Feature Story – Uichi Yamamoto

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It is just past mid-night. Warm yellow lighting and soothing background music set the scene for soft chatter – they drift in, sometimes in couples, groups or alone. Tables begin to fill up. I sense that they are all seeking somewhere to replenish their bodies and to empty their minds. And In Tokyo, they have found that special place – it is here, at Bowery Kitchen. I am also at this well-known cafe to interview Mr. Uichi Yamamoto, the man who has been credited for introducing café culture to Japan. Since opening Bowery Kitchen in 1997 he’s also been responsible, together with his team, for producing pioneering and outstanding design concepts for the famous restaurants “Montoak, Lotus, SO TIRED, Henry Good Seven, Irving Place and Pretty Thing”.

Finally I meet Mr. Uichi Yamamoto, he is a casually dressed bespectacled gentleman, with a warm smile that immediately makes me feel at ease in his presence. Mr. Yamamoto does not consider himself to be either a businessman or a “designer”, he is more comfortable with the term “producer” – as his job is to come up with innovative and creative ideas for restaurants and cafes. And in order to turn these ideas into reality, he works closely with a trusted team of experienced designers and architects.

Mr. Yamamoto’s remarkable career has been built on concepts which are undoubtedly original, relevant to customers’ needs and always thought provoking. He is convinced that what matters in design is originality and detail. So we begin our conversation. He is focused, courteous and quietly spoken; and gives great thought to each of my questions. Here are a few selected excerpts which are certain to guide and inspire those who are in search of a different career path – and who also believe that they must never stop searching for new ideas – because according to Mr. Yamamoto, in today’s world, the possibilities are endless.

“I am self-taught. The inspiration for my ideas come from two main sources music, especially Rock and Roll and from action movies. The lyrics and rhythms of music and the cinematography of film provide me with new ideas for creating more interesting and dynamic atmospheres in eating places. I am also intrigued by different cultures and by what they have to offer. I learn from the unique aspects of these cultures and use my knowledge to create my own style – which is something original – that shows my own perspective.

For instance, the inspiration for The Lotus came from my experiences in London. The Bowery Kitchen was my first project and I wanted this to be a place where people could enjoy meeting up in the city. My aim was to provide a convenient and comfortable setting where people could connect, relax and share their interests. And because the Japanese day usually ends at midnight it was important for the café to stay open until 4 a.m. in order to accommodate the needs of the customers. You will also notice that each café or restaurant that I have helped to produce has its own unique theme and character. This is specifically done to provide customers with a unique experience in each place.”

“When I am working on a project I have to work closely with designers and other professionals and skilled people. For it is important to listen to their ideas and to be guided by their directive. The team must have the right chemistry – this is crucial as we have to be able to share ideas and voice criticisms in order to create exceptional designs. As a producer I must also pay attention to minute details, as this is what makes a design stand out from the rest. So when I am travelling I take photos of the small things that catch my eye and are meaningful. For instance when I was in London I was not so interested in taking photos of Big Ben and other famous icons, I took many photos of things which others may have considered to ordinary – but which to me were extraordinary like signs and specific scenes of people and places which later on would evoke many great memories.”

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“This industry is a highly competitive one and I believe that to maintain the edge, designers need to be original. Designers need to keep up with trends as their main job is to find solutions that make people’s lives easier – solutions that are simple, easy to access and of course, original. As a producer I also think that it is very important to use both your brain and your heart to create. I believe that you can never run out of ideas – the ideas are out there – you just need to keep looking for them. For me, success is when people are happy with what I have created – from customers to designers and staff. I want the customers to enjoy visiting the place no matter how many times they go there. This is what success is about.”

The interview ended – there were no cameras, no applause or any other forms of adulation – Mr. Uichi Yamamoto had freely given up some of his valuable time to share his thoughts, in the hope that others might be inspired. I felt truly grateful. Info. for each café -:

Bowery Kitchen
Located near Komazawa Olympic Park, this restaurant with its industrial style décor and no frills, simple décor is timeless. It has a loyal fan base and continues to attract new customers with is good food and ambiance. (Pets are welcome).

Lotus
Inspired by the city of London, this restaurant distinguishes itself from others with its fluorescent coloured, lotus panelled walls; a vaulted ceiling and bold lighting. It has an energetic atmosphere that encourages endless conversation and laughter.

SO TIRED
The concept in this restaurant was to create a calm, quiet, church-like atmosphere where people, especially business people could relax in after a hard day’s work.

Montoak
Opened in December 2002 in Harajuku, this smoky glass cube is a calm, dimly lit retreat from the busy streets. It is located in a 3-storey building with floor to ceiling windows and has a very glamourous interior.

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This article was published in the Oct-Dec 2015 Issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!