Collectors: Kazuto Kobayashi

Kazuto Kobayashi is the owner of two of Tokyo’s most carefully edited design stores. Turning shop curation into an art form, both Roundabout and Outbound showcase beautiful collections of lifestyle goods – expertly sourced from across Japan.

We visited Mr Kobayashi in his Kichijoji store Outbound, to discover what inspires him and to hear the story of how he became a professional collector of Japanese design. As well as, of course, to have a hunt around what has to be one of Tokyo’s most beautiful stores..

What inspired you to become a shop owner? Can you describe your journey to opening Roundabout?

I have always been interested in designing furniture –  in creating unique items that are not mass produced. I majored in interior design at Tama Art University where my projects were mostly in commercial space design and so not in line with my interests. As a result, I had difficulty finding a job that I would be happy with once I’d graduated.

There were five of us who graduated without a job, and night after night we’d meet to talk over our dream of doing something together. One day, one of the group found a space we could use for a week and so we began planning what we could do. We wanted to create something for more than just ourselves and so decided that opening a shop was the way to go. Back then, there was no Instagram, no social media allowing individuals to connect directly with the public and we saw shop spaces as the only platform where true social integration happens.

We sold handmade screen printed t-shirts, postcards which our friend made, vintage books and items we bought from flea markets. The one-week trial gave us the confidence and motivation to start planning to open our own shop and after taking some time to prepare, we launched our first store in August 1999. We wanted to make our shop a place where many people and goods with different backgrounds could come and go and so named it ‘Roundabout’. We set out to stock objects that are both old and New, handcrafted and manufactured, made in Japan and made overseas.

I established my own company and became the sole proprietor of Roundabout in May 2005.

What was the inspiration behind opening your second store, Outbound?

As I added more handcrafted items to our product range at Roundabout, the quality of the collection went up but I became worried that Roundabout would lose its rough, informal identity. When sourcing items for Roundabout, I focus on functional product, so as I became interested in something more abstract I realised I needed to open a second, more experimental store.

Outbound opened in 2009, and at the time I hadn’t yet come up with a name. I wanted to pick another word that related to traffic and which represents a passage of people or things. The answer can to me one night after a few drinks – I was scrambling the letters of ‘R-O-U-N-D-A-B-O-U-T’ and saw ‘O-U-T-B-O-U-N-D’. I liked the meaning of the word – going out from a place – and as I wanted to share and introduce something new, the word outbound fitted perfectly with my aim for opening the second shop.

Both Roundabout and Outbound house beautiful collections of found objects. What attracts you to collecting and curating?

I don’t see myself as a collector of anything in particular. I don’t have much of a desire to possess things, but rather am interested in selecting, editing and displaying objects to share the great things I have found or learnt.

Do you mostly stock items sourced in Japan, or do you also collect objects from around the world?

It is not my intention to introduce only Japanese handcrafts, however as I like to select items where I’m able to see how it’s made and by who, geographically products made in Japan are easier for me to source.

What’s important to me is sharing the story behind the object. It’s not realistic that I keep track of each and every product’s history, but I’m always curious to find out the story behind the things I collect.

What attracts you to buying a specific piece for your stores? 

I believe objects have two purposes to serve – function and sayo – meaning the intangible, emotional effect it has on the user. Depending on how the user interacts with them, either the functionality of the item may be more appreciated or the sayo.

Some objects have a naturally stronger function and others a stronger sayo. Roundabout leans towards items where function is the focus, but which grow in sayo as time goes by. Outbound on the other hand leans towards product with stronger sayo, but as time goes by may develop in function. As products can develop and grow to deliver different values to different users, I want to select items that will change beautifully over the years.

Do you spend much time travelling, and if so where is your favourite places to visit/ collect items for your stores?

I would love to travel more, but as I have two shops to manage it’s not so easy for me to leave. In the past, I have visited Australia, Singapore, Germany, Czech Republic, Laos, USA, Taiwan and China.

A trip that had a profound impact on me was when I travelled to northern Laos to interview a Japanese woman called Yukiko Tani who had been making fabric with ethnic communities for twenty years. The experience made me think about the past and of how Japanese people used to lead simple but fulfilling lives. It made me question what ‘being rich’ means to us. The local people in Laos were not leading modern, convenient lives, but they were mentally and physically stronger than us and their talents were cultivated in a way that ours aren’t. We have lost our ability to make things, whilst they have cherished theirs.

The things they create have something magical about them, that it’s not possible for us to produce, given the lifestyles we live today. I used to be able to remember people’s phone numbers, write more kanji – as we gain convenience we lose our creative abilities. Until I met Yukiko Tani, I was all for the convenience of modern living. But now I have a different view and each trip to Laos gives me new insight. If we blindly seek convenience, the culture and environment we live in will become more and more superficial.

Where in the world would you most like to visit – for inspiration, or to collect pieces for your stores?

India. People think I have been to India many times but I have never visited. In Chennai, south India, there is a publisher called Tara Books. I had an opportunity to meet the owner Ms.Gita and as a result I introduce publications from Tara Books at OUTBOUND every year. I would love to visit the office in person.

I also want to visit Ganga Maki textile studio who have a workshop in northern India with which we’ll be collaborating from December this year. Then in west Bengal there’s Maku Textile – I already have many contacts in India and I would love to visit them in person! I would also love to visit the UK..

Outbound: Shop 101, 2-7-4 Kichijoji-Honcho, Musashino-shi, Tokyo

Roundabout: B1F, 3-7-12 Uehara, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

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