How Luis Mendo creates space while uncovering layers by drawing

Happyplaces stories (video)

Marcel Kampman
Mar 19, 2020 · 19 min read

A long time ago, I visited Luis at his studio in Amsterdam. I knew about him and his work from a distance, and he about me, but we never met in person. We had a coffee, talked about projects, work, mutual interests and contacts. I still remember that day vividly; it was a beautiful sunny day. I took the train to Amsterdam and walked to his studio, which was a long walk through the city. But that was perfect because Amsterdam on sunny days is wonderful. You feel opportunity in the air, optimistic murmur from people everywhere. It’s buzzing, like a beehive, and you know that great honey will come from it. Luis is the perfect host — he complements and enhances those experiences. Must be that Mediterranean attitude, wholeheartedness and spirit what you inherit when you’re born there, it is not something you can learn. You either have that, or you don’t. Luis was probably the first in line when they handed out those traits.

I have been following him from a distance ever since. And with the introduction of all sort of social media that was even easier. I guess I love the way he sees things, and thankfully he translated this into his work now as a drawer and illustrator. It When he moved from being a graphic designer and creative director to drawing, he also opened up the possibility to see the world through his eyes. That world, at some point, became Tokyo. So when I knew I was going there, I reached out to have a coffee again. But to also bring a camera to learn about his change of place and space. Learn more about the place he and his wife Yuka created for creatives coming to Tokyo, searching for inspiration and ideas that might find the city and the language challenging.

The lay-out of the three floors of ‘Almost Perfect’. フロアマップ

They started a place where creatives from around the world come to get inspired and make, but also have the chance to show their work and meet Japanese peers: ‘Almost Perfect’. A former rice shop and family house from 1924 nicely renovated in Modern Japanese style. The rice store on the first floor fed the family who lived upstairs for several generations. Built right after the 1923 Kanto earthquake, it survived the WWII bombings. Luis found the house in a pretty good state. After the renovation, they officially opened on the 1st of October of 2018. They kept the old rice machines in place as a tribute to the building’s history and created a space to stay, work and exhibit creative work.

Luis proposed to meet me at Okachimachi station, at the JR Ticket Office (Midori-no-madoguchi), first to have lunch and then film. I arrived 15 minutes early, and when I looked around the corner, Luis already waved at me, walking towards me. It was the first insight he shared with me: ‘Being on time in Japan, means being there earlier. Arriving on time means that you’re late. You did well!’ Many lessons and insights followed while we watched up and walked through this neighbourhood. He provided me with lenses to see through the obvious and to uncover the unseen. I learned about specific types of architecture, the impact of the big earthquake, traditions, rituals, techniques. Nothing was left untouched. Just perfect.

This transcript is edited for clarity and length by Kitty Leering

The right place at the right moment

I was born in Spain. I have lived in different cities in Spain for a while. Then I moved to Holland, where I lived for a long time. Then I moved to Japan. And every time, you fall into this mistake of comparing what was better. Was Spain better than Holland? Was Holland better than Japan? I don’t think that you can’t do that with places, it is more about being in the right place at the right moment for yourself. When I lived in Spain, it was the right moment for me. When I lived in Holland, it was the right moment to be in Holland for me, the person I was during that specific time. And when I came to Japan, Japan was the right place for me, related to my age and the kind of career I have had. I feel at home here.

To go back in time a little bit, I was born in the small town of Salamanca. I moved to Madrid to study for a couple of years. Then I moved to Barcelona to work there as a graphic designer. From Barcelona, I moved to Holland. That was eye-opening for me to see different lives and a different way of understanding design in particular. The weather there wasn’t fantastic, but I survived it for 20 years. I got some kind of a name as a magazine designer and graphic designer and some status, which gave me a lot of work which resulted in a burn-out eventually.

I don’t think that you can compare places with each other, it is more about being in the right place at the right moment for yourself.

After 20 years, I decided that having a burn-out was not a good thing and that it might be a good idea to take a little break. My father died coincidentally, so I decided that it was the right time to take some time off. I went to Japan. I remember being in the airplane, still at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, in a Japan Airlines plane. The moment I walked into the plane, I started loving Japan. I hadn’t been there before, I didn’t know much about it, but the moment I got into the plane, the plane was already Japan. I thought: ‘This is the place I want to be.’ It was comfortable, clean, and everybody was very polite. It was a lovely place to be. Twelve hours later I arrived in Tokyo, and my first feeling was only confirmation. It was the place I had looked forward to. Especially having a burn-out, I discovered that being in a street that is safe and clean and ordered, where things work, made me heal from my burn-out. That was very nice.

