Tokyo-born designer Ritsuko Hirai was raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Bangkok, Thailand. Hirai gained experience and knowledge after attending the Rhode Island School of Design for printmaking and later returned to earn her Masters in Fine Arts for Textiles. Using organic materials and simple structures, Hirai focuses on combining past and modern elements in her designs. She is currently the textile designer for Kicokids and the textile/surface designer for Ports 1961 Bronze Label, both based in New York.
Q: How did you become both an artist and a textile designer?
I started out as a print-maker, specializing in lithography and woodblock prints. The surfaces I print on are both paper and fabric, but I wanted to have more control so I started creating my own textiles to print on.
Q: Which brands and designers do you usually work with?
I work with different designers from all around the world. Some of them are high-end apparel designers that show their work in New York Fashion Week, and some are sophisticated children brands that use a more artistic approach. I do some editorial and advertising illustrations in the US and Japan and currently I am getting into interior textile/surface designs.
Q: You also participate in a lot of exhibitions. How do you balance your personal work and jobs requests?
I simply put my 100% into what I have in front of me at the moment, whether it is for a design job or my own artwork. I believe there’s always enough time for everything.
Q: When you create a print, where do you get your inspiration from?
I get inspired by the little things that surround my everyday life–like cats, used kitchen towels, funny mugs at the thrift stores, old pots and pans, a nice cup of tea, bus rides, Steiff animals, empty museums, watching baby mantises hatching, making a dragonfly stay on the fingertip, gardening and tasting fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and egg plants. I do like to travel, near and far. I like when I am being transported between places, but being at the destination does not interest me too much. I prefer buses and trains over airplanes. Taking a walk is very nice too.
Q: Do you follow any trends?
Maybe not. But I’m not sure–I probably do. I follow trends when I like something. I go to postage stamp shows and like beer. Isn’t that a trend?
Q: What types of techniques do you use for your paintings?
I used to do a lot more oil paintings, but now I often use watercolor and acrylic. I try not to have a default medium that I always go to when creating designs. I like the surprises I get from using a medium or a technique that I am not familiar with. Recently, I found it fascinating how concentrated watercolors and watercolor tube paints give such different shades and textures.
Q: How is your work as an artist complementary to your skills applied to a finished product as a textile designer?
There’s an end to a design job when we send the design off to the printer, or when the collection is shown, or a product gets displayed at the window. As an artist, there’s no end, nor limitation. Art teaches me that anything is possible, that I can keep working forever, and design tells me to focus and concentrate (and meet the deadline). I need both sides to keep me balanced, to be introverted and extroverted, and to live in my own fantasy yet still be alive in the real world.
Q: You seem to travel back and forth a lot from Asia to America, does your Japanese roots influence your work?
I was born in Japan then I grew up in Malaysia and Thailand, which constantly reminded me that I am Japanese and my act and speech will reflect on how others will view “Japan”. In Malaysia, at age seven, my teacher at a Japanese school taught my classmates and myself that we are little Japanese ambassadors representing the country, so we better behave. I think that stuck with me until now, and “being Japanese” plays a big part of me as an artist.