16 May 2023 · Mazda Stories
Master Of Metal
Words Ed Cooper / Images Irwin Wong
Yutaka Kawano is a Takumi Master, a master craftsman fluent in creating art through form. An expert in manipulating metal, his work is symbolic of the design and craft skills seen on all Mazda vehicles rolling off the production line. Zoom-Zoom touches down in Hiroshima to take a closer look.
It’s a hot, humid morning in Hiroshima, Japan. Throughout the city, commuters scramble to catch trains, children cycle to school, and coffee shops churn out morning pick-me-ups. Yutaka Kawano, Senior Specialist at Mazda’s Design Modelling Studio, however, is readying his set of dozens of hammers and wooden mallets, and countless razor-sharp sheet-metal scissors atop his workbench. As generators buzz and click into life behind him, Kawano is ready for another day at work.
“KAWANO COULD EASILY BE THE PERSONIFICATION OF MAZDA’S HUMAN-CENTRIC APPROACH TO DESIGN.”
It’s comparatively cooler in the Takumi Master’s Mazda base of operations, where he has begun hammering and bowing a wafer-thin piece of sheet metal. He’s manipulating the shimmering material to create a unique, one-of-a-kind piece of art that is strikingly like the designs seen throughout Mazda vehicles rolling off the production line. Using hammers, tongs, and vices, Kawano is working on one of 11 pieces that will fuse into a singular object to create a Rashin sculpture. The finished product will resemble a smooth, seamless, and gleaming piece of art that draws parallels with Mazda’s current designs, and also points towards future design ideals in vehicles to come.
A virtuoso in every sense, Kawano is at home in the workshop among worn tools, belt saws, and blowtorch masks. Surrounded by designs and works in progress, he could easily be the personification of Mazda’s human-centric approach to design. That’s because, while the Takumi Master’s unique work wouldn’t look out of place in a contemporary design museum or an upmarket art gallery, the real-world implications of his work are both more practical and wider reaching. Indeed, it’s been said that Mazda designers go directly to Kawano’s place to pick his brain and gain inspiration for concept car designs that shape Mazda’s future ranges. Likewise, his sheet-metal artwork has a direct connection to the vehicles being manufactured only a few hundred metres away from the workshop: the glossy metal that can be seen throughout his studio has been used as inspiration for Mazda’s chrome interior trims and the vehicle’s overall form, in models including the Mazda3.
These results, however, aren’t just about improving physical appearance. Kawano’s work often evokes emotions, including happiness and contentment, from the viewer. Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s his conviction that the craft can take these perceptions to new heights. “If people look at my work and they feel happy about it, then I’m also happy,” he says, smiling.
Kawano has had to craft his own custom-made equipment and make special modifications to off-the-shelf tools. His hammers, vice attachments, and bespoke anvils are all tweaked and contoured for specific use, and are marvels in their own right. So, too, his protective wrist guards, which are made from tapered denim. Kawano also demonstrates how he uses the cracks found in the base of a timeworn tree trunk as leverage to shape copperware. It’s all part of an ongoing mission to both better himself and, as a direct result, push Mazda’s design strategy into the future through monotsukuri, a term used to cover immaculate product planning, design, development, and production. “I still think there are areas [of my work] which I need to improve because I don’t think it’s enough,” he says. “I have to really keep improving myself and devote myself to a higher level.”
From an outside perspective, it seems Kawano has already made it to this higher plane of design and influence within Mazda. Ever since he started metalwork at 18 years old, Kawano has worked across a multitude of disciplines within Mazda. He started off training for the National Skills Competition and followed this with a stint in body production, before moving on to Mazda’s design division. This is where he would hone his craft for almost four decades, not only on metalwork but also painting and sewing. These days, his role is to bring designers’ ideas, formed in clay or digitally, to life, utilising various materials such as metal, resin, and leather to create models and artwork with further expression and precision. He also collaborates with the younger generation of designers and artists in the creation of artworks and model samples, passing on his unique knowledge of metalwork and his deep-rooted understanding of Mazda’s design philosophy. “I’m working with them directly,” he says. “I give them advice and I learn from them as well. We’re working and growing together, doing real work.”
Using 11 individual pieces of metal, Kawano creates a beautiful Rashin sculpture.
Now 60 years old, Kawano’s tenure at Mazda has seen his craftsmanship become an unfaltering example of Japanese heritage and unique skill that work in tandem with digitisation. And his career goes beyond Mazda. Kawano was tasked with crafting a copper frame for the eternal flame of Daishoin Temple in Miyajima and, working with other Hiroshima-based companies, was inspired by the legacy of manufacturing in the city. Inevitably, his enduring design has captivated viewers ever since its inception. “If you can see something which is created by hand, it gives you warmth,” he concludes. “Something created by human hands is very important. It shouldn’t be lost.”
Examples of Kawano’s influence can be seen in details including chrome interior trims and the vehicle’s overall form.