Visit artist 013: Kurara Omichi (Designer)

Koto Thouin – as the medium for expressing the power of words

Here is a special interview with Ms. Kurara Omichi who won the grand prize in the 4th of Kokka Print Textile Competition, which has been held every other year. The name of her brand, “Koto Thouin”, is the old Japanese phrase meaning “let me ask” or “there is something I would ask”. At the timing of its debut, Koto Thouin made a good start with working for the spring/summer collection of HaaT of ISSAY MIYAKE. Omichi represents a new style of textile with her avant-garde design and distinct coloration. What cultivated her unique artistic taste? What did she discover through creating textile? With a few interesting anecdotes about her childhood, we will be investigating the mystery of “The World of Omichi” from a variety of angles.

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Kokka-fabric.com (KF) Please tell us about your childhood.

I grew up in Sendai City, Japan. I attended “Kangaroo Kindergarten” that was a unique kindergarten specializing in cultivating students’ sensitivities and creativities under the principal’s educational policy. We often went to a nearby pond to pick up fallen leaves or branches to make something with afterward in the classroom. My first action as “drawing” in my memory is that we laid down birthday classmates on a big paper and traced around their entire body. It was, so to speak, a kind of annual body measuring on birthdays. We additionally illustrated his or her favorite items around the drawn figure. It was the moment for me to become aware of “the act” of drawing. Probably this kindergarten was the starting point of my journey to pursuing artistic expression. I feel gratitude toward my mother who chose the school for me.

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(pic: The hat Omichi made when she was in elementary school)

(KF)Has your mother also been doing any creative activity?

How can I describe her? To be honest, I cannot find the exact words to explain what she is. In spite of a swimming instructor as her main job, my mom once became a magician after she learned the technique from a professional magician. She currently teaches a cooking class and an aromatherapy class, in addition to working as a psychological counselor. All I can say is my mom has always been curious about everything and kept a wide vision. No wonder such a person wanted me to challenge whatever I was curious about.

(KF)Your experiences in kindergarten led you where you are now. Did you go to regular schools?

Yes, I did. When I was in junior high, I belonged to the fine art club and the drama club. The drama club was quite large with many members, and I was also involved in making stage sets and props. After enrolling in a senior high school, I joined in various club activities such as fine art, halberd and biology. I was absolutely my mother’s daughter with diverse interests.  

(KF)You went on to School of Project Design at Miyagi University.

Miyagi University was a newly established at that time. I majored in spatial design to study under Prof. Senhiko Nakata who was also a famous architect. But in fact, I found soon that space design was not for me.

(KF)How come you thought so?

 I liked drawing up a two-dimensional floor plan. But, on the other hand, I somehow sensed strangeness to see a three-dimensional model transformed from the two-dimensional plan. Basically a two-dimensional plan should be made with consideration of space composition and facility layout. However, I was the person who found amusement in the two-dimensional outcome of an experiment with piecing together a hodgepodge of several famous designers’ spatial plans like a collage. That’s why my score for the floor design was not good.
It doesn’t mean that I dislike considering about architecture, people flow, or concept. It just became increasingly painful for me to study spatial design. In the meantime, I started to study fabric-dyeing on my own which led me to design textiles.

(KF) What did you make in your school days?

I collaborated with my friend, who was a video creator, to make a kind of soft sculpture for the school festival. My design for that object became later a prototype of a textile of Koto Thouin named “Odokete Aruku (comical walk)”.

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As you see in the picture, patterns for the cotton-stuffed sculpture was drawn by hand. Since I had no idea about textile art in those days, I went to Mabuchi Store to buy fabric, paints, and whatever I needed. In Sendai, Mabuchi is the first store most people can think of when thinking of fabric, and where I have shopped since my early childhood. I still believe that I could not have completed the sculpture without Mabuchi.

(KF)Your interest had been gradually shifting from spatial design to the art. What was your graduation project at university?

I made a 3D style artwork as shown below. Let me share with you how I created it. First, I drew graphical landscapes at different distances on a big fabric panel: far, middle and short. Next, I made pieces of cross-section pattern from a certain shaped object, and then rearranged each piece. Finally, I put each piece of isolated vertically on the painted fabric panel with regular glue at two-millimeter interval. The rearrangement of each piece of pattern in the previous process brought shadowing effect to the fabric. In this way, my textile artwork with perspective and shadow effect was created.