Gaining something new

After coming here for the sabbatical, I spend four years going back and forth between Amsterdam and Tokyo because I still had my company, my house, my wife and child in Amsterdam. But I really wanted to be in Tokyo. I had to take it easy. To get far away from Amsterdam and to come here, I needed to create a distance. After four years, I succeeded in doing that.

Then I started living here, but I didn’t have a job. My problem was that I was a creative director and a magazine designer, but how do you do that if you don’t speak the language, if you don’t speak Japanese? I still don’t speak Japanese that well now, but back then it was even less. I thought: ‘Don’t worry about it. I have some savings. I don’t have to work tomorrow. But I can’t work in the same profession as I did for 20 years.’ So I had to do something else. I wasn’t worried and just wanted to enjoy Tokyo, wanted to get to know the city.

In Japan, people somehow respect you and don’t say anything to you. But somehow when you are drawing, they come to you and dare to talk to you.

I became friends with another illustrator, Adrian Hogan, and we went out into the streets, cafes and restaurants, drawing al the time in our sketchbooks. That was a good way to break the ice and to get to know people. Because as soon as you sat down and started to draw, someone would always come to you to say something like: ‘What are you drawing? Why are you drawing me?’ or to say that they liked the drawing. In Japan, people somehow respect you and don’t say anything to you. But somehow when you are drawing, they come to you and dare to talk to you.

We made a lot of friends and drew a lot together. After a while, someone from Holland saw my drawings and said: ‘Why don’t you draw for us as an illustrator?’ That is how my career as an illustrator started. A little bit by accident, and just as with the city, that was the right moment for me to become an illustrator after having been a graphic designer all my life. That was not a bad thing; I was not losing something. I was gaining something new. And I was very happy because, to be honest, being a designer was very stressful, you had to do meetings all day and the majority of the day you’re doing email. Rather than designing. I became an illustrator, I got clients from all around the world, an agent in Japan and New York, and that is what I do for six years now.

Halfway those six years, I met who was to become my wife at a book presentation. She approached me and told me that she had a fashion brand and asked me if I wanted to do some illustrations for t-shirts. I said: ‘Yes, sure, of course.’ But I thought: ‘This lady, she is such a beautiful person, so beautiful, so intelligent, so elegant, will I ever be able to draw for her?’ At that moment, I didn’t know that she would become my wife. But for me, it was much more than drawing. First she was my client. Then we started a relationship, and after that we made the t-shirts. We started living together. Then we married. And then we had a baby. And by being together with Yuka, I got taught a lot of things about Japan that I didn’t know, although I was already living here for a couple of years. I didn’t know anything. But by being with her and her family, I learned a lot. That is a fantastic experience.

Halfway our relationship, we were living in a tiny apartment, we thought we needed a bigger space. We were getting married, maybe have children, so then we would need a bigger space. By chance, we came into this neighborhood. I enjoyed the quietness of it. It is Tokyo, which is not West-Tokyo which is much more hipster and trendy, more modern and following fashion. East-Tokyo is more old-fashioned and down to earth. Making things is here more important than consuming things. That appealed to my wife and to me.

‘Almost Perfect’

We bumped into a friend of hers who lived around here, and asked here if she knew someone who had a house here to live in. She told us that this rice shop was empty. You can knock on the door and ask. So we tried. It was empty and we could rent it and renovated it. But it was too big a space for us, for just the two of us. We decided to do something with it. And since I had been an illustrator for six years, and had done nothing with my creative direction skills, I thought that it would be nice to create a space for creative people to come here. Where I then can be the creative director again and help talent develop and help people to get to know the city because I’m so in love with this part of the world called Tokyo. And I love to be a host for anyone.

For me, ‘Almost Perfect’ feels like the place I should be. I should be here now doing this. I don’t have the feeling that I’m missing out on something or that I should be doing something else in another city. That is such a great place to be, to be honest.

