Japan House brings Eastern culture and style to London

Pictures by Lee Mawdsley
Pictures by Lee Mawdsley

On London’s Kensington High Street, a £15m exercise in soft diplomacy is being carried out.

The Japan House project was established by the Government of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Japan House London, which opened at the end of June, joins São Paulo and Los Angeles, both of which opened in the last 12 months. London was chosen as the Japan House’s European base because of the “long history of association between Japan and the UK”, explains Japan House London’s director general Michael Houlihan, and also because of “the importance of London as an international crossroads”.

Akira restaurant
Akira restaurant

All three centres have been designed under the guidance of chief creative director Kenya Hara, who is a representative of advertising and design agency Nippon Design Centre, and art director of MUJI.

London’s offer is housed in the basement, ground floor and first floor of Bernard George’s seven-storey, Grade II listed, Art Deco building. In 1933, the corner site opened as Derry and Tom’s department store, with US-style ‘through’ windows instead of enclosed window displays. The shop closed in the 1970s and reopened for a short period as Big Biba. Most recently, it was home to Gap. JHL spent a year looking for the right building, and has a ten-year lease.

While the specification was drawn up by the Japanese Government, the building itself determined the layout. Planning regulations dictated that the 800m2 ground floor should be given over to retail. Upstairs is a restaurant and downstairs houses an exhibition space, event space and small library. All three floors were designed by Katayama Masamichi, founder of Wonderwall, the Tokyo interiors firm responsible for Uniqlo’s London flagship. He has joined the floors via a centrally-positioned spiral staircase, which was made in Japan and brought over in pieces, and winds around a spherical glazed lift. Meanwhile, traditional Japanese roof tiles have been remodelled to create the floor.

Houlihan explains the shop’s role: “We are using retail to give a narrative about Japan. Here, we are saying that everyday things can be beautiful and functional,” something he believes has been lost in the West.

Houlihan, who previously headed up a succession of museums, showed Masamichi photos of the glass booths in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum for inspiration. The shop area’s lay-out is reminiscent of a generously-spaced museum or gallery, with white merchandising units, glazed boxes and recessed shelving in the walls.

This last element in particular is informed by Katayama's spatial concept, which is based on the ‘tokonoma’, an empty, raised alcove in a Japanese home where guests can admire displays of art or seasonal flowers.

While the design is minimalist, the zoned stock at different price points is plentiful and varied, from crafts and design goods through to technology, stationery, kitchenware, crockery, beauty products and books. Most things “you won’t find anywhere else (in London),” says Houlihan. The items have been sourced over two years by Kato Saeko, the shop’s planning director – one of the very few women on the illustrious team – who is aiming to appeal to locals, students and museum visitors.

The intention is for the products to be accompanied with written descriptions. “We need to tell the story of our techniques and history,” says Saeko. Houlihan backs this up: “We are as much telling stories as we are selling products. That sits with cultural economics.”

The shop is operated in collaboration with Salt and Welcome UK. This new company has been formed by Japanese restaurant company, Salt, and Welcome, which operates retail stores in Japan. “The shop and restaurant have got to make a profit,” says Houlihan.

Not all the ground floor is given over to retail. Directly in front of the entrance is a coffee and tea bar, and in a glass booth in front of the large windows are placed architectural models on lanky plinths. These are a teaser for the opening exhibition downstairs, Sou Fujimoto: Futures of the Future. This booth will always show work from the exhibition, which will change every couple of months.

“Consumerism is cultural in Japan and a social experience,” adds Houlihan. However, JHL’s aesthetic has more in common with Wallpaper magazine than manga comics. Meaning any shoppers who only associate Japan with Hello Kitty, Mount Fuji, geisha girls, anime, Sony and Toyota will be sorely disappointed by the retail offer. But for others, it will provide a welcome break from mass-made ubiquity.

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