Luis Mendo is not a stranger to MAS Context, having contributed the essay “Tokyoites” to our Communication issue and having curated the Tokyo issue that featured the work of thirteen illustrators who drew Tokyo in different ways.
Iker Gil talked to Luis and Yuka to know more about their plans for the new space, the history behind the building, and the activities they aim to host.
Iker Gil: Why did you decide to open Almost Perfect?
Luis Mendo: We didn’t really decide it, it just happened in a very organic way. We were living in a small apartment in Shinjuku and I was coming to this area once a month because there is a shop where you can make your own sketchbooks. Every time you buy the custom-made sketchbook, you have to wait 20-30 minutes until it is made. I would take that time to walk around the neighborhood and I really liked the area. I asked Yuka to come with me to explore it and when we came, we bumped into friends who happened to live in the neighborhood. They mentioned that there was a building near their house that was empty and that it used to be a rice shop. We inquired about it but the space was a little too big for us. We just wanted a house and maybe a small studio, but we never had getting a larger place in mind. Because this building was bigger than what we needed, we started to think different ways how we could maximize the use of it.
Yuka Martín Mendo: Indeed, it all started with the size and qualities of the building. But we were also constantly meeting visitors from all over the world, mostly friends and friends of friends of Luis that were designers, photographers, and illustrators. We always enjoy welcoming people to Tokyo. We thought about ways of combining this building and hosting creative visitors. If people come to Tokyo for a couple of weeks, they have to book a hotel or Airbnb and we thought it was a bit of a waste. Also, they never got to see what “real” Tokyo life is like. If we had a place, they could enjoy their stay in Tokyo and we could connect them to other creators in the city. They could also study and work on their different interests, from illustration to ceramics and photography. So all those ideas came together thanks to the space.
IG: Did you have any model for this type of space while defining Almost Perfect?
LM: We did not. What happened was: we got married in May and we got the place around June, at which point we could start the renovations. But we were going on our honeymoon, so we had to quickly brief the renovation team, which are friends of ours. We gave them the keys and briefed them with a simple: “make it nice modern Japanese and stay on budget” and then left to Majorca. While we were in Majorca, we kept thinking about how we were going to live, how we were going to decorate the space, and make something interesting out of it. It all grew in a very organic way.
IG: Can you explain the story behind the name?
YMM: I have a fashion brand called INHEELS. It is a sustainable and ethical fashion brand, so I focus on the environment, how it is produced, and the wellbeing of the workers. Recently I was very concerned about waste in the clothing industry. I have a tiny brand but I still produce waste once in a while. Imagine how that affects a large brand. My idea originally was to create a brand called Almost Perfect that would buy this excess of stock or something that was slightly faulty, like the stitches are not perfect. Nothing major so, if you wear it, nobody would notice. Not perfect, but almost perfect. As we were talking about this over lunch in a restaurant, Luis saw that the domain was available and bought it. My business idea didn’t really take off so we just used the available domain for the building.
LM: But we thought that the name really suited the building. We did a limited renovation to the building so it is still a little cold in the winter, it might be a little hot during the summer, and nothing is really straight so it made sense to call it Almost Perfect.
YMM: Luis always says that perfection is overrated.
IG: Can you describe the history of the building?
YMM: It is almost 100 years old, which is an old building for Japan. In general, buildings here are quite new because of the earthquakes and the destruction of WWII. It was built right after the 1923 Kanto earthquake that destroyed pretty much everything in Tokyo and killed over 140,000 people. The building was built around 1924 using timber beams that the United States had donated as part of an international relief effort to help rebuild the city. Twenty years later, during WWII, the US bombed the city and this area was badly damaged. This house was one of the few that survived. We like that the house has this history of construction, destruction, and survival.
LM: There have been three generations of rice sellers in the building, using the downstairs to sell rice and the upstairs to live. We kept the old rice machines in place to honor its past. The building has this atmosphere of a family place, where you work and live, which is something you find a lot in this neighborhood. Many of the houses here have a small workshop on the ground floor and the residence above. You can see printers, tatami makers, craftsmen working with leather, and makers of bags, buttons, and belt buckles etc. When you walk around, you get to see people actually making things. The Township is very conscious about keeping the makers in the neighborhood and we love that. We are not so much art residents but creatives and makers.
IG: You have already welcomed a few guests to Almost Perfect. Can you talk about that experience, the work they did, and how they shared it in the space?
LM: Having the guests is great. We love that they are from different places around the world, from the UK, France, and Italy to Canada and Australia. We get to see very diverse people. But it is also intense because the house is not that big. It has three floors but they are small, so you live with your guests. It is not like a normal art residency where you don’t see the owner. We share the kitchen, the bathroom, the shower…. We make sure to tell the guests from the beginning that they are essentially going to live with us. They are very conscious of it and seem to like it. It is nice to see how they react to the space and the neighborhood. The first guest, Caroline Lavergne from Canada, did an amazing project where she drew the space of the makers around us. We recently had two Italian photographers, Iris Humm and Luca Campri, who also documented the area with their cameras.
IG: Did they exhibit their work in the space?
LM: Yes. The idea is that all the guests have to organize an exhibition, a workshop, or some type of public event in the space. We have already had exhibitions and has been very interesting because people can see what the artists do and be part of a community gathering.
YMM: One of the concepts is to have things for the neighborhood, not only for artists. We are very careful about not being an island. We talk to neighbors as much as possible and invite them to our events. We are doing our part to contribute and belong to the community.
IG: Do you organize events that are not related to the work of your guests?
LM: Yes. We have done a couple of events already and we plan on doing more. For example, the Finnish Institute in Japan organized a talk by the Finnish-Swedish painter and installation artist Maria Wolfram. It was very cozy as the space can hold around twenty people seated in stools. We want to do more workshops to make things. We also have what we call a permanent collection on one of the walls that includes a series of framed prints and drawings from friends of ours. We ask them to give us one or two prints that we can sell to support their work. We try to create a sense of community as much as possible with artists and neighbors beyond our guests.
The idea is to organize inclusive events, invite the neighbors to come in and enjoy what is going on. We want everybody to feel comfortable coming in, have a drink with the artist, and enjoy the art. Nearby there is an old school that has been turned into the Taito Designers Village, full of creatives who are starting their careers. They get to rent an old classroom as a studio space for three years for a very reasonable price. As they are so close to us, they often drop by our space to see the shows, enquire about having a pop-up shop or meet the guests. We welcome these types of activities and collaborations with other creatives in the area.
Congratulations on establishing a great space for creative people and the community nearby.