May 2022 5 Min Read

Interview: Hiroyuki Nagatomi

By Jens H. Jensen

Since 2015, Hiroyuki Nagatomi has been crafting simple yet powerful lamps in his studio in Nara, near Osaka. A trained architect, Nagatomi worked for 10 years at one of Japan’s leading lighting manufacturing companies before setting up his own boutique lighting company, New Light Pottery.

A glimpse into Nagatomi's studio in Nara City, filled with pendant lights and floor lamps.

His lights, favoured by architects and individuals alike for the quality of the craftsmanship, are now found throughout Japan in hotels, restaurants, and private homes. We spoke with him in the serene setting of his studio in Nara City, just outside of Osaka. Covering everything from what goes into creating some of these unique lights and how he applies his pottery-like philosophy to this illuminating sector of interior design.

ACM: Can you tell us how you got interested in lighting in the first place?

HN: The first time I became interested in lighting was when I was a student living in an old apartment building. I went to a DIY store and bought sockets, cords, and other things, and made a couple of pendant lights for my flat. I thought, well, lighting is surprisingly easy to make if you have a bit of knowledge of the various parts.

So I got interested in lighting. I started making floor stands and modified a few different lamps. I’ve always liked motorbikes, so I started out making my own customised lighting in the same way.

This was when you were at university, right? What was your major?

I studied architecture. After graduation, I worked in a small design office, but after about six months I realised that I didn't have the right talent for architecture.

Nagatomi first started out as an architect, and he began making his own lights when he was a university student.

As an architect you need to consider everything [in] the process and pay attention to a lot of different things at the same time. I like to concentrate on just one thing at a time. Also, most of your clients as an architect will be regular people, without too much knowledge of the process of designing and building a house, so there is a lot of explaining that needs to be done. But as a lighting designer, for example, your clients are professionals – architects or interior designers – so less explanation is necessary, and I thought I would be more suited for this kind of work.

I stayed only about six months at the office and then left to work for a lighting manufacturer. I really think lighting has an important role in creating spaces, so I guess my experience in architecture wasn’t a total waste of time.

Tell us about your experience at the lighting manufacturer.

I started working for a Japanese manufacturer called Maxray and worked there as a lighting planner for about 10 years. I met my wife there, too.

I did mainly restaurant light planning. At that time, high-end restaurants were very popular, and I worked closely with some of Japan’s leading interior designers. While I liked the work, I often ran into all kinds of problems, such as not being able to find the right kind of lighting for the space or the lights being too decorative or too expensive. My wife and I were also talking about starting something on our own, so we started designing our own products while working at Maxray. In 2014 I quit and then started New Light Pottery the next year.

Nagatomi co-founded New Light Pottery with his wife, Chizu Nara – they focus on the materials used within the lights as well as how their lights define the space.

New Light Pottery is a very distinct name. Can you tell us the meaning behind it?

I wanted to convey the idea of creating lights like a potter creates pottery – this very hands-on and crafted process. We make all our products here in Japan because I think the [standard of] technology here is overwhelmingly high. I've never made anything overseas, so of course it’s difficult for me to compare, but I know the skills of everyone we work with here in Japan is just amazing.

It may be more accurate to say that I have a lot of respect for Japanese craftsmen and want to support this tradition. It’s not that I am against manufacturing things abroad per se.

With LEDs becoming more and more the norm, many of the more traditional parts of lamps, such as sockets or regular incandescent bulbs, are no longer needed. But many people still depend on making these things here in Japan, and I hope to be able to support them by designing products that continue to use these parts.

For instance, in the Seto region of Japan we work with a company [which makes] ceramic sockets. Most of the workers are in their 80s and they love their work, so many keep working until they are 90 or so. I want to support that even though it is a bit risky when everyone is at [that] tender age.

Nagatomi's work emphasises the handcrafted aspect of lights, continuing to use traditional parts in the lights he creates.

It’s not just sockets – many other areas of the manufacturing process are also on the verge of disappearing. You don’t see many young people working in these small-scale factories because of the relatively hard work and low salaries. But I think it’s an important part of Japan’s manufacturing culture, and one of the reasons I hope to start selling our products abroad. I want to show the world the wonderful manufacturing capabilities of Japan; I feel a very strong responsibility to do so.

Can you tell us a little about your customers? Who are your main clients?

Right now, I think there are more individual customers. I cannot be 100% sure though, because we often get orders and inquiries from electricians and material suppliers. A lot of people see our product on social media and find us via hashtags. We don’t actively do any advertising. The products mostly speak for themselves.

Most rooms in Japan used to have a large fluorescent lighting fixture in the ceiling that would light up the whole room, but I feel this is changing now. We encourage the use of several smaller lights for one room to create a more varied style in lighting.

We also do a lot of bespoke lights for hotels and restaurants. I think it’s a nice balance right now.

On the right, we see an example of some of New Light Pottery's work – a “Bullet” light with a flat shade.

You keep expanding the collection of lights. Are there any new products in the pipeline that we should be looking out for?

I will keep exploring as long as my interest in lighting continues. For example, right now, I am experimenting using Mino washi paper. Isamu Noguchi’s lights are, of course, famous for using paper, but other than that, there are not many interesting modern lights made of paper out there.

I've always wanted to do some Japanese paper lighting and that’s one of the things we are working on now. Besides paper, there are still many things I want to do. So I’m sure the collection will expand even further in the future.

I get many of the ideas for new products from a specific material. Other times I get the idea from an effect or quality of light. Washi paper works both ways. There is an interesting texture and also a unique ability to diffuse light. The percentage of mulberry fibres [kozo] in the paper affects how much light is transmitted. We’ve been working at it for three years, but still haven’t made much progress.

Looking to the future, Nagatomi hopes to experiment with materials such as LED bulbs or paper, but always returning to simple shapes and forms.

I have one prototype ready, but it’s still far from ready to commercialise as a finished product. Maybe next year.

I am also thinking a lot about a new kind of LED bulb that makes good use of the unique characteristics of LED. I’ve gone as far as I can with incandescent bulbs, but there is always the dilemma of making something that emits a great light, but at the same time is not ideal for the environment. I think we need to continue to sell incandescent bulbs, but also come up with an LED bulb that could work well in our lights too.

Mobile lights and LED bulbs are both high on my own private agenda right now. But the manufacturing process is going to be a challenge. For both, we would probably need to get them produced in China or maybe Taiwan. So it will be a big step for us if we go in this direction.

Our thanks to Hiroyuki Nagatomi for taking the time to speak to us about his work and design philosophy. Photography by Corey Fuller.