How Could Architectural Thinking Find Its Way to Jewellery? A Conversation with TORAFU ARCHITECTS

Published: 27.12.2017
TORAFU ARCHITECTS, Shinya Kamuro  (left), Koichi Suzuno (right). TORAFU ARCHITECTS, Shinya Kamuro (left), Koichi Suzuno (right).
Makiko Akiyama
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Wedding ring. Manufacturer: gallery deux poissons. Material: Gold (18k yellow gold), Silver plating. Shape type: round, oval, square, half round. Design period: 2012.01 - 02. Production period: 2012.02 - 03. Photo: Kosuke Tamura..
Wedding ring. Manufacturer: gallery deux poissons. Material: Gold (18k yellow gold), Silver plating. Shape type: round, oval, square, half round. Design period: 2012.01 - 02. Production period: 2012.02 - 03. Photo: Kosuke Tamura.

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What comes to mind when you hear jewellery by architects? Probably computer simulated design or pieces incorporating the architect’s signature structures such as jewellery collections by Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry. As one of those who had a preconception as such, the strikingly simple wedding rings by Japanese architecture firm TORAFU ARCHITECTS took me by surprise when they were launched in 2012. How did these rings evolve? And what kinds of ideas lie behind TORAFU ARCHITECTS' works that encompass not only architecture but also a wide range of products and the stage sets of popular theatre companies? To find the answers to these questions, I talked to Koichi Suzuno from TORAFU ARCHITECTS one day in November.

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TORAFU ARCHITECTS designed jewellery for the first time when gallery deux poissons asked you to produce wedding rings in 2012, but what was it like when you received the offer?
Koichi Suzuno: I came to know Tomohiko Mori, the director of gallery deux poissons, through a friend of mine who is a graphic designer. I immediately thought I’d like to do it when he first talked about the idea. As architects, we feel more comfortable when our clients set out conditions, so it was nice when he narrowed the scope to the wedding ring. A brief of just ring would have been difficult as it lacks specificity. The fact that wedding rings are meant to be worn by both members of a couple intrigued us and enabled us to use time as a theme, which also seemed interesting.

These rings are very simple silver-coated 18K gold bands, but how did you develop the idea?
Koichi Suzuno: At first, we considered what we would be able to do with such a tiny item. We call this question making, but the design process overall is about questioning and finding ways to solve issues. When designing the wedding bands, I wrote down the characteristics of my ideal rings and the initial purposes of wedding bands. Then, several of my viewpoints such as “I want my ring to be different” or “I don’t want it to be elaborately designed” became questions that we were able to use as a starting point for our work.

Wedding ring. Manufacturer: gallery deux poissons. Material: Gold (18k yellow gold), Silver plating. Shape type: round, oval, square, half round, Design period: 2012.01 - 02. Production period: 2012.02 - 03. Photo: Kosuke Tamura.

You had a book ‘TORAFU ARCHITECTS Inside Out’ published on the occasion of your exhibition of the same title in 2016. In this publication, you classified your past projects into eight categories and these rings were included in the ‘CAPTURING TIME’ section. However, I think they could also be included in the ‘VISUALIZING THE INVISIBLE’ section.
Koichi Suzuno: After having considered the initial purposes of wedding rings, we came to think of them as helping to visualise the time that a couple has spent together, which prompted us to use time as a theme. Then, I recalled a picture I took during a trip to Istanbul. It is a close-up of a figure in a wall relief, the oxide coating on the foot of which had worn away. The inside copper had been exposed as a result of a lot of tourists rubbing this part of the figure in the hope of it bringing them foot health. This recollection was eventually merged with the questions we formed at the beginning. 
Architectural designs are required to last 10, 30 or 100 years. As people who are used to working with such a long-term perspective, we do not think that a product should have achieved its best state at the time it is handed over to the client, since from that point forward there would only be deterioration. For example, when we design a shop, we look for materials that will improve with 5, 10 or 30 years’ use. Plus, in addition to something new, we make sure to add something that may evoke a sense of time, whether this is a single piece of old furniture or a material that changes its appearance over time. We applied this way of thinking to jewellery, which then gave us the idea of a ring whose inside gold would be gradually exposed as the surface silver comes off.

A wall relief in Istanbul, photo by TORAFU ARCHITECTS.

In most cases with jewellery, it works the other way around – the gold layer comes off to expose the inside silver.
Koichi Suzuno: Perhaps we were able to see gold and silver equally as it was our first time designing jewellery. Additionally, we continually focus on finding materials that will make the final product look better over time instead of making it appear more and more shabby. Likewise (pointing at a picture of aged hands), I regard mottled or wrinkled skin as an additional charm as I don’t agree with the idea that ageing makes a person less beautiful. I’d like more people to think that scars and wrinkles can enhance us if we choose to view them in a slightly more positive way.

