Robin Oshiro arrives for our second meeting at Coffee Bar in Gastown, and I almost don’t recognize him. He looks like a million Vancouver university students, standing in line for a latté in jeans and a hood.
He wears the uniform of the twenty-something creative; with Robin I am not taken by what he wears or what he looks like but by what he says, which is minimal, insightful and clever, like his work.
The concept of design is a hard thing to put a finger on. Typographer, hip-hop dancer and latest Trim collaborator, Robin thinks for a moment, then quickly sums up what design is to him—succinctly, neatly, in a way that perfectly reflects his artistic style.
“A problem solving process, using visuals,” he says. To him, design is a puzzle; laying elements on a page, analyzing and organizing them until they make sense. At his job at a high-end design firm in Gastown, which mysteriously remains nameless, Robin finds inspiration from his Swiss design inspired boss and mentor. After graduating from Emily Carr University of Art and Design, he has landed at a place where he is challenged creatively and is learning daily as a young designer.
At 28, he is happy, and one of the posters he’s designed with Kriza—Appreciate—is dedicated to this period of his life.
“I really have a good life now, since I graduated,” he says. “I want to appreciate everything, and I don’t want to lose that appreciation.”
Running through Robin’s life, his work, and this collaboration with Kriza, is an underlying theme of opposites in balance. At its root lies his identification with two opposing cultures: Japan, with its calm, community-minded politeness, and the west—loud, independent and outspoken. He was born in Vancouver while his Japanese parents earned their master’s degrees at the University of British Columbia, then when he was two he was moved to Japan, where he grew up.
“When I lived in Japan more than a decade ago,” he says, “people were much more exclusive to anything foreign, or anything that was ‘different’ from what they were, what they were used to seeing in their daily lives. My family was different in a way because my dad, who was Japanese American, grew up in American culture, spoke English and unnatural Japanese with a strong accent, and my mom, who was quite westernized and didn’t like certain Japanese communication styles.”
“I think the way they raised me and my siblings was quite different from how many other Japanese parents raised their kids. As for myself, I didn’t consciously work hard to assimilate myself to become a part of what was surrounding me, so there were situations when I felt I was different from my friends and felt uncomfortable. My family was quite unique compared to my friends’ and I was a bit different. But I was—am—of course culturally Japanese.”
When Robin moved to Hawaii after junior high, and was plunged into the world of American individuality, he saw the contrast of east and west for the first time.
“I felt American people were more confident and comfortable expressing themselves,” he says. “I remember I envied that. If you grow up in Japan, you will likely become a modest person, at least when you interact with others who are not your family and best friends. When someone compliments you, you would say you are not as good as what you have done or what you are. When you introduce yourself, you try not to make yourself look better than what you are. That’s how people show respect to each other. However, this attitude makes you look small and lacking of confidence, when you are in western societies. It must appear peculiar to westerners’ eyes when Japanese people bow to each other too many times—I have seen a comedian making fun of that.”
The theme expanded when he moved back to Vancouver for college, at Douglas College and then ECUAD.
“I really thought Japanese people needed more push to interact with people from other cultures because we are too modest and quiet,” he says. “People [in Canada] really value expressiveness.”
He saw this firsthand when he was working in a Starbucks downtown during the 2010 Olympics, and during the Stanley Cup riots in 2011, and it was these displays of unbridled Canadian personal expression bordering on insanity that made him begin to appreciate the calm delicacy of Japanese culture.
Robin’s grad project from ECUAD, Tea Democracy, binds this balance of east and west into a book split into alternating sections of subdued excerpts from Kakuko Okazura’s book The Book of Tea, and articles on excess and consumption taken from western media. While turning the pages the reader gets an abstract sense of the influences which inform Robin’s work.
The idea of two forces in balanced opposition continues in Robin’s collaboration with Trim’s creative director Kriza Borromeo.
Calm, logical, calculated, Robin is the antithesis to her emotional, more spontaneous artistic style, but this is the nature of collaboration and the experience has been positive for him. “We have really similar tastes as far as visuals, it has been a really smooth working process,” he says.
“She is very fun and emotional and sometimes angry, that really shows when she is working with something. If she’s not in the mood she cannot work,” he says. Whereas it can take her moments to draw something expressive when inspiration strikes her, Robin tends to overanalyze his work and sometimes loses the freshness of an image.
This contrast, for Robin, defined their working relationship and informed the pieces. They melded their ideas into a single concept through brain storming, and paired his typography, design and Photoshop skills with her illustrations, creating a series of posters meant as personal reminders to live better lives.
Robin gets out his laptop and shows me the progress of the Mario Hugo inspired Dreaming and Doing poster, and I am astonished with the delicacy of Kriza’s pencil drawing of an ethereal, spacey rendering of a galaxy. Along with the almost complete Throw Me Away, drawn mostly in Photoshop, the results of the project so far are clean and professional, and as usual I am impressed with what two creative minds can accomplish.
At work, Robin struggles with allowing himself free reign to create; he is in the process of finding the confidence to express himself unselfconsciously. He admires New York designer Stefan Sagmeister’s free and expressive style. “I always limit my creativity and imagination,” he says. “I need to learn that. I really understand his design principles and philosophy of opposite attraction.”
Robin does find ways to express himself more immediately with his paintings—strong, determined brushstrokes depicting figures in dynamic movement. But he feels the most connection with type.
“I think I appreciate the more abstract quality of type, like how it communicates to people visually. It’s not as literal as illustrations. You see a big huge type bouncing to you and you feel the energy, it’s really shouting, but it’s more abstract, it’s just letter forms. It really has the communication ability, and I really like that.”
Echoing this energy, Robin explores freedom of movement at hip-hop dance classes he attends faithfully twice a week. I have trouble picturing someone so reserved doing anything as outwardly aggressive as street-style dancing, but it makes perfect sense.
His heavy painting style juxtaposed against his refined illustration and design techniques, his conflicting eastern and western influences, his devotion to dancing a contradiction of his quiet demeanor—he is a study in counterpoint, as he finds the balance between restraint and free expression.