Furniture design

What is intuitive design? Interview with Ayako Aratani and Evan Fay

Ayako Aratani and Evan Fay introduce their spontaneous work method and look back at the early days of their studio

“Our work embraces irregularity through craft, focusing on intuitive construction methods to create artful domestic objects” Cranbrook Academy of Art graduates, Ayako Aratani and Evan Fay founded in 2016 a collaborative studio called Aratani Fay

They work as independent designers, sharing the studio and workshop, collaborating on projects and exhibitions, crafting all their creations with their own hands and developing an original and visceral approach to the design process.

Earlier this year, when we attended the design event Designmonat Graz in Austria, we came across Ayako Aratani and Evan Fay, who had their works displayed at one of the exhibitions. During this interview, Ayako and Evan shared all the insights of their studio in an engaging conversation about their creativity, design approach, and their understandings of design applications in general.

Ayako Aratani and Evan Fay
Evan Fay and Ayako Aratani, founders of Aratani Fay studio

When asked about the studio and how they met, Ayako and Evan say..

Ayako and Evan:

“We met during our first year of grad school, we were both in the Cranbrook Academy of Art’s 3d design department, focusing on furniture. We started to form a relationship based on our similar interests and decided to go to the Netherlands in-between our first and second year of grad school, which really changed the way we think about design.”

(Ayako) I was an industrial designer for 7 years in Tokyo before going to Cranbrook. I wanted to change my style from formal industrial designer to more hand-craft oriented in an expressive way, which is closer to artist design activity. I had a more traditional background, so I came to Cranbrook to sort of push against those traditions and really formulate my own voice in design.

After working together for 3 months at Kiki and Joost in the Netherlands, we started to get similar ideas and mounting those back and forth even though we were students. It felt natural after our graduation to exhibit our works together.”

Lawless collection by Aratani and Fay
The sofa from the Lawless collection by Evan Fay and the Roommate Lamp design by Ayako Aratani – © Aratani Fay studio

Aratani Fay is made of two people. What is the main point of contact with each other?

Ayako and Evan:

“We were trying to come up with ideas of making our own work and studio practice rather than following a specific style. This feels like a selfish reason for me. I was trying to develop a way of making that was more gratifying to me than the works I had previously been doing and at that time I was trying to find my future and what I wanted to do and be happy, which was a big consideration. Making designs by ourselves is very important for us to achieve our design aesthetics.

Lawless collection by Aratani and Fay
The Lawless collection is a metaphor for society’s rationality and human connection – © Aratani Fay studio

Your Lawless collection has been resonating the most in the press. What is it about?

Ayako and Evan:

“In 2016, we participated in a show of Collective Design in NYC, organized by our school. We were asked to come up with a product proposal, which has a more poetic design that did not necessarily solve a particular problem but approached from a different angle. A fun design for the end of the world which needed more spunky and expressive language.

I was thinking in a metaphorical way about the design project and our role in society. The Lawless pieces have a bit of metaphor behind it, where the grid construction of the metal frame represents rational society and the woven cushions represent human emotion and human contact. It literally is the intertwining of these two with the addition of a bit of punk aesthetics.”

Lawless collection stools by Aratani and Fay
Lawless Stool from the Lawless collection by Evan Fay – © Aratani Fay studio

Is there any other studio or designers that you feel very much connected with?

Ayako and Evan:

“We are very much inspired by other designers who work more intuitively, not caring about the commercialization of products with an unapologetic design approach.”

Lamp design by Aratani and Fay
The Roommate Lamp design by Ayako Aratani – © Aratani Fay studio

How would you describe your style, if you had to give it a name?

Ayako and Evan:

“People are looking for different explanations, some more descriptive and some more metaphoric, so I like to give them both options. We also like the idea of “obvious construction” that when you see a design, it has been stripped down of just a few components to be only the essential ones, as we are using only one or two materials. We would describe it as the thought behind the work and hope that it can have some sort of explanation.”

Lawless collection stool by Aratani and Fay
The spontaneous approach of letting materials flow and interact by Evan Fay – © Aratani Fay studio

Getting to the commercial side of design, how did Aratani Fay promote the Lawless collection?

Ayako and Evan:

“It started with a collective design fair in NYC, 2016. That was the first exposure for the time, which was well-received. I did not expect it to be sold the first one, that I made. It got me thinking that this might be interesting to pursue. After that, we were getting contacted by people and the design was picking up.

One major factor is Instagram. I really feel social media was really helpful and people were very excited for the images” comments Ayako referring to the first shot of the Lawless Sofa taken by product photographer Charlie Schuck, which got picked up by the press and went viral on the digital design platforms.

Lawless collection chair by Aratani and Fay
Side-chair from the Lawless collection by Evan Fay – © Aratani Fay studio

“The images come first and they get popular and move quickly but the people who are actually interested in buying these products wait a bit to see what we are doing, they want to see the works in reality. So the relationships that we are forming are much slower or do not necessarily reflect the success we have on Instagram.

One aspect is forming a relationship with galleries and collectors, which started to happen a bit more frequently, and now people are starting to reach out to us to do publications.”

Clock design by Aratani and Fay
Ayako Aratani’s neat and elegant design of the Click-Clock – © Aratani Fay studio

Is that the channel you prefer? The galleries?

Ayako and Evan:

“Yes, I think it is the most appropriate for our type of work and the kind of money that we are asking for. The support of a gallery behind us is reassuring. They have a reach beyond what we have.”

Lawless collection chair detail - Interview with Aratani and Fay
A detailed view of the metal grid joinery and spontaneous wrapping of upholstery by Evan Fay – © Aratani Fay studio

The collection has been marketed mostly in the US. What is the situation in other parts of the world?

Ayako and Evan:

“The research started in Milan a couple of years ago, since then the market has grown global. Less Japanese market, definitely the Chinese market, and India. People from India really resonate with our design, because of textile. Sometimes people ask if the designs are comfortable or not. When we are making it, we try to balance the look and the comfort and come up with something that does both justice.”

Lawless collection by Aratani and Fay
The Lawless bench is designed with thicker upholstery and the dense integration of metal grids by Evan Fay – © Aratani Fay studio

It has been a few years since you are in this game. What would you say is the greatest struggle in this job?

Ayako and Evan:

“Ourselves! Just trying to navigate and find our places or where we want to be, where it makes the most sense for us to be in terms of our work. The logistics of maintaining the studio is not an easy task too. A lot of people think design work is easy, but we fabricate all our designs and there is also the waiting game where we start to work with a client for a year bringing frustration and requiring patience.

Patience in terms of studio work, in order to have consistent sales for pieces which are expensive and take a while to produce: so we need to be careful about deciding which projects we are going to do.

Another difficult thing is thinking about the future of our work. Since we have this successful collection, we have the pressure of bringing something new which would have similar relevance to the previous one.”

Collectibles from Aratani and Fay
The Lawless collection and the Roommate Lamp design by Ayako Aratani and Evan Fay – © Aratani Fay studio

If you look back to the past and could change one thing in the path, what would it be?

Ayako and Evan:

“One thing we did not know was what the future would look like in terms of work. There were things that were coming from a lot of different directions and we could have been pulled in a lot of different directions too.

Also, knowing the right opportunities that are appropriate for us and a new direction that we want to follow. So, being able to confidently know when you are saying ‘NO’ to one thing and ‘YES’ to another thing, you are deciding a path.”


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