From set designing in the TV broadcasting business to shooting his own TV spots and shorts, NYC-based Kenzo Minami now works as a graphic designer and artist with exhibitions at the MoMa to his name. Having worked for major international clients - ranging from Coca Cola to the Wu-Tang Clan - he developed a diverse portfolio, while a signature red thread is always present. Read on for an interview with Minami in his neighbourhood in Manhattan.
So you’ve been down here in the Chelsea area for 10 years, has it changed a lot?
Not really. I mean, it’s always changing but I think by the time I got here the big change already occurred. I moved to New York 23 years ago and I wouldn’t have lived in Chelsea back in the days. But when I moved here 10 years ago it was already OK you know. I know that a big change is coming because of new developments at the foot of the bridge; there’s even going to be an Andy Warhol museum.
“These days I become better at ignoring my own rules.”
Let’s talk about your work and what you do. As your work is both classic and modern, how do you work with timelessness and at the same time still keep changing, improving and developing yourself?
When I usually start working on a project, I create a whole universe with some sort of customized logic to it. It’s almost like creating a new planet, a new world, that is set with physics, weather, gravity, etcetera. I set these rules and then I just throw anything in there. As long as you let all the elements follow, it always has coherence to the project. And as much as I want to mash things up and make it as crazy as possible – it always has that underlying logic to it, which I think keeps it somewhat classic and grounded. But these days I become better at ignoring my own rules. When I was younger I set those rules because essentially I was not confident enough to trust and follow my instincts. It’s a fail-safe mechanism: if you have a rule, it might not be great but you know it’s going to be coherent.
What happened over the course of the years is, you’re working on a project and something unexpected happens. Then you look at it and even though it’s totally against the rules you set up, it feels better or it feels right. I used to ignore that instinct because it was safe. But now I follow it more, even if it goes against the rules I set up.
Photos by Kenzo Minami.
“It was Yohji Yamamoto who was quoting something from Japanese marshal arts: ‘the best punch comes out if you relax your muscles’.
That’s how I see it now.”
Do you think it has to do with maturity? That once you’re confident and trust your instinct you can build new things on top of a foundation?
Definitely. It took me a while to get there and be relaxed about it. I think it was Yohji Yamamoto who was quoting something from Japanese marshal arts: ‘the best punch comes out if you relax your muscles’. That’s how I see it now. When you’re younger you’re stiff and you feel like you have to be all pumped up, forcing your body to attack. But a better thing comes out if you loosen up. Even with a level of sub-consciousness. For me, it became clear that the trick is to consciously bring myself to start doodling again; when you do that, things become more spontaneous. I got much better at that. Back then, when I started a project I already knew exactly how everything was going to look. After that, you just mechanically follow that and put it on paper. But now I intentionally don’t do that, because then what’s the point of actually executing? There’s only so much variety you can have in your formula, so it’s fun to do something just to get that unexpected. That’s why I also want to try different mediums, working with things that I have less control over.
“It’s like chess. In the beginning you have so many possibilities,
but the closer you get to completion the harder it gets.”
How do you know a work is done? When is it a piece?
You see, that’s the thing. I think it’s easy to keep working on it, but for any of us who design, write, photograph or produce anything, as long as you know when to finish you’re good. These days I don’t even try to have the idea that something is done, but I’m still really bad at that. When you’re working on something, the closer you get to completion, the harder it gets. It’s like chess. In the beginning you have so many possibilities, making steps, designing stuff and adding colours. But as the progress continues and the closer you get to completion, you’re eliminating more and more possibilities. It’s like a puzzle. Sometimes I get to 90% quite quickly, but then the last five to ten per cent takes me just as much time. To get to that point, you corner yourself by logic. So I’m still battling that but I have a loose idea about when things are done. I don’t know if that’s a good thing but at least it’s a different approach. Sometimes it also gives you a breathing space in your work. When something is so very completed, I’m not sure if it’s necessarily relatable for the viewer.
The Hypnotist, Kenzo Minami, 2016.
“I just want to make something for fun. It has to be fun.”
What are you currently most passionate about during the process?
It used to be the idea, but right now I want to be executing everything that I think of. It can also be really small instead of a big project. I just want to make something, which can also be a patch or sticker that I just want to produce for no reason. It’s fun. It has to be fun.