So, first things first – are you an artist, or a designer?
Both! Really, it’s not so straightforward. I am designing this life that I lead, and I want it to be a work of art . . .
Okay, then, tell us about both. First, how did you become an artist?
You know, art is something that just always seems to circle back around to grab me, again and again in my life. I can’t escape it, so I just embrace it. But to answer your question – when we were young, our mother always sent us to art lessons, took us to see operas, made us listen to music at home. And so, although I thought when I went away to college that I was going to study psychology –
(interrupting) And where did you go to school?
I went to Wake Forest University, in North Carolina. Mostly to get away from the winters in Cincinnati, and because it’s a small, liberal arts school with a good reputation, and a tennis team. That’s another thing I was really into as a kid – tennis. But anyway, after taking two years of required courses, and just really enjoying getting that broad base, and coming to realize how all those subjects are interrelated, I didn’t think any longer that I wanted to major in psychology. Art just seemed the natural choice. I had a choice between a studio major, or art history. I chose the studio route, with my emphasis in painting, but I really loved the art history classes too. I remember sitting in that dark room, and the click of the slide carousel (yes I know – I’m dating myself with that little detail!), and looking at these astounding paintings and sculptures and buildings while hearing all of their surrounding details. It’s something I’ve never tired of. You wouldn’t believe how many exhibitions I saw when I lived in Tokyo . . .
You lived in Tokyo?
Yes, I went there after college – I was there from 1987 to 2000.
How do you get from North Carolina to Tokyo?!
Ha! Yeah, I know, my whole trajectory seems a little unlikely. As I said, I majored in painting in school and that makes you a waiter when you graduate. But that wasn’t actually so bad, because I worked at a fantastic restaurant called La Chaudiere, in Winston-Salem, N.C. Not only did I learn more than a bit about food and wine, I met a lot of really, really interesting people, some of whom I still count among my closest friends. And anyway one of those people told me that it was possible for native English speakers to find work teaching in Japan. Being of half-Japanese ancestry, and not sure what I really wanted to do with my life, this sounded like a great idea. I decided to go.
So you were teaching English. What about making art?
Well, art continued, but I never really painted after graduating. I got a Nikon FM2, and sort of learned photography by doing it. It’s a lot easier to carry around a camera and some lenses than an easel and paints and canvas. But there came a time when I needed to make a decision – was I going to invest in a bunch of darkroom equipment, and get serious about making my photos that way, or was I going to go digital? This was in probably ’93 or ’94. Well, my friend Isaac talked me into getting a Mac – this was my first computer ever – and as soon as I started mucking around in Photoshop, and came into contact with the whole DTP revolution that the Macintosh was making possible, I knew what I wanted to do.
Ah, so this was the transition from art to design.
Right. I got an internship at Tokyo Journal magazine – actually first as a copy editor, and then little side stuff in the design department – I was so happy to see the first thing I ever had printed in the magazine! I was also working part-time at a multimedia company doing graphics and photography, and teaching myself web design, basic HTML and stuff. Finally I landed a full-time gig as a designer at The American School in Japan. After 2 or 3 years of that, I decided to return to the U.S., and try to catch the dot.com wave which was underway.
How did that work out? Are you a dot-com millionaire?
Ha! I wish! In 2000 I moved from Tokyo to the Bay Area, and quickly found a job at a startup in Santa Clara. That job lasted about a year and a half, when I was the last of 8 designers to get cut. At that time, a friend reminded me that a company that I’d once worked for in Tokyo had recently opened an office in San Francisco. I was there for 7 years, but am now working on my side of the Bay Bridge, in Emeryville.