In our series, 8am Coffee, TW editor Paul McInnes meets up with new and old friends to have leisurely discussions about their lives in Tokyo, various projects and anything else that they can think of at 8am. Thank you to Blue Bottle Roppongi for accommodating us at its cute outside bench area.
Now before we begin, Przemek Sobocki and I have some history. I first wrote about his T-shirt brand’s exhibition about 14 years ago for The Japan Times. We also have an army of mutual friends but we didn’t really meet properly until Tokyo public relations queen, Kathy Knowles, introduced us a year or so ago. Since then we’ve been bumping into each other at various parties and events.
P-chan, as he is known to Kathy, me and others, is a creative all-rounder. A prolific illustrator, art director, designer and teacher, he has worked with some seriously big names including Dior, Mitsukoshi, Tomorrowland, Vogue Taiwan, L’Officiel Italia and Park Hyatt Tokyo. Naturally charming and gregarious, Sobocki and I talked for about an hour about design, friends, present, past and future projects and how your path in life can change in an instant.
I wanted to first ask about your part-time position as a lecturer of design at Vantan Design Institute in Ebisu. You’ve been there for a while now. What’s it like?
In the beginning they never gave me a syllabus so I created everything myself. But because I’ve been doing it for a long time, I learned the needs of students. I need to be flexible because each year, the students are different.
They told me to teach a design course and drawing but to teach drawing is difficult. Although I was known as an illustrator, teaching someone how to do it is really hard. But I know how to teach design. And I learned that I have an analytical approach and can teach how design works.
I was teaching a course connected with Parsons School of Design in New York and every January the people from Parsons came over here and we would do presentations and it helped some of the students to apply for Parsons. If they were accepted some of their credits were transferred over there. I had students who wanted to study interior design, fashion design, fashion marketing and graphic design so I had to come up with assignments for students which covered all of it — design basics. Presently, most of my students are studying graphic design. One of my former students is now actually a teaching assistant at Vantan and another works at Ambush [a very fashionable Japanese brand headed by Yoon Ahn].
Do you think students and young people from Japan are still excited about going overseas?
Yes, I think New York or London can be seen as exciting and maybe gives them more freedom. Although things are changing in Japan, it still has a structure. You find a job and they need to start from the bottom. In western countries it’s easier to grow and progress within companies and careers. Some of the students go to New York because they don’t want to have that restricted experience like they would have, perhaps, at a Japanese company.
How did you end up in Tokyo?
I was tired of London. This was about 20 years ago. I was there for six years. I’d been working as an interior designer in Poland and was studying fashion design. I went to London for a summer with my friends and after a few months, my friends asked me to stay on for a year and ended up staying for six. London is a tough city. Although I have no regrets. I met people there I’m still friends with and it was an amazing experience for me.
It was difficult when I first came to Tokyo because I was the guy who had come from London, not from Poland. I guess London was seen as a kind of brand in those days. Although Tokyo is still a powerful brand. I work in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and I’m still introduced as the one from Tokyo. This is how it works. It wasn’t my intention but that’s the way it goes. Although these countries are also very cool nowadays, they still, in a way, look up to Japan.
I guess Japan led the way in that respect.
It’s still seen as the door or gateway to Asia. All the brands look for shops in Japan at the start and then gradually the rest of Asia.
I never thought I’d be in Japan for such a long time. I got an opportunity here and then I jumped in and started working.
You work with a lot of fashion brands. Was that always your intention?
It wasn’t planned. I was initially classified, here, as a fashion illustrator but I didn’t like that much. When you google fashion illustration it’s usually just people illustrating dresses. There’s nothing wrong with that but I felt that I could offer a lot more. In London I used to work in high fashion boutiques so I learned a lot about luxury, marketing and how these brands work and their aesthetics. So, for me it’s easy to work for fashion brands. I really try to adjust and adapt to each brand that I work with.
I’ve been doing a lot of graphic design over the last two years. Less art and more design. I did a catalog design for a hotel in Kyoto called The Shinmonzen. It’s an amazing place, a really small boutique hotel and the owner is a big art collector. Some big names were involved including Tadao Ando.
How did the hotel work come about?
I did some projects for Park Hyatt Tokyo and I was then introduced to The Shinmonzen. Currently I’m designing for them a menu cover of the Jean-Georges restaurant (originally from New York). So, all of this is very exciting. And actually, Kathy also introduced me to the marketing team from Andaz and I’ve worked with them too on a Christmas digital card last year. Working with hotels is similar to working with fashion brands, especially the luxury fashion brands because I’m familiar with luxury businesses. It’s a design and I’m a designer. I do research, I adjust the aesthetics and ideas to the client and we work together on the project. I like sophisticated design but I like adding an “avant-garde” element too, if that’s possible. My personal touch.
Are you into social media? I’m not a big fan, to be honest, but I wonder what you think of it as a designer?
If you go on TikTok there’s a lot of trash but a lot of great stuff too.
Really? I wouldn’t have thought you were a TikTok kind of guy.
Yes, you need to know how it works though. I love TikTok, by the way. Love it. I don’t really upload so I use it mainly as a source of inspiration. In terms of magazines and especially fashion magazines, TikTok offers so many different ideas. So many magazines struggle to produce online content and especially a more traditional editorial approach. Every magazine or fashion magazine should have a team doing TikTok and social media platforms. It’s so simple and creative if you know how to do it. Magazines need to be smarter. You can tell amazing stories on TikTok as long as you know how.