In 2017, you launched new versions, silver coated 24K gold wedding rings.
Koichi Suzuno: We intended these 24K rings to have more scratches than the previous 18K versions. Indeed, we learned only recently that 24K gold is soft enough that its shape can be changed with pressure applied by the hand. Also, a woman who we saw working for gallery deux poissons was wearing a 24K gold ring that was so deformed it looked as if it had been made that way. At the same time, it appeared that the more deformed the ring, the better it would match with her. This experience of finding a material difference between 18K gold and 24K gold helped us to develop the idea.

Wedding ring. Manufacturer: gallery deux poisons. Material: Gold (24k yellow gold), Silver plating. Shape type: oval, square, Design period: 2017.05 - 08. Production period: 2017.08 - 10. Photo: Masaki Ogawa.

In a past interview, you stated that you visited a jewellery gallery, Gallery Funaki, when you were in Melbourne.
Koichi Suzuno: I worked for an architectural firm in Melbourne for a year before launching TORAFU ARCHITECTS, and a friend of mine who I first met in the city took me to the gallery. Until then, I had thought that jewellery was all about the value of gold and gems such as diamonds. But when I saw jewellery made from paper at Gallery Funaki, I came to realise how jewellery could be and learned that you can make it directly from whatever you regard as beautiful.

Did any of the works you saw then leave a special impression?
Koichi Suzuno: You’ve seen the necklace whose chain is dotted with office supplies and circular red and blue stickers, haven’t you? My Australian wife bought this piece because it was made by the particular artist and she wanted to support her. She cherishes it and used to wear it. She also has a necklace made from a punched-out sheet of leather.
I didn’t feel like designing jewellery myself, but these pieces interested me. I like works whose ideas engage people, as seeing such works can be just as inspiring as appreciating art pieces. Jewellery can be based on various ideas - it could simply be beautiful or conceptually interesting. In addition, you can share your idea with others. However, if I were to make jewellery, it would be difficult without restrictions. Besides, I don’t like one-way approaches. I’m more interested in something interactive that has scope to change through human intervention. One option would probably be to allow the user to complete the product him/herself or increase their emotional attachment to it through the addition of a personal element - this could allow the product to remain with its use for longer.

I learned that you base your ideas on architectural thinking in all kinds of projects, even if they are not about building architecture. To me, your long-term perspective and emphasis on the time users will spend with products look to be a part of the architectural thinking.
Koichi Suzuno: We always try to find a way to approach through architectural thinking or an architectural idea as this is our major skill. We even consider that nothing starts without a site, so it was very confusing when we were first asked to produce a piece of furniture as it could be placed anywhere and we were unable to imagine how the users would look. Therefore, we decided to set up a site ourselves because we assumed that an imaginary site or client would help. We eventually came to call this act setting the site.

Colorful AA STOOL. Principle use: PRODUCT. Production: Ishinomaki laboratory. Material: Canadian red cedar / mizucolor. Size: W280 x D410 (320 for each separated stool) x H560. Design period: 2016.08 - 2016.09. Production period: 2016.09. Photo: Masaki Ogawa.

Does this mean that setting the site is a starting point for you?
Koichi Suzuno: Setting the site also means clearing up conditions, and we begin from there. Designing without conditions means you can end up with a universally acceptable product. And if you can’t imagine how your client will look, the end result can easily become mediocre. If I use a house as an example, you would end up with something like a ready-built house that is meant to be suitable for all. But every person is different and therefore so is every site. Since no two sites are exactly alike, emphasising a site’s distinctive qualities and changing the negative aspects into advantages should inevitably bring about a unique result. I think that presupposing average clients means you end up treating them like a symbol.
For example, when we designed wanmock for the ‘Architecture for Dogs’ project, we aimed to make it for a specific dog and finally settled on Bouillon, a dog owned by a Japanese copywriter, Shigesato Itoi. Part way through our research, we learned that Bouillon liked to sit on the clothes that Mr Itoi threw on the floor. This was a light-bulb moment when we saw it in a picture and decided to produce an architectural design that uses an owner’s clothes. In this project, we chose a specific dog as our target at the same time as knowing that many users would identify with the idea as a lot of dogs like their owners’ scent.

Wanmock. Principle use: PRODUCT. Production: INOUE INDUSTRIES. Credit: direction: KENYA HARA + HARA DESIGN INSTITUTE, NDC. Material: type A/plywood Tilia japonica, type B/SPF1x4. Size: type A W546 x D731 x H398, type B W510 x D731 x H398. Design period: 2012.06-08. Production period: 2012.08-09. Photo: Hiroshi Yoda.

