Before studying graphic design and pursuing a career in branding, Aya Kawabata was a classically trained violinist. From the ages of three to 18 she spent her days learning the history and theory of the discipline while perfecting her abilities as a player of remarkable talent. But as higher education approached, Kawabata realized she had little left to learn about Western classical traditions, and wanted to experience a new kind of education.
“Before university I already had all the academic knowledge I needed to be a musician, so it would have been very obvious to get a diploma in music, but I really wanted to know about other things and study something else. That’s how I ended up at art school.”
Specializing in graphic design as an undergraduate in Tokyo, Kawabata then pursued a master’s degree in Michigan where she diversified her practice even further, exploring architecture and 3-D processes in relation to graphic art. She was particularly drawn to weaving, and developed a method of drawing images in dot matrices onscreen, then using a Jacquard loom to produce tapestries of geometric precision that combine elaborate structures and vibrant colors to form strange mythological scenes and fantastic beasts. This, she felt, was the creative expression she had been looking for.
“When I create a drawing it all comes from me, but with the violin it’s not actually made by me; somebody has made it and I’m playing this amazing instrument, but I’m playing music by someone else too. I feel that making things by myself is more interesting because it comes from me. But I still love music and all of my design comes from that experience of music.”
Kawabata never truly left her musical training behind, and continually returns to ideas and principles learned as a violinist when developing the theory behind her craft and design work. Both demand innovative methods of engaging new audiences with traditional practices.
To Kawabata, design and classical music have a lot in common. “In classical music you’re always playing the music of someone who died a few hundred years ago, and you have to analyze the music to play it a certain way.” In the same way the Jacquard loom is a centuries-old tool that must be analyzed to be used proficiently. Both offer opportunities for evolution and innovation. “Jacquard weaving was used in Japan for things like kimono belts—old factories still use the paper punch card system. The punch cards are the same as the pixel system in computing, and so I make these very geometric sketches.
“I’m always interested in connecting new technology and materials with something developed in the past. As humans we’re always developing our history and culture, and our traditional techniques need to develop to embrace new and futuristic situations, because otherwise we repeat ourselves and everything stays the same.
“In the future it would be interesting to experiment with something like opera. I’d like to invite old music friends to play an opera and I could design the sets using new image technology. I’d like young people who usually aren’t interested in opera to be allowed into this amazing tradition.”
What opera lacks, says Kawabata, is the ability to engage audiences on a universal level. Like fine art, it is too bound up in theory and tradition, requiring an in-depth knowledge to fully experience and enjoy a performance. Instead Kawabata would like her work to be more like playing music at an amateur level.
“Once when I was playing in a quartet at a hospital, a woman started crying. I realized that, although our technique wasn’t perfect, the human feeling was more important. Originally music was about everyone playing and everyone dancing, but eventually it became closed to a lot of people, and sometimes there’s this huge distance between those things.”
With that in mind Kawabata has composed music to accompany her intricate tapestries and performed in front of them at gallery openings. Her day job sees her engaging with client work for brands like Intel, for whom she designs packaging and identity systems. Unsurprisingly her philosophy on branding is far from predictable. “Branding I feel is like being a doctor; a client comes to us with a problem but they don’t really know what the problem is. As a doctor you have to figure it out. Sometimes they’ll come to you and will have misunderstood the problem, and it requires doctor thinking to help them work it out.”