Interview: Sam Lanyon of Tokyoplastic

Duo Sam Lanyon Jones and Andrew Cope of UK design studio Tokyoplastic are recognised in the industry as brave risk-takers. Inspired by Takashi Murakami, Miyazaki and Mike Judge, the pair have a passion for all things – you guessed it – Japanese and plastic. Through their eye-catching animation, Tokyoplastic have aced several marketing campaigns for clients like MTV, Nike and Motorola. From the moment their first animation clip Drum Machine dropped, we knew it was going to be something extraordinary. JUICE had a few laughs with Sam, who was in town recently for a workshop organised by the British Council, about “durian boobies”, being design rockstars and the future.

Hey Sam, what have you been up to?
I went out with my good friends and got drunk. [Then] I stayed up ’til 5 in the morning on my e-mail getting work done. Oh, I managed to go out for fish curry. One of the reasons why I love Malaysia so much is the food here. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been here. I love it here. Yesterday was my second time going for fish curry and I was eating with my hands. Oh, it was amazing! But it makes me feel so sleepy afterwards.

(Laughs) So how was Tokyoplastic conceived?
It was about 7 years ago… At that time, [Andy and I] had known each other for about 10 years. We’d always respected one another’s work and always wanted to work with each other. Although we were successful, we weren’t content. We felt like we were getting way too old, and we knew this was the time we had to come together to do a crazy project. It took us a year to create Tokyoplastic. We released it online and got in touch with other design networks. Within a week, we were getting about 150,000 hits a day. It was one of the examples of something going truly viral on the internet. We were also getting about 500 e-mails a day asking, “How did you do it?” and “We love your stuff.” It was really satisfying and an enormously humbling experience.

What’s the real story behind the name?
Me and Andy were searching for a name for our website, so both of us wrote a list of the stuff that we like. We cut that list, put it into a hat, mixed it up and picked something out of the hat. I picked out one that had “durian” on it and Andy picked another one with “boobies”. We were gonna be called Durian Boobies, but we called ourselves Tokyoplastic.

Talk about random! Have you always been creative since you were young?
Yeah, for sure. I think my creativity showed itself at a very early stage. When I was young, while my mum was potty training me, she was mopping the floor. She left the room to answer the phone and when she came back, I had taken the mop, put it in the potty and wiped it all over the wall. I made a beautiful big picture. My mum was really angry and said to me, “I can’t believe you’re still doing this. You’re 14 years old! You’ve really got to grow up.”

(Laughs) You were 14??
No! I was about 2.

Ha! So what were you doing before Tokyoplastic?
I was into photography, from editorial to fashion. Fine art photography was what I did prior to setting up Tokyoplastic. Andy was a furniture designer, then he was designing computer-game characters. He singlehandedly created the first Tokyoplastic. MTV came to us and wanted us to work on something for them, so we resurrected my MTV flower project. That really contributed to our success.

Is there a project that is dear to your heart?
Over the last 6 years, we’ve strayed a bit from doing things that are dear to our hearts. We’ve been doing a lot more commercial work and less personal work. But we’re getting back to the latter again. There are a couple of projects we’ve done recently that we’re really passionate about. We’re working on a little kitten that becomes very cute and twisted-just like how a lot of our work is.

Tokyoplastic’s style is minimal, quirky and a bit disturbing. Explain?
We like the combination of cute and grotesque. If you see something that is really sweet, at the same time we would do something that would make you go, “Eurgh, what is that?!” That’s really the core to our work.

Are there any design elements or ideas that you really hate?
No, there aren’t any really. I think it’s possible to take any design element-however unpleasant or nasty-and turn it around and make it into something amazing. Quite often, restrictions on your creativity force you to be more creative.

Have you gone through any projects that have been a pain?
Yeah, lots of projects have been a pain, but I’d like to think that we’ve worked through them and overcome them. There hasn’t been a single project that hasn’t been a pain at some point. If there isn’t a bit of pain, then you’ve gotta ask what’s wrong. If it’s too easy, then perhaps it’s not too good. It would be nice to work on a project that’s just really easy and really brilliant, but it hasn’t happened yet. What’s worse is if you had a project that was a really huge pain and at the end of it, you look at it and it’s rubbish. We’re working on our third short film at the moment called The Autumn Sea, and we had reached a point where we hated it. We were having real problems with our producer and the people creating it. We hated the idea of going to work every morning to work on it. So we called the producer-who’s very talented and a lovely person-and told her all our problems and issues, and worked through it together. It was really difficult to do. We pushed through that painful zone and now we’re in a place where we’re really excited about it.

You guys create vinyl toys as well…
Yes, this is in conjunction with [online toy store] myplasticheart. A guy there called Vin made it for us and he did a spectacular job. It is by far one of the most beautiful vinyl toys we’ve created, and I’m really happy with that. I think they’re pretty much sold out.

Are you a collector?
No, we are not big vinyl junkies. To be honest, we are not big on anything. That’s kinda why I think we can sustain our lives quite easily. Me and Andy are pretty humble [when it comes to] what we need in life. Neither of us is that interested in fast cars or big houses or owning a yacht or anything. All we really wanna do is travel and be like rockstars.

Are you guys single?
No, we’re not. But don’t tell anybody that. We’ve got to have the appearance of being single, just in case anyone likes us.

Does that mean that designers are chick magnets?
Yeah, absolutely! The groupies! (Laughs.) No, our groupies tend to be men who’ve been locked up in their bedroom for 4 years with their computers. We don’t have the sexiest groupies in the world. Definitely not.

So do you travel a lot?
Yes, I love travelling. I go around the world doing all these talks. I’ve got to stop doing that though, ’cause if I do then I wouldn’t have any new work to talk about because I’d be spending too much time travelling. But I enjoy giving these talks very much. It’s about meeting people, seeing new designers, seeing new design work, going back home, stealing that design work and making it our own (laughs).

Heh. Let’s talk about the future; where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’d like to have a massive golden crown in 10 years, have no work to do at all, and be sitting on a huge throne made of caviar and chocolates in a space castle. With tons of minions doing work for me so I don’t have to do anything.

Watch Drum Machine and other Tokyoplastic animations on YouTube or get plastic fantastic at www.tokyoplastic.com. Thanks to the British Council for the hookup!

Images British Council