Akemi Tanaka


Brooklyn based urban designer is optimizing efficiency of your limited space in the big city.


Akemi Tanaka graduated with a business and studio art degree from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York and has a Master’s of Industrial Design from Pratt Institute. Through design, she hopes to positively contribute to improving the lives of others while having minimal impact on the environment. With her design aesthetic rooted in simplicity and utility, she balances function through refines minimal form.

tagei coffee tableHere is the interview that I have made with Akemi for Arena Magazine’s February 2009 issue:

What are your major aims, while designing your products, because as far as I can see they are multi-purpose and space friendly? They are perfect for urban professionals, who do not have much space to live, your designs provide a lot in their innovation and space consciousness. What do you think?

I hope to design products that are highly functional, yet simple and elegant.  I also incorporate as many eco-friendly materials and processes as possible. What I love about design is the challenge of bringing all those elements together. When the balance between functionality and beauty comes together, the product sings. Conversely, when you have a beautiful looking design which doesn’t function properly, I consider that more art than design.

In my adult life I have only lived in urban areas – New York City, San Francisco and a short stint in Tokyo. Living in these cities, where space is at a premium, has definitely shaped my design sensibility. Many of my products began as personal projects, trying to solve problems of maximizing limited space.

For example, if you like to entertain but have a small apartment, what do you do? My solution was to design multi-functional pieces that are useful when you are home alone and when guests are present. Futaba and Tagei are bamboo plywood coffee tables that convert into additional seating. Futaba becomes a comfortable loveseat, and loses the coffee table functionality. Tagei, on the other hand, maintains the coffee table surface and opens up to an upholstered bench with two end tables.

I tackled problems with credenzas in a different way. They are great storage units, but their big and boxy shape takes up a lot of visual space. How do you integrate them into a smaller room? One way to make it visually lighter is if you can see right through it. The cut-out provides a framed display space for something special. The back is finished with a matching bevel as in the front allowing you to use the piece as a meaningful room divider.

How does being a Japanese-American influence your vision of design?  What are your influences?

I am third generation Japanese-American and considered my upbringing very American. I could not tell you what influences were attributed to my heritage and what were attributed to being American. It was not until meeting my pottery professor, Regis Brodie, in college that I truly gained insight between the two. He was one of my greatest influences as a designer and as a Japanese-American designer. He was so passionate about pottery and Japanese design that one couldn’t help but be excited about both as well. He taught me about wabi sabi, which translates to “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Other Brodie-isms were simple and cliché like “there’s beauty in imperfection” and “let’s make lemonade out of lemons” but these simple, optimistic ideas about art and design resonated with me. Pottery was my first taste of design and it taught me a lot about form, function and proportions. It taught me patience. There are so many points at which the process can go wrong, but when you like a finished piece, so many things went right.

As we have talked before, you are doing other things related to design. What are you doing with your design? How do you exhibit it? Who do you sell it to? Can we buy from overseas, namely from Turkey?

Partnering with Copeland Casati of Green Modern Kits, I am continuing my exploration of dual-use furniture for her company’s housing kits. We are trying to figure out ways to bring smart, durable, eco-friendly furniture to a price point that is affordable.

Exhibitions have included the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) and the Architectural Design Home Show, both in New York, though I am determining participation in other shows as well right now. The FordBrady showroom represents my work in Los Angeles, California and I have a sales representative in the UK. Currently any other overseas orders are handled direct through my company. But if I can find a business excuse to come and visit Turkey again, all the better!

I see things that are not there--yet.

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