Design Vanguard 2006

Kumiko Inui shows that her design talents reach farther than skin deep

Office of Kumiko Inui
Tokyo, Japan

By Naomi R. Pollock, AIA

Like many young architects, Kumiko Inui launched her career designing bits and pieces of buildings. But instead of churning out bathroom additions and bedroom suites, Inui made her name with eye-catching facades for luxury-brand boutiques. This comes as no great surprise since she apprenticed with Jun Aoki, Japan’s king of high-end retail designers, after studying at Yale and Tokyo’s National University of Fine Arts and Music. “I didn’t really consider going to graduate school in Japan,” says Inui. “At most Japanese universities, students study under one professor, but at Yale I had exposure to lots of different teachers.”

Similarly, part of the appeal of working for Aoki was the unconventional way he runs his practice. Instead of relying on an office manger to oversee projects, he entrusts his staff architects with every part of the design and construction process. For Inui, this meant supervising the Snow Foundation in Niigata Prefecture and c, a tiny house on the outskirts of Tokyo, among other projects. But Aoki has a strict policy of requiring designers to leave his employ after four years.

Click for complete slideshow of projects.

Pictured: Shin-Yatsushiro Monument; Photo © Daichi Ano

“Four years isn’t enough time to learn all aspects of architecture, but at the same time, I was ready,” says Inui. Fortunately, she had a forgiving first client: a preschool director who happened to be her grandmother. To perk up the school’s outdated building, Inui inserted vertical strips of glass into its solid exterior wall and painted horizontal, colored stripes on its interior surfaces. The strips and stripes create a crosshatch pattern that evokes the gingham uniforms sported by many Japanese students.

She used paint again as her medium in a boutique for clothing designer Jurgen Lehl—coating the walls, floors, and ceilings of each of the shop’s five rooms with a different one of Lehl’s favorite pigments. The soft hues gradually transition from one space to the next, making each one appear filled with tinted light without distorting the products’ true colors.

Inui is perhaps best known for her facades—each one a visual pun or optical illusion. She made the elevation for Dior in Ginza out of two overlapping sheets of aluminum, dotting the outer layer with perforations so they replicate the woven pattern of Thonet’s famous chair that Christian Dior adapted as his signature motif. Her first stand-alone structure was a pavilion for the town of Shin Yatsushiro in Kumamoto Prefecture. Shaped like a cute, pitched-roof house, it stands in front of a new train station and functions as a waiting area for travelers. Approached from all four sides, the pavilion is an assemblage of flat, semipermeable facades that add up to a 3D composition. Each wall, as well as the roof, is a glass-reinforced concrete plane punctured with square holes. “If it’s raining, you still need an umbrella,” laughs Inui.

Today Inui has plenty of bona fide buildings on her boards, including an apartment building scaled like a house and a house divided into tiny rooms like an apartment building. So even as her projects grow bigger and more substantial, whimsy and clever artifice—ideas she perfected by designing building parts—remain strong currents in her work.

Originally printed in the December 2006 issue of Architectural Record.
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Founded: 2000

Design staff: 6

Principal: Kumiko Inui

Education: Yale University, M.A., 1996; Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, B.A., 1992

Work history: Practice—Jun Aoki & Associates, 1996–2000; Academic—Showa Women’s University, lecturer, 2006–present; Kyoto Zokei University, lecturer, 2001–02; Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, teaching associate, 2000–01

Key completed projects: Komatsu Clinique, Osaka, 2006; Louis Vuitton Taipei Building, Taipei, Taiwan, 2006; Jurgen Lehl Shinsaibashi, Osaka, 2005; Louis Vuitton Osaka Hilton, Osaka, 2004; Shin-Yatsushiro Monument, Yatsushiro, 2004; Dior Ginza, Tokyo, 2004; Jurgen Lehl Marunouchi, Tokyo, 2003; Meleze Gotemba, Shizuoka, 2003; Louis Vuitton, Kochi, 2003; Kataokadai Kindergarten, Kitakatsuragi, 2001

Key current projects: JLHM House, Tokyo, 2007; Hiroo Apartment, Tokyo, 2007

Naomi R. Pollock is record’s special international correspondent based in Tokyo and the author of Modern Japanese House, published by Phaidon in 2005.