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Making the Ordinary Extraordinary with Keisuke Unosawa

How do you go from washing up on a boat to brainstorming in Steve Jobs’ garage to working with MoMA and Virgin? We sat down with designer Keisuke Unosawa to find out.

By 5 min read

The story of Keisuke Unosawa’s design career is far from ordinary. You won’t find skills developed at a prestigious design school or an expensive intern program abroad; there are no recurring childhood dreams to have work featured in MoMA (that just happened incidentally).

In fact, it all started… on a boat. At 17-years-old and out of high school early (“I didn’t find it fun,” he says), Unosawa left home to pursue a career as a musician or actor. He got a job at the Takeshiba ferry terminal in Hamamatsucho, Tokyo, taking on random jobs like carrying luggage and washing up. It was then that he started to draw.

“I started to sketch what was around me. Things like the plates that I was washing, the inside of the ship, the views that I saw and the people there.”

A portfolio slowly began to form, inspired by the ordinary life that Unosawa was living every day. Eventually, he decided to send his drawings to different publications to see what would happen, including the kind of heavyweight media that would make even the most ambitious artist quake.

He laughs. “Everything was rejected,” he says. “But I kept sending them.”

From rejection to recognition

Eventually, somebody did recognize his talent. Luckily that somebody was important.

An example of one of Unosawa’s card and envelope designs for Corazon.

“The editor of Marie Claire Japan was kind enough to meet me in person — to tell me that my illustrations were bad,” he says. “But he also told me that there was potential there. He suggested I should start with graphic design and found me my first job in the industry.”

The job was with Dentsu Corporation back when it was the world’s largest private advertising agency. While there, Unosawa worked closely with the director making advertisements for big-name clients like Japan Railways.

The Apple garage

This led to a transformative meeting with Steve Jobs which took place in the original garage where Apple was founded. At the time, Apple was planning to test the waters in Japan and needed help to market themselves. So, Unosawa was sent to California to discuss the details with the man himself.

“I ended up in this garage talking to Steve Jobs about his concept for Apple and how he envisioned it coming to life in Japan. He was there with just two other people and all of these machines. It was incredibly inspiring to see what they were doing in person.”

Unosawa worked on the award-winning ad series for Apple in Japan, taking inspiration from the Zen artwork of Yokoyama Taikan.

Still just 20 years old, Unosawa returned to Tokyo invigorated. A new design job followed, this time with the American Television Network CBS. Under the mentorship of the network’s head designer, Unosawa was able to seriously hone his craft.

At 23 he started his own agency and hasn’t looked back since.

As fortuitous as his origins as a designer seem, it’s clear that Unosawa is more than just an opportunist. His gift for capturing the extraordinary in the everyday and distilling that into design is evident across his work. The annual greetings cards that he produces for New York’s MoMA are simple yet whimsical, his travel kit package designs for Virgin Atlantic make you laugh and you have to look twice at the Kawasaki City logo to see the hidden surprise.

“For me, the goal of design, and of a product, is to make people happy. After all, the purpose of living is to be happy.”

A chance meeting

Unosawa (right) with the CEO of Corazon, Tomonori Omura.

It was, however, a chance meeting at a party that triggered the start of his relationship with the Japanese omiyage (souvenir) producer Noren. Now he works alongside CEO Tomonori Omura as its lead designer. He’s behind almost all of the company’s products, as well as the look and feel of the online and physical stores. He also had a hand in shaping Corazon’s headquarters, transforming the office space into an environment that reflected its emerging philosophy.

“When we first started working together, I said [to Omura-san] that the priority was ensuring the company had a fun, creative working environment. It was already a casual office when I came, but now we really try to emphasize daily enjoyment. Employees bring flowers, they can help themselves to free books and wear whatever they want.”

The entrance to Corazon’s headquarters in Osaka. Employees take turns in decorating the table as they like.

Transforming the shopping experience

It’s the kind of setting that you’d expect more from a Silicon valley startup than a Kyoto-based brand whose major revenue comes from selling traditional souvenirs. But step inside a Noren store and it’s easy to understand how ideas of progress and heritage work together in harmony. Each shop is a literal gift wonderland; part bazaar, part art exhibition. Noren is the sort of retail space that you want to really browse. The difficult part is choosing what items to buy.

A customer browsing a Noren store in Kyoto.

“When a customer comes to the store, we want them to be entertained. Shopping for souvenir gifts should be a fun experience,” says Unosawa.

The parallels with Apple and its product philosophy are easy to draw. It’s all about delivering a quality customer experience through fun and functional products. The first product that Unosawa designed with Noren was a whimsical umbrella case to brighten up a rainy day commute.

“The focus is always people and their lives. Everybody commutes. It’s regular life,” he says. “So we wanted to make that special somehow.”

And if you think about it, souvenirs are the perfect medium for this. They’re about preserving a memory of travel and discovery once you’ve returned to your normal life. Cheesy as it sounds, every time you or your friends or family see that quirky, unique product, it’s a reminder that life itself is a gift.

When it comes to thoughts of his own favored designs, Unosawa opts for something traditional, timeless and positively simple. “It’s hard to choose but I’m especially fond of these chopsticks. As with all of our products, it’s a traditional concept with a contemporary feel. They’re actually a set for a husband and wife with a fan design. The fan is a symbol of spreading eternal happiness — what we hope to somehow do.”

If you want to bring a bit of the extraordinary into your life, check out Noren’s store locations in Kyoto and Tokyo. Find out more here. You can learn more about Keisuke Unosawa and his work on his official website.

[This is a sponsored article in collaboration with Corazon.]

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