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The design scene of Villa Kujoyama

In September, Adèle Fremolle took the helm of Villa Kuyojama in Kyoto. The incredible building built by architect Kunio Kato on the side of a mountain is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and since its creation has welcomed some twenty designers. As Christian Merlhiot, former resident and then co-director between 2014 and 2017, points out, many of the designers who have passed through its walls attest that “this stage transformed [their] lives.”

Inaugurated in 1992 in Kyoto, Villa Kujoyama was inspired by the model of the Villa Medici in Rome, which was created in 1803. It is now celebrating its 30th anniversary, taking into account an interruption for renovation from 1992 to 1994, which also gave a second wind to its programs. Placed under the supervision of the French Institute and the French Institute of Japan, it is the only residence in Asia for French artists. It benefits from the financial support of the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation, which has just confirmed the renewal of its partnership. While waiting for the arrival of the future director, and under the coordination of Samson Sylvain, acting director and cultural attaché at the French Institute of Japan, a team of 4 people manages the place: a communication manager, a production manager, a steward and a laureates’ manager (who provides on-site accompaniment, translation…)

About fifteen creators stay there each year, all disciplines included. On average, the duration of stay varies between two and six months for individual projects, and around four months for duo projects.

A design scene in Kujoyama


If the first years were mainly marked by creators from the product design sector, these last years follow the evolution of the sector by expanding to textiles, graphic design, culinary arts… and also reflects this deliberately interdisciplinary approach of the residency. The contribution of the Bettencourt-Schueller foundation has also allowed the extension towards the crafts, and the intensification of a dialogue work in the projects. Over the three decades, we have seen a wide range of profiles and varied backgrounds for the design residents who form a real design scene. Patrick Nadeau, Benjamin Graindorge, François Azambourg, José Lévy, Goliath Dyevre, Pierre Charpin…; all have been deeply marked by this passage. Co-director of Villa Kujoyama from 2014 to 2017, Sumiko Oé-Gottini has since been a consultant and works for various international programs, including Villa Kujoyoma. For her, “there is always a point of no return, in a good way. Design practices have also changed a lot over the past three decades and so have the fields of exploration. It’s interesting because French designers have a head start around the question of food, for example.

Aerial view of the Kujoyama Villa © Christian MERLHIOT

Although José Lévy, a resident in 2011, has been immersed in Japanese culture since his childhood thanks to a grandfather who was a collector, his visit has left its mark on the site. Trained on site in nebuta – a traditional technique that uses paper and bamboo – he designed the sculpture of the samurai Watcher, which has become an emblem of the site, after being exhibited at the Museum of Hunting and Nature during the DDays in 2016. And for Christian Merlhiot, “if he can show Kokeshis today at the PAD in Paris, it is because he has been nourished by Japan.” The designer himself has developed furniture collections from tatami mats at Daiken.

The residency experience


As Sumiko Oé-Gottini expresses it, “the meeting with the cultural otherness, or a new artistic practice questions. However, it is not “the other” who gives the answer, but it is precisely the experience of the encounter that the creator goes through that will reveal his own creative identity (…). It is not a question of seizing the elements attached to a culture to transpose them elsewhere. Most creators rediscover the value of their own practice at the end of these collaborations.”  (cf  identity and otherness, transmission of know-how as a lever for international dialogue in Entretiens Albert-Kahn, cahier n° 49 (2021) in Entretiens Albert-Kahn, cahier n° 49 (2021))

Some of them have completely changed their outlook, and reexamined the notion of time in the design process. According to her, her role is “to help designers transform the “paradigm” shift generated by these new encounters and collaborations into a dynamic creative lever. It is the experience of designers crossing Japan that also reveals a period of their history forgotten in the shadow of standardization.” As an example, François Azambourg (resident in 2015) has created an armchair based on a technique that with a precise gesture restores a waterproofness to the wood observed in Japan: On site, he also sublimates the wood shavings: “visiting a carpentry, I discovered wood shavings of a thickness of cigarette paper, of an incredible length, generated by the use of a plane on the entire beam. It’s right on the edge of materiality.” He will test different uses, including prints. All his work and “sketches of objects and embryos of products” will be exhibited at the Museum of Decorative Arts.


Kokeshi Family, design José Lévy for Leblon Delienne

Because Villa Kujoyama is above all a research residency, not a creative one. Sumiko Oé-Gottini surprisingly observes that 50% of the residents have an ENSCI profile: “there is a desire today to revisit in relation to industry to revisit industrial creation, to think about the cohabitation of choices (know-how, ecological), the craft is seen as the vestibule of tomorrow’s industry at the heart of most projects.”

Terrace view of the Kujoyama Villa © Kenryou GU

When it was closed for renovation in 1992, an association of former residents was created to be vigilant for the reopening. The renovation is an opportunity to rethink the programs. From 2014, the residences open up more to crafts and design: an obvious choice for the management of the time as Kyoto is a melting pot of know-how. And the Design category becomes necessary to create this bridge between the ancestral crafts and the inscription of crafts in a contemporary universe. In this regard, the project of the gilder Manuela Paule-Cavallier was explicit. In connection with artisans who work with pewter in a secular way, she proposed to Goliath Dyèvre to join her to elaborate a form of mediation in creation, that is to say to combine gold and metal to give an expression to the material conceived as rigid. The project resulted in the “small theater of light” exhibited at DDays in 2015. According to Sumiko Oé-Gottini “perhaps Japan crosses with a certain lightness this question of the contemporaneity of crafts“. 

Kujoyama Villa Auditorium © Kenryou GU

To optimize the stays, the emphasis is put on the accompaniment, before, during, and after. Samson Syvain also points out that the residency period is ultimately very short, given the adaptation time. “Work is systematically carried out with the laureates beforehand to identify the people they need to meet in their research projects and to make appointments in time.” The French Institute also ensures a work of diffusion in the various places of programming of the institutes in Japan: exhibitions, performances, meetings… Without drowning the residents in the orders, the direction is attentive that it remains well a residence of research. Sumiko Oé-Gottini is involved in preparing the residents before their departure: “With the French Institute, we provide them with logistical and artistic support. I try to drive them in their project to encourage cultural appropriation, a general understanding of the Japanese landscape, and to prepare meetings with excellent contacts (art masters, etc.).”

View of the patio of the Villa © Kenryou GU
Studio of the Kujoyama Villa © Arnaud RODRIGUEZ

After the residency


With Christian Merlhiot, Sumiko Oé-Gottini insisted on the preparation of the return. A bit provocative, she specified that for her “the most interesting projects are those that develop after the residency experience“. From the start, the selection of the files takes into account this intention of continuity “it is not a one-shot, but it is part of the practice of the creator and an exchange of culture.” So she “prepares them for landing. Those who return do not quite find their place, new practices open up”. Some of them strongly pursue the links they have established: Pierre Charpin has collaborated with Arita, and Aurore Thibou, textile designer, presented at Première Vision following her residency, continues to work as a consultant with the artisans of Pangu.

Kenryou GU

Over the past thirty years, Villa Kujoyama has built up a network of solid partners on which it relies to help disseminate the works created within its walls. In particular, it participates in the Viva Villa 5! festival with the other two residences (Médicis and Casa Velasquez), which gives a high profile to all residents, whatever their discipline.

Nathalie Degardin

72 seasons at Villa Kujoyama

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Villa Kujoyama released an anniversary book entitled “72 Seasons at Villa Kujoyama” last October. Editions Gallimard, 49 €.