fumie shibata graduated from musashino art university in kodaira, japan, and immediately began working for the toshiba design center. in 1994, she went on to found her independent office: design studio S. with roots in industrial design, the studio works in an assortment of different fields. from everyday electronics and specialized healthcare technology to unique capsule hotels, design studio S effectively adapts its knowledge of and capability for design to suit each of its varied projects. currently the vice chairman of the japan GOOD design award, shibata’s concepts have received a number of accolades, including the mainichi design award, the GOOD design gold award, the JCD grand award and the red dot design award.

standout works include a digital vending machine that suggests beverages based on your gender and age, a piezoelectric plant oil diffuser, and a luxury micro hotel in kyoto. the studio itself is located not far from tokyo midtown, in what was originally a residential apartment building. as a result, the workplace has a warm, familiar feel. offices, model workshops and meeting spaces are organized into separate but connected rooms, with product samples, literature and plant life organized neatly into shelves and peg boards. it was here that designboom sat down with shibata to speak about her process, principles and the changing face of design today. 

the studio S offices are located in a repurposed residential apartment
image © designboom

designboom (DB): what originally made you want to become a designer?

fumie shibata (FS): originally I liked drawing. my family business was fabric making, so I’ve been drawing and making things by hand since I was a child. I knew I wanted my professional work to relate to those things, but as a child of course I didn’t yet know what the job of a designer was. 

DB: what particular aspects of your background and upbringing have shaped your design principles and philosophies?

FS: as I said, my family business was fabric making, so there were always craftspeople around me as a child. I grew up in the japanese countryside — surrounded by nature — that’s my place of origin. so thanks to craftspeople and other adults, this culture of creating grew to be a part of me and developed into my identity as an adult. 

piezo diffuser duo for @aroma
see more of the project on designboom here
image © designboom

DB: who or what has been the biggest influence on your work?

FS: I started out working professionally after the collapse of japan’s economy bubble. that meant that I had to learn and grow as a designer in a period of revolution, and both now and then that climate of change has influenced my method of working. I think the work of a designer is always informed by and reflective of the temperature of their time. as a result of this, my work is always concerned with what I can do as a designer in a changing world — how can we use the uncertainty of the present to effectively design for the future.  

DB: how would you describe your approach to design?

FS: firstly, objects in daily life are used foremost by our hands or bodies, so initially I view this relation to the body as important. how are they touched, handled, or generally used by the human body? by the same token, I also spend a lot of time considering how objects exist within their own environments, independent of context or function. I have to consider each object from both of these two aspects. secondly, industrial products and human crafts are different. these two concepts are deeply matrixed in their own right, and walking the line between the two is what drives a lot of the work.

there are other external considerations in addition to all this. for example I’m a woman, so naturally there is a difference between what I design specifically for women and what I design specifically for men. it’s the intersection between all of these things — between man and woman, design and craft, function and form etc — and the discourse that this brings about, that influences me. I think it’s characteristic of my work, this dynamic that is gained from finding a balance between one thing and another. 

the model workshop
image © designboom

DB: how has your role as a product designer evolved over the last 10 years?

FS: I still do a lot of product design work, but the jobs that have a strong connection to environmental problems or social issues — ones where I need to actively think about human life, how people exist and what designs will have a demonstrable effect on their lives — these will always be more important to me. in japan there are still a few independent designers and through my role with the G mark award I do get the chance to meet with a lot of them. I discuss with them the best way to approach work like this, to find a balance between japanese product design and the world of design as a whole — how these two things interact and how one can integrate into the other with the best positive effect. this is becoming my new role. 

DB: how have technological advancements influenced your work?

FS: of course, manufacturing is an essential part of design and is completely reliant on technology. but also, obviously, technology itself is there to develop and deepen humanity’s way of living. we must be careful not to confuse these things. design’s role is to apply or translate these technologies into everyday life, from the perspective of the designer. the more technologies that develop, the more designers have to find a human, useful function for them, or a human way of interacting with them. so to achieve this, we look back. we borrow analogue aspects from the past to humanize a digital future. 

the studio S conference space
image © designboom 

DB: how, and to what extent, do other creative fields influence your design work?

FS: the studio S office is located in the center of tokyo, close to tokyo midtown, so something new is always happening. here, I’m exposed to many different sources of stimulation every day. I think, creatively, it’s important for me to feel the power of the city. 

DB: could you tell us about the projects you are working on at the moment?

FS: well, recently I collaborated with a chemical maker to develop materials, an experience which meant focusing a lot more on the process rather than the product. investing time in new materials is incredibly interesting from a designer’s point of view, and is a new experience for me. I’m also still working on the ‘9H (nine hours)’ capsule hotel. currently there are three in japan, but we’re opening more locations next year. I think the rise in demand is probably connected to the upcoming tokyo olympics. for the new hotels, I’d like to follow the same basic design but experiment with some new concepts. summer 2017 will see the launch of both ‘9H akasaka’ and ‘9H women kanda’. 

assorted models from the studio’s collection
image © designboom

DB: is there a designer from the past you appreciate a lot?

FS: yes, there are many. before I started working professionally there were only a few japanese independent designers, but today the number of successful designers from japan has increased a lot. individuals such as naoto fukasawa have made a notable impact. his presence was important for me specifically as someone who has been active both before and after japan’s economic bubble collapse. 

DB: how would you say the role of media is impacting the field of design?

FS: I think this has affected architecture specifically quite a lot. think how many architectural masterpieces we know about, but have never been to. we cannot usually travel to view these buildings, I think that’s why the media is important for architecture, to open the conversation up to the world at large. it’s the same with design, you’re made privy to things that you would never normally have heard about. it elevates the conversation to a global scale. today, we can know many things in a single moment. for example, when we first launched the capsule hotel we held an exhibition for three days in roppongi. despite only running for three days, it was featured in about 25 publications, was on the cover of some international magazines and aired on scandinavian television. it was then I truly understood the power of the media. 

MC-680 thermometer (top row) designed for OMRON, 2011 
MC-681 + MC-682 (bottom row) designed for OMRON, 2013
image © designboom

DB: what is the best advice you have ever received, and what advice would you pass on to young designers?

FS: when I was starting out, I was hesitating around the decision to branch off and become independent. someone who I can’t remember — we were just passing by each other in life — suggested to me the term, ‘self-reliance’. it was with this word, and its innate meaning — to rely on one’s own abilities before the abilities or influences of others — I realized that there is no one path in life you need to follow. there is no model to emulate, you just do it by yourself. in that time, it wasn’t easy to be independent and there were very few women designers. so I didn’t know how to do a lot, but I knew I had to decided to do everything my own way rather than the way of others. so, my advice to the young designers is to challenge without flinching.  

DB: what is your motto?

FS: intuition is important for me to judge things objectively. 

materials developed by shibata while experimenting with finish and texture, assorted into red, violet and orange
image © designboom 

phone and remote controller, designed for COMCOM project, 2004
image © designboom 

9H (nine hours) capsule hotel exhibition at axis gallery tokyo
see more of the project on designboom here
image by nacasa & partners

fumie shibata
image © designboom

fumie shibata design studio s studio visit designboom
fumie shibata design studio s studio visit designboom
fumie shibata design studio s studio visit designboom
fumie shibata design studio s studio visit designboom
fumie shibata design studio s studio visit designboom
fumie shibata design studio s studio visit designboom
fumie shibata design studio s studio visit designboom
fumie shibata design studio s studio visit designboom