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Upon entry to school, I had wished to study under Prof. Nakata, but in fact I studied under Prof. Koji Makanae who specialized in visual information science. That’s why I incorporated the method of Augmented Reality into my artwork. I made an actual product while other students did spatial designs by software. At the graduation project presentation at school, only few people took a look at my creation while most people fiddled with their computers. Their response to my project meant that they did not care what I created. The situation made me picture like this; people’s mind melted into each pixel to be swallowed up in the cyber world; and my creation was the symbol of what I remade with such a pixel-like-people’s insensibility. Later I thought that my creation was meaningful to raise the question whether people could remake themselves in the real world with feedback and accumulation of knowledge from the Internet. Well, my views might be just the expression of rebellion against the situation. There were few students including me who made non-virtual-reality and touchable products. I felt a bit inferior while the majority presented system designs.

(KF) You came to Tokyo upon finishing university.

I worked for a year, and then entered in the evening program for garment creation of Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. Though I eventually dropped out under unexpected circumstances, I was quite stimulated by the faculty, especially Prof. Ueno whom I studied under for two years. In addition to teaching at the college, he has been active as a pattern maker and grader. The sewing patterns graded by him are sometimes seen in Soen Magazine, which is one of major fashion magazines in Japan. Anyway, I truly respect Prof. Ueno whose technique is very precise.

(KF)  You worked at an antique shop when you won the grand prize of Kokka’s competition. The judges seemed to be interested in your occupation, “antiquarian”, written in your application.

I have worked at many different jobs like Kageki Shimoda who is a multi-talented novelist in Japan. At the time of applying for the competition, I worked at an antique shop in Nishiogikubo, Tokyo, to repair items. It was a fun job with upholstering or mending items. Though seemingly glamorous, it was in fact a job of dusting off each article diligently. I eventually became discerning while handling a variety of antiques including pieces created by living national treasures. The place I worked for should be called an art dealer rather than an antique shop. I learned a lot there.

(KF)What kind of work do you do now, other than textile design?

While assisting some people in their sewing projects, I work at a retailer of daily necessities that sells baskets, brooms, cutting boards and so on. And, I sometimes get a job order for a cover illustration of catalog.

(KF)We get the impression that your various job experiences are organically linked to your textile design. Aside from your jobs, we are very interested in what you do as a hobby: writing a Tanaka.

I am not a full-fledged member of poetry group, though. I somewhat integrated the poetic nuance of Tanka into my graduation project. That triggered my interest in that traditional Japanese poem. Since I was young, I have liked the sense of Japanese language and always enjoyed looking up every word in a Japanese-language dictionary to discover a new word or to know there are a number of words meaning the same thing. I am curious about what I hear in everyday life, even on a train for instance. Much spring to my mind while I overhear someone’s conversation. Some of those conversations or words bring me a visual image linked to what I heard in the past at a completely different place, like a flashback. It is not easy to explain why or how, but the pieces of words fit together at a certain moment. This is also the moment for me to get an inspiration. It is hard to incorporate the words directly into textile design. The energy generated with well-stocked words or well-fitted pieces of words might become my passion for my creations.

(KF)Your views are very profound. Is the word popping up in your mind a visual form?

Yes, it is. That’s why I want to do a video production while pursuing the textile art. I might lose track of myself by having my fingers in too many pies at one time. I wonder if it is possible to create my own form of artistic expression by projecting image on fabric. Please visualize a treadle sewing machine, which makes chatter while it operates. A cinema projector chatters while running, too. I am planning to make a kind of the installation art to evoke old memories by projecting an image on a cloth while sewing it on the treadle machine, with the chattering sound effect. I have carried out discussions about this project with a video creator. One of my ideas is that I will sew or do embroidery on a cloth that is actually solid white but seems pattern-printed through projection. It must be very interesting to show it on screen or performing for a live audience. I wonder if I can do something like space production with fabric. Perhaps spatial design has recently come to me.

(KF)You lost your obsession for architectural and spatial design in your college days, but you are coming around to that field.

It’s highly likely I will find myself doing spatial design someday. That’s certainly true that lately I am exploring the style of spatial representation.

