03 July 2024


Shining a Light on Kodai Iwamoto

a round light fixture with a white light on it

He was once an international student dealing with self-doubt. Then, he decided to let his work speak for itself, overcoming all insecurities. A candid conversation with Kodai Iwamoto on his early days, washi paper obsession, and latest project for G-STAR.


It’s the 19th century. A Dutch merchant ship brings back various ceramics from Japan, all wrapped in washi paper depicting unfamiliar designs and color schemes. These never-before-seen Ukiyo-e drawings ended up inspiring artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, eventually leading to the birth of the Japonisme art movement.

Kodai Iwamoto’s lighting object for G-STAR, titled “UNERI,” is an ode to the unique story of washi paper. Made from denim-infused washi paper, the object’s Japanese name translates to “swelling ocean waves,” because of the way the denim fibers look when mixed into the liquid paper.

Based in Japan, Kodai is a graduate of Kobe Design University and ECAL in Lausanne, Switzerland. He runs his own design studio, as well as Studio Hakkotai, a co-working space for product designers and artists in Hachioji, Tokyo. Kodai’s work focuses on bringing together contradictions like mass production and craftsmanship, eastern and western culture, product design and traditional art. We recently spoke with Kodai about our new collaboration and much more.
a person standing in the street with a bag over their head
You left Japan to study product design at ECAL. How would you describe that experience?

“I think those were the hardest two years of my life. ECAL is more difficult compared to other arts schools in Europe, especially the master’s in product design. The quality of students there is very, very high. At the time, I was just 24 years old with a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, some of my colleagues already worked at big brands like Vitra and HAY.”

Do you feel like those tough years made you grow as a designer?

“Definitely. It was difficult for me to express myself in English, so that was a big challenge at the time. But when it comes to product design, you can make some great prototypes on your own. And if the design is great, people can understand you even if you don’t speak English. So I focused on making high-quality prototypes and even better products.”
two fans are standing next to a large piece of glass
Let’s talk about your new object, UNERI. How did you make the washi paper?

“So the whole process of making washi paper starts with harvesting the bark of a tree, specifically from the kozo plant (or mulberry plant, in English), which is the tree we use. The workshop we collaborated with for this project is located in an area full of kozo trees.

First, we harvest the bark from these local trees and then boil it to prepare the material for papermaking. Boiling helps to loosen the fibers, breaking them down into smaller pieces. After boiling, we remove any unwanted materials, leaving us with the best fibers, which are the core of the paper we're going to make.

Last, we combine the plant fibers with a natural glue to create the raw material for the paper. We then use a flat mesh tool to spread this fiber and glue mixture, forming a thin layer. This layer eventually becomes the washi paper. After forming the sheets, the paper is left to dry for one to two days. Once dried, the washi paper is ready for use.”
How did you incorporate the denim fibers? You started from deadstock denim, right?

“Yes. First, I received some samples from G-STAR. It was like an A1 sheet of denim fabric. Then I started cutting it into small pieces, and adding them to the paper mix.”

Nice. Your object is shaped like a Shoji, a traditional Japanese door or window. Why?

“Because of the result of mixing paper and denim. It looked so beautiful. What I found really interesting was the transparency of the paper. So I wanted to make that stand out by turning it into a traditional Japanese window.”

Going back to the inspiration behind this piece, and the washi paper’s first trip from Japan to the Netherlands, a door could symbolize a new passage between the two countries…

“Yeah, it could be. It depends on how people see it. For me, it's really open to interpretation and I like to see how others perceive my work.” 
a round light fixture above a table with a chair next to it
Exactly. The history of washi paper is so interesting…

“Yes. So going back to the Edo period, about a couple of hundred years ago, washi paper was just everywhere. It was like the copy paper of that time, nothing really special. But what’s different between back then and today, it’s the way it was used and its natural cycle. For example, washi paper was used for Shoji, those sliding doors and windows in traditional houses. When these papers tore or became worn out, people would reuse them instead of throwing them away. These pieces would be used to practice calligraphy or even as toilet tissue. And with the lack of modern sanitation at the time, they'd eventually end up in the compost, mixed with human waste, becoming fertilizer. This natural cycle of use and reuse is quite different from how washi paper is treated today.”

Fascinating. How was your experience with G-STAR?

“To be honest, I didn't expect to be selected as a designer to collaborate with the brand. When I saw the project with Maarten Baas last year, I remember thinking how I wished I could work with a brand that values artists like G-STAR. So I was pleasantly surprised when I was approached for The Art of RAW."


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