Inside The Spaces Of Japan’s Top Designers

From the desks to the pens to the lunch orders, photographer Paul Barbera captures the workspaces of Japanese creatives.


Are we products of our environment? In office design, the answer is typically yes, which is why companies go to great lengths–and spend big bucks–to kit out their workspaces in the hopes of making employees more creative, more fun, and more talented. At least that’s the case in the West. In Japan, things operate a little differently.


Photographer Paul Barbera has been photographing creative spaces all around the globe since he was 16 years old, documenting his work on his website Where They Create. Now, Frame has published some of his never-before-seen photos in Where They Create Japan, a tome focused on the top design studios in the Land of the Rising Sun. Some of this generation’s most influential practitioners are featured, like Oki Sato of Nendo, Muji’s art director Kenya Hara, and architect Sou Fujimoto.

Kenya Hara

Is the secret to their creativity in an elaborate workspace concept? Not so, argues Barbera. “Sometimes you can feel that OCD nature of the Japanese in their workspaces, but other times you can be surprised at how lived-in the studios look,” he says. “Every time I made an assumption and thought to myself, ‘Wow, so far all these studio are so quiet, so peaceful, no music,’ you enter a studio that’s total opposite. Generally though, Japanese studios are very quiet–no ping pong tables, no music, none of that workplace buzz and chatter that you see in the West. They treat their workspaces as workspaces and don’t try and blur the lines between work and home or social life.”

The offices often share a similar mix of books, plants, and assorted objects. In the book’s foreword, Monocle‘s editor in chief Tyler Brule muses on the offices’ unfussy sensibility. “Often at times the creative spaces are actually not that creative or exciting,” he writes. “People around the world may have a vision of Japanese design and studios as alike, but I have visited many creative spaces in Japan and due to cost and other constraints, they are often very small, sparse and trimmed back.”

Tadao Ando

Tadao Ando is photographed working on a corner of table cluttered with old architecture journals, mid-century clocks, office supplies, and models. Artist Takahiro Iwasaki surrounds himself with collections of mundane things, like toothbrushes collected on his travels. Sou Fujimoto’s office uses masking tape and plastic to keep heat in the space. “A lot of the spaces of architects are less grandiose than the buildings that they design,” Barbera says. “I found that to be quirky.”

As fascinating as it is to pull back the curtain on the creative spaces in which these designers and artists work, what’s more revealing is what the culture is like in each studio and the rituals each designer uses to fuel their process, which Barbera interviewed each practitioner about. It proves the old adage of “mind over matter” to be quite true.


For instance, Fujimoto always sketches in red pen. “It just happens that red is easily driven into my eyesight, providing more information,” he says. “It seems to drive more directly to my brain than black ink, I guess.”

Oki Sato mentions that he gets pretty much the same soba noodles for lunch every day and makes four trips to the coffee shop on the ground floor of his studio’s building.

Toyo Ito doesn’t make too many appearances at his studio, preferring to stay away so his younger staff members don’t feel like they’re being watched by their boss. “One thing I definitely noticed from a work culture point of view is a reverence and deep respect for the person they are supporting, like the creative head,” Barbera says. “From what I could tell, even someone like Toyo Ito for example, who is an incredibly humble leader, is still held in high regard by the people around him and they never break the master-pupil dynamic. It’s a way of life in Japan, and it’s deep.”

Barbera hopes that the photographs and interviews offer a bit of insight into the way Japanese designers, artists, and architects think. “I have realized in Japan, things are not meant to be totally understood or explained, they are felt–and this in my opinion is part of the the Japanese way,” he says.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.