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(KF) The work shown in the above picture is embroidered on your painted fabric. Does it mean anything?

I made it for an assignment in a handcraft class at school. I have liked embroidering to energize my mind or rather for psychological action to myself. This is again an episode from my childhood. My grandmother’s hand knit inspired me to start handcrafting. Making an Amigurumi (a knitted stuffed doll) was popular around that time. I bought a kit and materials at Mabuchi Store to make a knitted stuff doll of Moomintroll with my grandmother. That is my first handicraft work. Instead of leaving it as was, I unknited it to remake an another doll. Maybe I liked the act itself of knitting.

(KF)While you have a lot of interesting stories, let’s get down to the point on your textile line “Koto Thouin”. It took a bit longer time, almost one and a half years, to develop your winning designs into textiles since the competition held in 2015. The first series from Koto Thouin consists of four different designs. Please tell us about these designs.

One of my designs entered the competition, “Urayama no Shomen (front side of the back of the mountain)”, was initially chosen to be a textile due to its great impact.

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In relative to the “Urayama” with large-scale pattern, I designed two others in different-scale patterns: middle and small. Whereas all those fabrics were spiky-looking, by contrast, I added “Odokete Aruku (comical walk)” featuring roundish motifs.

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(KF)Following the patterns, coloring scheme should be considered. We are going to hear from Ms. Sakurai of Kokka Co.,Ltd. who takes charge of textile production for Koto Thouin.

(Sakurai) There are two different sized screens to print on fabric: one is 24-inch, the other 30-inch. In the printing factory, fabric runs through belt conveyer where screens are lined up. While maximum 16 colors can be used with the 24-inch, 12 colors are available with the 30-inch. Seemingly Ms. Omichi’s coloration is coordinated with tone, but in fact, she used quite a few colors. We sometimes had to discuss the possibilities of modifying designs in accordance with the screen’s capacity. For actual example, once I asked her, “Do you mind if we adopt same color for this pink part and that lighter pink part?”

(KF) More colors can be used on the smaller screen, right?

(Sakurai) That’s right. The bigger screen is, the less number of screens can be set up at the belt conveyor. Therefore, the less colors are available with the bigger screen.

(KF)Thank you, Ms. Sakurai. We would like to get back to Ms. Omichi. Please share with us about your first experience to create textiles, including anything exciting or any effort you had to take.

I was a complete amateur with no knowledge of textile. So, I was very flattered to receive the grand prize and learn a lot through the process of creation of textile from the beginning to the end. It was difficult to design a small-scaled pattern for me because I usually design large-sized patterns. I once tried to get inspiration for small patterns by chopping up a fallen leaf. I was often stumped about how to present my originality or distinctiveness with small patterns, or about whether the pattern and the material would go together. It was Ms. Sakurai that recommended dungaree as material for “Aimai na Omoidezukuri (making an ambiguous memory)”. She said, “This would be a unique textile with dungaree.” When I saw the finished product at a later date, I was assured that the fabric had individuality as her suggestion. Regarding this pattern, to be honest, I had not been able to predict how it would look like when produced as a fabric. Thanks to working with an expert like Ms. Sakurai, I could create the desired textiles.

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(KF)The photos for Koto Thouin’s brochure were taken at a public bath. The one showing a model holding a washbasin with the Mt. Fuji-painted-wall in the background has a strong impact.

To express “Urayama no Shomen (front side of the back of the mountain)” by a visual image, I asked the tall model to strike such a pose in a dress made from the textile. This picture can be seen on the first page in the brochure. Why Mt. Fuji? It just represents a mountain in the textile title. The actual photo shooting location is a public bath in Kamata, Tokyo, where I have been to before.

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(KF) HaaT of ISSEY MIYAKE INC adopted your textile for their spring/summer collection.

I went to the show held at Isetan Department on the first day. It was quite unbelievable view that all of the staff in a big room was wearing clothes made with my textile.

(KF)It is truly wonderful. Do you have any plans for the near future?

I will have a solo exhibition this coming June, September, and October. As an introduction of the textile shown below, I will make shirts with it in response to the high demand despite the challenging task.

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(KF): Good luck in your exhibition! We wish you continued success in the future. Thank you very much.

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