Having this in the back of our minds, and seeing the divisions of the spaces of the house, we thought: ‘Okay, we can make a room here, live over there and make a gallery on this other floor.’ That is how we created ‘Almost Perfect’, a bit by chance. We also thought of maybe doing a cafe or having a meetup space where people can work. But then we thought it would be best to offer a package where people can stay, work and exhibit their work. This has proven to be a successful formula. It seems that people like it. For me, it feels like the place I should be. I should be here now doing this. I don’t have the feeling that I’m missing out on something or that I should be doing something else in another city. That is such a great place to be, to be honest.

We had to move because we had a child and it would be too difficult to have guests and raising a baby in the same house, so now we live four minutes away. Now we have the space for two artists at the same time. Usually, they come from overseas, stay here and do their work. And I can follow the work in the same way as when I was a creative director in Amsterdam. But now I do that with people who come for their creative break. That is a beautiful place to be. To be able to help them during a short time with making a big leap in their careers, that is something that I’d never expected to do, to be honest.

Reading the air

Japan is very different than in Holland. Holland was already different than Spain. Coming here with my Dutch mind, and starting to live in this place was a challenge at times because the way of looking at things here is very different. In Japan, there is this concept of ‘reading the air,’ which means that you don’t say things directly.

When you have two people who are talking, then they would never tell what they think upfront. Like: ‘I don’t think that your clothes are correct for this occasion.’ You wouldn’t say that directly, which you would in Holland. Here you would start talking about clothing, about the weather, maybe about what the occasion is and without saying it directly, the other person should ‘read the air’ and understand that the clothing choice is wrong.

This ‘reading the air’ thing for me was a huge revelation. Once you understand that reading the air is vital in Japan and that people never say something directly, you start to understand the rest of the culture.

I don’t know if it is the best example, but this reading the air thing for me was a huge revelation. Once you understand that reading the air is vital in Japan and that people never say something directly, you start to understand the rest of the culture. You begin to realize that things are hidden. That all the good things in this country are not in your face; they are always behind something.

When you go to a very dark street, then maybe there is a little lamp somewhere, then there is a chance that this small lamp is the entrance of a great restaurant. They do this with everything. Whenever I make a drawing for a Japanese client, if the drawing is to clear, then they always tell me to hide something. Like: ‘Why don’t you put this little thing more behind than in front.’ Or: ‘Why don’t you, instead of showing a whole cat, just show the whiskers?’ This is what I think makes life here so rich. You are continually discovering stuff because things are hidden.

I think what makes life here so rich is that you are continually discovering stuff because things are hidden. Japan is a constant source of inspiration because things are hidden and a mystery. And even when you look at something twenty times, there will be something new that will surprise you if you keep looking. This depth and layering of information makes living here a continuous discovery, an adventure.

Coming from Spain helps me. If I was a Dutch person, I think I would have more trouble living here, because things are too hidden and I would be used to have things clearer. Because of my Spanish heritage, I think that I can appreciate it more because it is more related to my Spanish background. Japan is a constant source of inspiration because things are hidden and a mystery. And even when you look at something twenty times, there will be something new that will surprise you if you keep looking.

I remember when I lived in Minato-ku, and just around the corner where I lived, I remember every day when I passed this street, I would discover something new in that street. Every day, the same street. And I thought: ‘How is it possible that I didn’t know that that cafe was up there?’ Or: ‘I didn’t know that that club opened at 8 PM? And there is this shop that I have never seen before, while it is just around the corner of that other shop that I always go to and I never noticed the other one.

This depth and layering of information makes living here a continuous discovery, an adventure. I really like that. I appreciate that a lot. I’m happy that I’m here because of that. There are also moments of conflict when you want the Japanese to be clearer when you feel that you do something wrong. ‘I’m holding the chopsticks wrong! I didn’t put my shoes in the right place. Do I wear the toilet slippers inside or outside the toilet?’ Al these things. You have to get used to it. But that is a lot of fun. As long as you are respectful and try your best, the Japanese will always forgive you, which is nice. I’m very grateful for that.

Harmony

I think the worst thing you can do in Japan, like taking the toilet slippers inside the house, is breaking the harmony. You should, under no circumstance, break the harmony. If we would enter a place and we would start shouting, you break the harmony. Talking loud in a quiet cafe is not done. There is this restaurant that I really like, and they have a sign that reads: ‘If you wear strong perfume, your not allowed to enter the restaurant. It is not that they want to influence your choice of perfume, but they don’t want the other people’s harmony to be broken by your omnipresent smell.

We’re so used to think about ourselves, and in Japan, it is not that important what you think and what you want, it is important what everybody wants. This group thinking is very different than what we know in the West.