If you were to bring the idea of setting the site into jewellery, what do you think could be the site for the jewellery?
Koichi Suzuno: The body part where a piece of jewellery is to be worn would be one of the sites. Sites also help to narrow down conditions, so, as I mentioned earlier, using time as a theme and the fact that wedding rings are supposed to be worn by both members of a couple became the conditions when designing the wedding band.

Imagining a body part as a site reminds me of a diamond ring designed by TORAFU in 2015 because I could easily see how a diamond perches in the middle of two fingers, derived from the idea of utilising the formal quality of a specific body space. Speaking of solitaire rings, you designed another type in 2013. In this version, a diamond features a laser-pierced hole.
Koichi Suzuno: We had been asked to design a diamond ring at that time, so it became one of the conditions. We found that designing a diamond ring was mostly about designing an area around the stone’s setting, so we tried to make ours different by highlighting the diamond itself.

Diamond ring. Manufacturer: gallery deux poissons. Material: Gold (18k yellow gold) / Platinum (pt900) / Diamond, Size: φ1.0 mm / diamond : 0.5ct. Design period: 2015.05-08. Production period: 2015.07-08. Photo: Masaki Ogawa.

Solitaire ring. Manufacturer: gallery deux poissons. Material: Gold (18k yellow gold), Diamond, Size: band: φ0.7 mm, diamond: 0.598ct. Design period: 2013.02 - 04. Production period: 2013.04 - 06. Photo: Masaki Ogawa.

Aside from jewellery, you have worked on numerous projects, including a variety of products and stage sets for theatre companies, but is it common for an architect firm to take on all kinds of projects in the way that TORAFU ARCHITECTS has?
Koichi Suzuno: We trained as architects just like our other peers, but our first work happened to be an interior work of a hotel named CLASKA . Building architecture usually starts from a macro perspective of city planning and proceeds to architecture and interior, before finally selecting furniture and products. However, most architects don’t include objects when they take pictures of the completion of a building or interior space. We feel odd about that, always wondering “how will this space look if objects are brought in?” or “it doesn’t look like a living environment”. We’d rather aim to create a nice scene by incorporating people, plants and objects in a space instead of imposing the uncomfortable feeling of living in a masterpiece created by an architect.
In the CLASKA project, we had no choice but to start from objects. Then, we chose to transform the space through one of the architectural elements and finally settled on using a wall for this purpose. The initial starting point was an object, but it subsequently modified the interior space and then the completion of the entire CLASKA building transformed the scenery from the nearest station to the hotel. We were able to see how it all happened because we transferred our office to the CLASKA building in parallel with this commission. We call this small city planning but we constantly focus on how small objects can bring about a big change like they did in this case.

TEMPLATE IN CLASKA. Principle use: MONTHLY HOTEL. Facility design: MAXRAY (Lightings). Production: IKEYA, Building site: Hotel CLASKA. Total floor area: 54m2 (18m2 x 3rooms). Design period: 2004.02-03. Construction period: 2004.04. Photo: Daici Ano.

Lastly, can you talk about what you have coming up in the near future?
Koichi Suzuno: We have designed some scenic art for a stage performance entitled “Five Days in March” Re-creation for a theatre company CHELFITSCH. The performance premiered in December 2017 in Yokohama, but it will travel to Toyohashi, Kyoto, Kagawa, Nagoya, Nagano and Yamaguchi until March.
*Please contact gallery deux poissons to purchase any of the rings mentioned in this article.
deux poissons website
deux poissons shop

About the Interviewee

TORAFU ARCHITECTS Inc.: Founded in 2004 by Koichi Suzuno and Shinya Kamuro, TORAFU ARCHITECTS employs a working approach based on architectural thinking. Works by the duo include a diverse range of products, from architectural design to interior design, exhibition space design, product design, spatial installations and film making. Amongst some of their mains works are 'TEMPLATE IN CLASKA', 'NIKE 1LOVE', 'HOUSE IN KOHOKU', 'airvase', 'Gulliver Table' and 'BigT'. ‘Light Loom (Canon Milano Salone 2011)’ was awarded the Grand Prize of the Elita Design Award. In 2015, airvase is selected for permanent collection of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Published in 2011were the 'airvase book' and 'TORAFU ARCHITECTS 2004-2011 Idea + Process' (by BIJUTSU SHUPPAN-SHA CO., LTD.) , in 2012, a picture book titled ‘TORAFU's Small City Planning' (by Heibonsha Limited) and in 2016, ‘TORAFU ARCHITECTS Inside Out' (by TOTO Publishing).

About the author

Makiko Akiyama. Writer and translator. Born in 1979 in Osaka, Japan. In 2013 launched a newsletter for Japanese readers featuring translated articles about art jewelry. Contributing writer for klimt02, Current Obsession, Art Jewelry Forum, and Norwegian Crafts.