An Interview with Kotaro Watanabe of design engineering firm Takram


Imagine this - as a high profile VIP, you and an exclusive 49 others are invited to a dinner for Dom Pérignon's 2004 vintage Rosé unveiling in Tokyo. World famous artist Jeff Koons designed the 2,000,000 yen bottle container entitled "Balloon Venus" to be exhibited at the event, and his handwriting welcomes you on the conspicuously simple invitation card you hold in your hand. It's an ordinary paper card in the shape of Dom Pérignon's étiquette glass, pink like the special vintage Rosé itself, though with holes punched in seemingly at random. Upon arriving you are led to a glowing green table and instructed to place your invitation on the surface. Suddenly, above the card your own name appears on the table-top and animated bubbles rise from out of the invitation. You move the card around the table - your name and the bubbles follow. Pressing your finger to one of the holes punched in the paper, a pink streak appears across the table pointing the way to your seat. It does the same for each individual guest. You pick up the card, and once again it becomes nothing more than ordinary paper.

It's something of a magic trick - a little sleight of hand mixed with sophisticated technology - and like a good magic trick it evokes chuckles of disbelief as baffled onlookers try to figure out how it works. Also like a magic trick, the answer is a mixture of the very complex and the surprisingly simple. The table is covered in a special coating of retroreflective film that only reflects infrared rays. Above it is a projector to create the images and animation, as well as an infrared LED camera. The card really is just ordinary paper, but the holes therein are arranged uniquely like a primitive QR code, telling the camera above where the objects below are located, thus allowing the projector to interact with the paper on the table. This device, a union of stylish design and intricate engineering is called "ON THE FLY", and it's just one of many mind-bending projects devised by self-described "Design-Engineering" firm takram. The marriage of design and engineering on display within "ON THE FLY" is indicative of takram's guiding philosophy, and central to the way in which Kotaro Watanabe, one of takram's lead directors, goes about his life and business.

Kotaro Watanabe (KW): Design and Engineering are two areas that are supposed to be different, but for creation they have to be intertwined. Now for efficiency's sake in companies the two have been separated, but by recombining them there can be something that's a lot more than just an addition. It can be a multiplication.

Watanabe is one of four directors at takram, all of whom have unique fields of expertise and experience. This diversity in their team is by design, as the projects they have undertaken range from User Interface development to the creation of Japanese confectionery. Only about 20% of their projects are available to share with the public, as most of their work is in consulting for big companies like MUJI and NTT Docomo, but that 20% alone shows a surprisingly bold range of diverse works, much of which is developed without corporate funding.

One such project was a piece the firm created for the German dOCUMENTA modern art exhibition in 2012. As part of a group exhibition, takram was tasked with designing a water bottle that would help in a theoretical post-apocalyptic world 100 years in the future. What they came up with was a "water recycling self-sustaining system" - a line of prosthetic organs based on those of real animals from dry regions that would, if implanted in the human body, reduce water loss and allow humans to live with less water. Though the piece was conceptual the takram team did all of the research and development themselves and had actual mockups made for the exhibition.

KW: These projects are investments we make to show what we can do and how we think. People are very interested to know how we come up with these crazy ideas. Corporate clients will come to us and, though it's not how they do business necessarily, they want us to use the same thinking process. That's how they approach us.

Their process is quite unique indeed. When tasked with a new project takram assigns one director who is experienced and confident in the relevant field and one who is the least so within the firm. This forces them to learn and work within a vast range of disciplines, and to create a new methodology with which to approach each new project. It also gives the team the benefit of fresh perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking. Though not yet 30, Watanabe has an eloquently realized personal philosophy for his career and his company, which is all about bringing disparate elements together. Having lived in both Hong Kong and Brussels, two places that are international dichotomies, he's very familiar with how these hybrid relationships work.

KW: Brussels is the place where Dutch Speaking and French speaking cultures collide as well. I like to think of it as, in Japanese "namiuchigiwa" (the water's edge, the shore) where the land and the ocean meet. There is not only water and sand there, but literally rich culture as well. In that environment new species can spontaneously arise.