This is somewhat strange, being a foreigner. We’re so used to think about ourselves, and in Japan, it is not that important what you think and what you want, it is important what everybody wants. This group thinking is very different than what we know in the West. I have read that it has to do with the cultivation of rice. This you need to do in a group. This group needs to be united, working together harmoniously to grow the rice. Without rice, you don’t have food. Whenever someone in the group breaks the harmony, he would be expelled from the group. You can see a version of this philosophy impregnated everywhere in this society. The group is always more important than the individual.

In Japan, they know how to manage space really well. Historically, but still today, the living room is also the bedroom. During the day it is the living room, and at night they take out the futon, and it becomes the bedroom. This kind of reusing and reshaping a space all the time is very typical in Japan because space is very scarce. In Tokyo, there are 35 million people, a lot of people in a relatively small space. But you never have the feeling that people are in your way, you never bump into people. People are very respectful of each other’s space in a very subtle manner.

I can not explain it. When you go to Shibuya Crossing, 2,000 people are crossing the street at the same time, and they don’t bump into each other. When I was still living in the West, I have seen these images and thought: ‘How is t possible that they don’t bump into each other? Because six zebra crossings are connected, so how is it possible that people don’t bump into each other?’ I didn’t understand that. Then I came here, and I understood why: everything flows somehow. You are conscious of each other’s space before you see each other.

The principle of keeping the flow running until you go against it is, I think, the key to understanding why everything flows better here.

If you have ever been a waiter and you work in a bar, a little bar and the space between the bar and the wall behind you is limited, and three or four waiters are working there — when things work well, they will never bump into each other. This is how Japan works, how the space in Japan works. Things somehow flow. A French guy was telling me one day: ‘It is incredible, in Japan everything flows, in Paris, everything is friction.’ I thought that captured it perfectly because it is true.

When I lived in Amsterdam, in the same street you had people walking, pedestrians, bikes, trams cars, motorcycles all in the same street. That is always a big mess. And a lot of accidents happen because everybody wants to go fast. Somehow, there is always friction. ‘Who is going to let me pass, because I want to go first!’ In Japan, that somehow doesn’t happen. Everything flows. Take for example the train. All over the world, when the doors are closed and when you pay, the doors open. Right? In Japan the doors are always open, and when you don’t pay, they will close. Only that principle of keeping the flow running until you go against it is, I think, the key to understanding why everything flows better here.

A fluidity between inside and outside

In shops, you don’t have all those layers of security where you have to go through. Like two doors, a security guy, then those security poles controlling if you take something outside or not. Here, the shops flow into the streets. The goods are also spread on the pathway. There is no sense of border or a hard line that you have to cross. That makes things much more fluent and flow more naturally. I think in the West they should learn how to do that. I don’t know how, but here it works.

The city is from everyone. I think that is a massive difference with the way we live in the West. The limit between inside en outside the house is disappeared.

Another thing that is also important is that a friend of mine said that in Japan the street is a prolongation of the living room of your house. In Tokyo, I don’t mind so much if I run out of milk because I know there is always a Conbini where I can buy my milk any time of the day. The Conbini is a bit like my fridge. The Starbucks or cafe is a bit like my living room where I go to read a book. That is more comfortable because it is more spacious, I can order a coffee, and it is brought to me. The limit between inside en outside the house is disappeared.

You also see lots of people going to the Conbini in their pajamas. Because you just go to get some milk or a snack, and then go back to continue watching the tv program, or whatever you were doing. The city is from everyone. I think that is a massive difference with the way we live in the West. There you have to put on all your clothes. And the weather is better too. That makes it easier to close the door behind you and go. I often forget the keys. I have a friend who lives here for 30 years already, and he told me that he has never locked his door in a city of over 30 million people. In the West you can maybe do that in some villages, but not in the city.

nl/minato is an educational platform that aims to create a dialogue from social, political and cultural perspectives. In this program, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Shibaura House, as well as various groups in the Minato-ku area, collaborate to organize events to make Minato-ku and its neighboring area a stage for study, with citizen participation and lively discussions.

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Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project

Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project, a playful research project to better understand all dimensions of space to eventually create happy places.

Marcel Kampman

Written by

Founder of Happykamping & Happyplaces Project, author, sensemaker

Happyplaces Stories

A library of perspectives from the Happyplaces Project, a playful research project to better understand all dimensions of space to eventually create happy places.

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