do when you’re seeking inspiration?
I don’t seek inspiration. Ideas are abundant. For me it is about which ideas to focus on and pursue at that moment. I look for ideas that excite me and that I feel would be exciting for others to experience in a particular space and time. I have been paying more attention to where ideas come from since people seem to be interested in knowing that very much. It seems to me ideas happen when my body is in motion, like walking or moving my hands to draw or make objects. They don’t seem to happen while I’m sitting still. At the studio I like working while standing up. This is not limited to ideas for creative projects. From exhibitions to building objects I do a lot of planning too. I draw diagrams and sketches to process my thoughts. These are not to keep as they are different from lists or reminders or design drawings, but I process my thoughts better through the act of drawing.
8. What’s the most recent book you’ve read and felt moved or inspired by?
I just finished reading The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I don't think about the afterlife or legacy, and I don’t wish for my work to take up a space on the earth forever. But ideas can live on, for others who follow to take and apply in their own ways. Van Gogh did not live to enjoy the wealth his paintings would generate, but his work lives on, not just as painted canvas but as ideas that live with future generations, just like writers and painters before him live through their work. I think about the fallen trees in the Olympic National Forests in Washington State, where, unlike my idea of forests until then which was about living trees, I saw lots of fallen dead trees that were making a bed for young trees to grow on top of them.
9. What’s the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
I read Philippe Starck’s interview when I was in high school, about a golden sculpture he built on top of Asahi Beer Hall in Tokyo, stating that there is no use worrying about making bad work because no one would talk about it. It’s simply not worth spending time talking about bad work and people will soon forget its existence - something to the effect. I felt very good reading this interview because there seemed to be too much attention to making bad work even before making anything, which I felt was not an important concern as long as I do it with respect to materials and to others. I don’t see my individual work as a stopped, separate independent piece from another work I make. I see my work to be a connected project as a whole, so it’s not possible to pick one piece and say this is a good work, this is a bad work, and this is worse than this. I don't concern myself with the “successfulness” of individual pieces. What's important for me is that my work as a whole is evolving and developing.
10. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a new craft, but is afraid it's "too late."
If you want to try a new craft, give it a try before concluding the consequences. Give yourself a time - two days, two weeks, a year - whatever that you think would work for your interests and lifestyle and stick to it for the period you give it. And then you see how you feel and can decide if you’d continue or give it a break or take a new direction as a result. Learning new things is fun. As intelligent monkeys, the more we do it, the better we become and that is also fun. It will open you up to a new perspective, new interests and new friends. You might be told that it’s too late to start now. You might think, what would I do at the end? No one knows what will happen. It's only natural that things do not go as we plan. Nature does not care if we like things in certain ways. It goes regardless of how we think and feel. So, we go as we go on the unknown path and that is fun. If we know exactly what to do and follow the directions, that's a chore. There is nothing to be afraid of. If you feel that way, it’s probably worth spending time with the thoughts that you are afraid of. If you are afraid that it’s too late but want to do it, the best thing you could do is to start now, because the more you wait, the later it will become.
11. What are you seeking more of this year?
I’m looking to spend more time walking among tall trees and seeing the open sky and wide horizon. I am traveling to CA to install my next mobile installation at Heron Arts in San Francisco, and I am looking forward to spending time in forests.
Photo credit: Yuko Nishikawa
Current show: Earthen Luminaries at TRNK in TriBeCa, NYC.
Heron Arts, San Francisco, opens July 9
Onna House, East Hamptons, opens August 6