When Yoko Lewis walked into Umami Mart and introduced herself as the designer of Bee House products, I was floored. The Bee House Salt Boxes and Butter Dishes have been in our collection for years at Umami Mart and remains as some of our most popular items today. What a joyous coincidence that the designer would be a Bay Area resident! Lewis said she came into Umami Mart frequently and that it was one of her favorite stores. Such an honor!
Born in Kyoto, Lewis came to the U.S. in 1984 with nothing but a suitcase and her ambitions to become a designer. She did not have any friends or contacts in America and yet has built a career in this country, and in Japan, as a highly successful designer of anything from ceramics to paper products, to down comforters and creative packaging designs (like the Hinoki Onsen collection, sold at Umami Mart!).
Lewis invited Yoko and I over to her home and studio in the Berkeley Hills where we talked about her career as a designer spanning nearly 40 years. Her stories inspired us - like how she cold-called Tamotsu Yagi, world famous designer, and asked for a job. Remarkable! It was such a pleasure to talk with her - she is so vibrant, driven, and charming!
How did you get started in designing kitchenware? Do you have a special interest in kitchenware design?
I decided to become a houseware designer when I first went to the Crate & Barrel store in Boston in 1982. I was totally knocked out by their products, and I dreamed that someday Crate & Barrel would carry a product of my design in their stores. That dream came true!
When did you move to California?
How does living in California inspire your work?
After I moved to California, I was fortunate to work with Tamotsu Yagi, the art director of Esprit and Benetton. It was before the internet was available to spread ideas and I discovered that I could learn much from living here because California is full of well-educated and sophisticated people from many countries and cultures.
I also totally fell in love with American vintage furniture and housewares. At that time, I could find great design items at antique stores or shows and today I have a small collection of some I was able to find. It was a good chance to brush up on my design spirit. I still use the pieces daily and appreciate its pure and fun styles.
When did you start working with Zero Japan (the official company name for Bee House) and how long did you design for them?
In 1982. When I came back to Japan from Boston, I was looking for a design position in Tokyo. Luckily I was introduced to the founder of Bee House in Tokyo. He was just seeking an art director who could create his new brand and had interviewed a number of candidates. Then he interviewed me and hired me immediately. I worked as a designer for them from 1982-1984 in Tokyo and then from 1999-2008 in California.
Spread of original Bee House products
Photo of the Bee House design team, with Yoko Lewis in the bottom right corner
Although I am known for my tea pots, my first successful work for Bee House were gift wrapping products.
What inspired you most when you designed the Butter Dish (1998) and Salt Boxes (2001)?
Everything in my brain basically. But I always respected what the manufacturers contribute and their craftsmanship. Otherwise I couldn’t do anything. I am not an artist, I am one part of a team.
What is your favorite Beehouse product that you designed?
Teapots. They became very popular not only for their shapes but also for their colors. I chose colors to mimic vegetable and fruit and named them as such, like: avocado, banana, carrot and blueberry. The colors were also very unusual at that time. I am so happy that the cafe at the SFMOMA uses one of my teapot designs for their milk pitcher. They always choose the color Banana.
A New York Times article from 2004 featuring a cold brew pot designed by Yoko Lewis
Yoko Lewis-designed teapot, inspired by a traditional Japanese cast iron pot
The Bee House products you design seem timeless, what year did you design them? How did you design these products to stand the test of time?
I think I did most of the work in the early 2000s. I have my own aesthetic and taste for design that I developed through education, experience and travel. The most important thing for me is that I believe in my design and how happy I am when I use it. Fortunately, my designs are still appreciated.
Your designs are very natural and organic. Do you get inspired by nature? If so, which elements and motifs from nature do you find yourself coming back to?
I love nature and probably am inspired by many parts of it, but I don’t consciously focus on nature when I design for a project.
However, I did use oval lines a lot when I designed teapots. I tried to compose several oval lines to maintain their holistic shapes. I also like oval shaped stones very much. I believe oval line can connect with the orbits of the universe. That is my main idea.
You work on other projects now - what kind of projects do you prefer?
I have been writing and taking photos about lifestyle and interiors for Japanese magazines online. I am very interested in these subjects now. I have enjoyed taking photos since I was a student at Kyoto University of Art. I took of photos of all products for Bee House and Zero Japan as well.
Actually, my main client that I have worked with over 30 years is a group of down comforter companies in Japan and I recently I designed a website for them. You can believe that I am a designer who knows almost everything about down comforters.
Umami Mart started out as a drink and food blog, so we love to ask people about their favorite foods. What do you like to cook the most in your kitchen?
My boyfriend loves Japanese dishes very much. So I always enjoy cooking sukiyaki, tempura, karaage (fried chicken with shio koji), tsumire (chicken ground meat burger), gyoza and roll sushi.
My latest client was Yamasa, a soy sauce company, so that I became quite fussy about shoyu.
Where do you love to go to to eat and drink in the Bay Area?
We don’t eat out very much but when we do, we go to Sushi Bistro and Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, Uzen in Berkeley, and D’Angelo in Mill Valley.
What do you most enjoy about California?
The weather, freedom to try new things, natural beauty, excellent restaurants, and many great stores (like Umami Mart!).