A graduate of Keio University, Watanabe speaks excellent English with an accent reflecting his time spent in Hong Kong and Europe. While at Keio he cofounded a company which designed stationary and furniture with digital and interactive elements exploring a fusion between design and engineering disciplines. His love of Japanese aesthetics came when he discovered Kazuko Okakura's “The Book of Tea” and the tradition of Japanese tea ceremony. In 2013 Watanabe had the chance to elaborate on that passion when takram designed traditional Japanese sweets for TORAYA Confectionery, which has been serving the Japanese Imperial family for centuries. Having seen the aforementioned dOCUMENTA piece, the uncharacteristically innovative sweets maker tasked Watanabe with helping them bring Japanese confections into the future.

KW: Japanese confections are something special to welcome guests; something not necessarily for everyday use. It's almost like whiskey or cigars. Something expensive and for your taste, and dictated by the seasons. I decided to shift it for everyday use - if I could bring an essence of functionality to the sweets, maybe I could take it to the next level… It was the first prototyping session I had that was edible and delicious.

Working with Toraya's resident master confectioner, Mr. Nakamura, Watanabe created hitohi (old Japanese for one day) - a line of traditional sweets that would suit the different times of one day in not only taste and color, but also in nutrition. Watanabe was impressed with Toraya, not only because of its masterful touch with traditional Japanese sweets, but with its ambition and progressive approach to its nearly 500 year old business (Toraya is the only traditional sweets maker he knows who has an haute cuisine department). This kind of willingness to experiment is famously rare in Japanese companies - but not, as Watanabe points out, due to a complete lack of desire for innovation.

KW: Even in larger companies there are a lot of people looking for innovation, and they find us (takram). The thing is, it's the political aspect of larger entities that hinders their activities. Each section is run individually, so even though the planning department may come up with a great idea, once they hand it over to the engineering or design department it becomes a casualty of the odd democracy of Japanese meetings. You have to tweak all the details, and what was once a shiny star will gradually see all its points cut off, leaving it an ordinary round object. If you go to an electronics store in Japan you'll see TV remotes with lots of buttons. Some customers have asked for a button to change the size of the display, for example, so they put a button on there for that. And they just keep on adding buttons to please everyone and it just grows and grows. That's a result of Japan's political aspect, but actually we want innovation deep down in our DNA. It's the system that's not functioning correctly.

takram itself is different. The diversity within their team keeps their client-base changing as well, allowing them to grow both as individuals and as a team.

KW: Most of us are motivated by acquiring new skills. We have had people who specialize in certain fields, but most of them leave because they can't keep up with the pace at which the entire firm is growing and expanding. It can be good to specialize in one field, but when the industry changes and our firm evolves, there's no room for someone with only one specific skill. Larger companies want to define who you are, what you do. This is a place where a lot of outsiders can gather. People who were expelled from traditional entities.

The success of Watanabe and takram, at least, seems to imply that Japanese companies are moving more towards innovative thinking. According to Watanabe, until a few years ago, the job title design engineer didn't exist outside of takram, but now big names such as Toshiba and Sony are starting to create these kinds of roles within their companies. In a world of iPhones and Androids and everyone becoming a creator, the mixture of people working in a small team and co-editing is proving much more efficient than the traditional system. Now that the larger world seems to be catching up, takram and Kotaro Watanabe will no doubt be seeking out something even newer, stranger, and probably much better. We can't wait to see what they come up with.

More information on takram can be found at their website.

Cover image & Lightbulb image above

Venue: Milan (Italy) Tortona district “Design Library” Exhibition Area: 176 sqm, Dates: April 22 – 27, 2009 Art Direction: Toshiba Corporation Product Design and Interaction Design: Toshiba Corporation, takram design engineering Exhibition Space Design: Ryo Matsui Architects Inc.

Written by
Chris Nelson
Daichi Ano, Nathan Hosken