2018 BBA Winner Profile: Entrepreneur of the Year – Noriko Sawayama

Nov. 16, 2018

Enthused by the accolade of a 2018 British Business Award, Noriko Sawayama is brimming with new ideas to build on her work promoting British interior design in Japan.

The president of the Japan-based British Associates of British Interior Design (BABID) fought off competition from six individuals to scoop the Entrepreneur of the Year trophy at the BCCJ’s gala event on November 2nd.

She was recognised for "revolutionising the interior design world in Japan by introducing the dynamism of the British model".

Entrepreneurial beginnings

Sawayama was first inspired to introduce British interior design to Japan on her return to Tokyo after almost 20 years running an interior design office in London.

While living and working in the UK, she found the interior design market to be “prestigious and dynamic” and came to respect deeply the British education and qualification system that recognises interior design as a profession. Moreover, she was impressed by British people’s appreciation for spaces, art, fine art and the restoration of historical architecture.

In Japan, however, she found the industry lacking.

“There is no set theory to interior design in Japan. Architecture is built without considering interior design, and interior designers are like interior coordinators—introduced to put on some colour or fabric. There is also no market for art except for the very wealthy,” she explained.

The problems she and her fellow professionals faced in her home market drove her “to do something to make people’s lives better in Japan,” she said, pointing out that a pleasant interior can improve a person’s quality of life. A healthy interior design industry, meanwhile, can boost education, culture and business.

Thanks to Sawayama’s experience in the UK, she had not only knowledge and skill but also business acumen, giving her confidence to set up BABID with co-founder Makoto Ogiso chairman of Eight Knot Co., Ltd.

“There are so many things that the Japanese market can learn from the UK, so I have been acting as a bridge between the two,” she said of her efforts.


Providing education

Sawayama began with an awareness-raising event at the British Embassy, Tokyo in 2009. It proved successful and triggered growth in membership of BIID in Japan, with many Japanese members becoming ambassadors of the UK approach. Some even wanted to be educated in the British model.

Seeing the gap in the market, Sawayama set up an online learning course covering the theory and business of British interior design. She also developed a connection with the British College of Interior Design, whereby graduates of the online course could complete a professional development diploma.

Setting a professional standard

When BIID reached a total of 30 Japanese members, Sawayama received endorsement to establish its first international chapter, in Japan. She says the move recognises interior design as a profession that encompasses the roles of “architectural designer, space planner, art director, stylist and decorator,” which is a new concept in her home market.

Ultimately, she believes BIID’s Japan-based international chapter will improve recognition of British interior design worldwide.


Boosting economic exchange

Another area that Sawayama was recognised for was her work as a facilitator, connecting 1,200 BIID-registered interior designers with projects in Japan through BABID. In the past year, three have been completed.

A 40m2 ruined house in Minato Ward’s Shiba area was converted into a cottage bakery by combining the philosophy of renowned British designer William Morris and elements of Japanese style.

In Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, a 43-year-old building was transformed by fusing British colonial and Japanese styles. Termed a “super renovation” by numerous media that have covered the project, the design features British furnishings that were shipped from the UK. British techniques were used, too, with Sawayama on hand to provide instruction—for example, on the application of wallpaper—to the Japanese craftsmen.

“Using techniques from the UK, I will be able to open up people’s minds to cherish old buildings and give old culture new life,” she said of the project. Moreover, the showcase of British furnishings is designed to boost exports of such products to Japan. 

The third project was the creation of Japan’s first curation hotel in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, that showcases the work of British and Japanese artisans.

“The curation hotel can act as an incubator for local artisans and furniture makers and help create arts and crafts tourism, which is finding popularity in the UK,” said Sawayama.

She pointed to the success of a project in Wiltshire involving the conversion of a former church into a curation hotel. So attractive was it for visitors that nearby galleries and restaurants are collaborating with the hotel to develop the area as a destination for tourists interested in arts and crafts. 

As the Japanese government eyes 40 million inbound visitors annually by 2020, Sawayama believes the new concept of a curation hotel would not only make Japan attractive for tourists but also help the country meet demand for accommodation while supporting local communities.

She hopes that the three projects communicate key messages to the Japanese public. First, that no project is too small to use British interior design; second, that old buildings can be transformed with care; and third, that good interior design can boost the economy.


Next steps

While working in London during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Sawayama experienced first-hand the Games’ positive impact on the creative industries in terms of employment and export volume.

She aims to help those involved in Tokyo 2020 realise this potential and work with partners in Japan and the UK to boost interior design in both countries.

Being recognised by the BCCJ and the British community with a BBA, she says, is a pleasure as well as motivation to continue her work.

Visit BABID's website HERE to learn more about some of Noriko's inspiring work.

Produced by Sterling Content for the BCCJ