[Alyson Kuhn] May Wong was still studying graphic design at California College of the Arts in San Francisco when she interned for Ingalls Design. Several weeks later, she and the other students in Doug Akagi’s Summer Program in Japan — titled “Looking for Wabi-sabi and Emptiness” — flew to Tokyo. Speaking of emptiness, May must have taken an extra suitcase, because she brought back a terrific assortment for Tom.
I would say that May hit the Tom shopping nail on the head. Did you give her a list or instructions?
No, I didn’t need to. I just gave her an allowance. She knew what kind of stuff I would be interested in. It’s fun to shop with someone else’s money to buy things you know the person will be happy to have. May’s selections for me fell into two main categories: tea and snacks, and paper products and stationery.
Did you notice that the cover of The Uncommon Reader actually matches its Japanese wrap?
I did — and that reminds me of something. Many years ago, my client at Sierra Club Books would invite me over to pick “the sweater set,” which was their expression for the binding materials in a three-piece binding: the endpapers, the cloth, the headband and the stamping. It was an all-woman team at the time.
Tokyo Banana shopping bag, with jaunty lime boater. Tokyo Banana is not a store (yet); it’s a banana confection, considered by many shoppers to be the #1 souvenir choice. Photo: © 2012 StudioAlex.
What did May bring you in terms of tea and companion snacks?
My studio has worked on various tea projects, and I’m a fairly serious tea drinker. The Japanese do such a wonderful job with what I call “functional aesthetics.” They are very sensitive to color — it’s difficult to get the colors just-so for food packaging. Look at these tea crackers and their box and the outer box [above]. What a nice little example of aesthetic integration — it seems very holistic to me.
Have you been to Japan?
I have been several times — for press checks in the mid-’80s, and then for a book project with Christo, The Umbrellas: Joint project for Japan and USA. You know, I really wasn’t a good shopper before those trips. I had lots of opportunities for roaming around Tokyo, looking in shops and enjoying the process — and the quality of the presentation.
The word “stunning” seems to describe so much Japanese design. Their use of ink and paper and texture really elevates the products, no matter how humble. Think about how much joy we get out of small, beautifully printed paper goods.I made a sheet of Tom’s washi into an envelope to house his new cards and stickers. He might like one of my Tombow string-and-buttons for a stylish closure (lower right). Photo: © 2012 StudioAlex.
And will you actually use the cards and stickers May brought you?
Of course. I love to send — and receive — mail. Small paper goods are an inexpensive way to get a a lot of bang for your buck … or sake for your yen. You can put a little sticker on something and it might immediately get repurposed, especially if you use it to seal a package. And these are great for embellishing or refreshing existing stuff!
An air vase? An amazing experience from Torafu Architects is about to unfold. Photo: © 2012 StudioAlex.
A paper bowl that envelops air. What you see on the table surface is the vase’s shadow. It’s a Man Ray moment. Photo: © 2012 StudioAlex.
Did May bring you any washi tape?
No, she didn’t, but she had gotten really into washi tape when she was here — buying it and using it for all sorts of things. I love this card [below] she made me, which she brought to our birthday lunch for her — May was born in May, which is how she got her name. It was perfect. I gave her a little type book, and she gave me a farewell card with tape type.
Lead photo: © 2012 StudioAlex.