"MY GAS MY LIFE": Tokyo Gas (TG) has come a long way since Charlie Sheen mouthed that unfortunate slogan with its flatulent connotations, picked up his cheque and left. TG is now a very cool company forging a new place for itself in the stylish world of interior design with its swanky Living Design Center Ozone, a veritable field of dreams for the house-proud.
Personally I think it’s all down to another gas, CO2, better known as the Greenhouse Effect. TG realized that, with the world's temperature on the rise, there wasn't much future in keeping us cozy through the increasingly mild winters. So they started moving the focus of their business away from heaters to what was around them, opening Living Design Center Ozone (LDCO) in one of the more stylish skyscrapers of Nishi Shinjuku in 1994.
When you first come here, you'll notice the giant stands of bamboo under the glass roof of the atrium of Shinjuku Park Tower and you'll probably reflect on how peaceful it is. Every few square meters isn't flashing and screaming to get a few more yen out of you, and there's room to drift across the polished surfaces before you take the long escalator to the 3rd floor where Ozone really begins.
The basic philosophy of the LDCO is to provide a comprehensive range of services connected with designing, creating, and modifying one's living space. This perhaps clashes with the trajectory of your average short-term gaijin passing through Tokyo on a one year visa. If you're only here for a short stint, to freak out on the Japan experience, then you are probably more worried about the carpet of mould in the bathroom or the unlockable sliding doors in your gaijin house than subtle color schemes and tastefully designed spigots.
The LDC is definitely not for the Nova/ Gaspanic brigade out to enjoy the Big Banana on the cheap then blow. However, if you're a well-remunerated ex-pat, or a permanent exile finally seeking to put down roots, or for that matter born here, then probably you want your little hole in the wall to at least be a stylish one, and don't mind forking out a bit extra.
Just as well, because the first stop is the Conran Shop, not exactly the McDonalds of home furnishing, more like an expensive health food restaurant. As I'm one of the above mentioned cheapskate gaijins, I couldn't help blanching at a few of the prices. Personally, I can't understand why someone would want to pay 599,000 yen for a chest of drawers or even 6000 yen for large bath towel, but then neither can I understand why junkies spend all their money on drugs.
People who shop at Conran tell me this is exactly what its like an addiction. Conran does a very nice business on a limited though growing group of extremely dedicated followers, literally a cult!
Anyway, you don't need to spend any money to enjoy a trip here. You can wander around admiring the designs and selections of the style guru. I spent time tinkering with everything from loofahs to pasta makers and enjoyed seeing such novelties as an inflatable ice bucket and a time beam which projects a clock on the wall.
Conran, whose name sounds like the Japanese word for confusion, is anything but a confused designer. Coming from a society where style has always been regarded with suspicion – perhaps a hangover from Puritan times – Conran has developed a simple philosophy that has found favor not only around the World (the easier side of the equation), but even back home among the fashion and image-resistant British. The guru's vision of lifespace incorporates a down-to-earth sense of utility with more aesthetic concerns, summed up by the Golden Rule of William Morris, the founder of the arts and crafts movement in England over a hundred years ago: "Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
This is a rule which Conran has taken as his own. Indeed, for Conran much of the beauty comes from the utiliy: "Ninety-eight percent of design is in its function." The message seems to be if you focus on making something useful, it will have its own inner beauty, more valid than the imposed beauty so many designers coat their creations with. It is no surprise that this unforced aesthetic should find so many takers in Japan, and the fact that Sir Terence chose Tokyo for the site of the third Conran Shop shows his keen anticipation of Japanese taste.
But Ozone is not a simple shopping space. That would make it purely commonplace in a commercial excrescence like Tokyo. It is something much more. It is the depth of commitment to its lifestyle ideal that sets it apart. Here you can do everything from buying stylish-looking knick knacks for the mantelpiece to designing your own house and selecting an architect, with all the intermediate bands in the spectrum well covered.
There are showrooms where 25 furniture, fabric, gardening, and building material companies present you with the components of the good life. You can choose windows, tiles, flooring, and everything with knobs on it, in fact everything from the feathers to the twigs of the proverbial nest.
A new popular service uses the magical medium of computer graphics to help customers visualize everything from their dream home to how their old house would look with a fresh lick of paint on a giant screen. Prices range from 1,000 yen for a mini-simulation to 5-8,000 yen for a 2 hour consultation, depending on the size of your palace. LDCO also plays the role of matchmaker, pairing up customers with architects and other designers. You can browse through hundreds of profiles containing examples of architects work until you find one whose style clicks.
Choice is the key word, and of course, money turns the key. But too much choice can be a dangerous thing. Along with giving people the freedom to choose, LDCO has also realized its responsibility to educate choice to form taste. At the Information Bank (F6/7), visitors can take advantage of the spacious, computer-indexed library with a wide range of relevant books and magazines in various languages to develop their ideas. There are also constant exhibitions of furniture, architecture, design, and decoration, and an equally wide palette of courses and seminars run by the Ozone Academy(F8).
For 1,800 yen you can become a member of the Living Design Club, which entitles you to 6 copies of Living Design, a magazine almost as clued-up about style as TJ but unfortunately in Japanese. Members are also informed of coming events, given free tickets to some exhibitions, as well as a range of discounts from 3% at Conran (that would be 16,770 yen off the chest of drawers) to 10% at the Cafe OZONE.
But these services are not just for the layman; the Living Design Club has its professional counterpart which seeks to foster networking, increase opportunities, and develop the vision and ideas of designers, planners, and architects.
Among events of interest to those of us trying to understand the riddle inside the enigma of the Japanese soul, is the Nihonjin to Sumai (The Japanese and their Homes) series of exhibitions. Periodically since 1995, this series has focused on such traditional aspects of the Nihonjin home as tatami, hashira (wood pillars), and shikiri (movable screens). From March 11th to April 9th, the 5th in the series will focus on akari (Japanese home lighting).
Ozone is a compound of 3 oxygen atoms that plays a vital role in filtering out harmful ultraviolet rays, deriving from the Greek word for fragrance, an attribute which ties in neatly with the company’s declared concept of creating a fragrance of the future. It also meant to be read as ground zero for a style explosion. A lot of work has gone into the whole concept at every level, but the advertising copywriters seem to have been working the hardest – obviously in an attempt to obliterate the unfortunate legacy of Charlie Sheen’s immortal words.