Etsumi Imamura creates everything from sofas and labels, to lamps and workspaces. Even if the product changes, her expert eye for detail doesn’t.
Etsumi Imamura comes from a long line of visual artists and builders. For more than 300 years, until the devastating bombings of World War II, her ancestors ran a well-known foundry in Osaka. It specialized in building and restoring Buddhist temples in Kansai, the region considered to be the cultural and historical heart of Japan. Her father, meanwhile, maintained a respectable career as a modern sculptor.
Imamura studied sculpture, too-at Yale, having moved to the United States in 1981. She's lived there since; based in New York, she now works out of an East Village studio a floor below the apartment in which she lives. Her field is design, rather broadly defined: graphic, lighting, even houses. She started creating furniture just three years ago, she explains, sitting primly in white leather Turkish slippers (she keeps a no-shoes office, in the Japanese manner) and with hands folded in her lap. Already, she says. it beats the interior design work she’d been doing before. "Rich clients, such a headache!"
Imamura, it becomes clear, is not one to talk at length about her work. "I don't like design-y stuff. I always go back to basic things,” she offers. It's a subtle aesthetic, one challenging to describe in words. Nowhere does one find the signature that a more recognition-seeking designer might go for.
What one does find is a dose of the minimalism embodied by Donald Judd, imbued with an American tradition of unpretentious functionality that one once found everywhere, in the postwar decades, in this country's factories and public schools-design that doesn't announce itself as design. Naturally, her own national heritage is also at play: Imamura says she often returns to the idea of the tea ceremony, stripped of its decorative elements.
Weight is a theme, too. It's an amusing juxtaposition, lmamura's delicacy of manner and enthusiasm for steel. In her studio sits a low, angular table; it's painted a jolly shade of blue that one might associate with plastic. Attempt to lift it, though, and there is no doubt: this is heavy metal.
Like her other pieces, this one incorporates graceful little hints of "richness" into a streamlined design. "At this moment I'm interested in rounded corners," Imamura explains. “Light travels differently with rounded corners; you see different shadows." In two of her recent lighting designs, a table lamp and a standing lamp, she has planted a solid, rectangular block of metal onto a curving, gold-plated stem-an elegant act of counterbalancing that requires considerable expertise. (Niche pieces, they are made to order in Japan.) That most buyers would not know that doesn't seem to bother Imamura too much. ”It’s like artwork; once your work is done, my idea doesn't have to go along with it,” she says. "Maybe some people understand what it is, some don’t.”
Other recent projects include a rebranding for a Japanese sake-maker that originated around the same time as her family's bygone foundry. For her award-winning label design Imamura focused on water, an underappreciated ingredient of the brewing process. She has also designed a studio in rural Ontario for her partner, Bill Toole, a fellow grad of Yale’s sculpture program. Enlarging the canvas, Imamura says, was not a problem. "I know what I want, so it's not difficult for me to design a house. Design, no matter what the scale, is all sort of the same thing: it's about function and certain proportions.”
On their next trip to Japan, Imamura mentioned, she and Toole would be looking for land on which to build a house-perhaps in or near Kyoto, which escaped the bombing and remains, despite constant pressure from developers, a heartland of heritage wooden architecture and slow, attentive living.
With a foreigner's fervor, Bill chimes in to extol the wonders of traditional Japanese culture. To truly re-imagine something, he suggests, one must draw from deep wells like this one. "Good design requires historical resonance, whether you imbibe it with your mother's milk or go out and teach yourself.” Imamura, it would seem, has done both.
IMAMURA’S FIELD OF EXPERTISE RANGES FROM SCULPTURES, GRAPHICS, FURNITURE, LIGHTING AND EVEN HOUSES.