Pure and simple: Kei Tominaga’s Bloomsbury home
Located in a pretty mews in Bloomsbury, Kei Tominaga’s home is a calm, light-filled space set above a former stable. The artist, jeweller and sculptor has lived here for the past seven years with her husband Frank, their daughter Hana, and a handsome cat called Blue.
Frank and Kei met over 17 years ago, when he was working in Tokyo, where Kei grew up. She studied smithing and metal sculpting at university there, before moving into sculpture. “I had a big studio in the countryside outside Tokyo, a cowshed in the mountains that overlooked a rice field. It was wonderful in summertime,” she remembers. “Wherever I go, it seems that I always end up in a stable.”
While life in Bloomsbury is a far cry from the tranquility of the mountains, Kei is happily settled in the neighbourhood, which has seen a lot of changes over the years she’s lived there. “There weren’t really any shops when we first moved here, and the only cafe open on the weekend was an Italian deli. Now, there are so many great places to meet, eat and shop nearby.”
When she’s not in her studio working on her clean-lined and contemporary sculpture and jewellery, you might well find Kei enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee and chatting with other regulars at Tutti’s on Lamb’s Conduit Street or sharing tapas with Frank and Hana in Morito on Exmouth Market – two of her favourite local hangouts. We caught up with her at home, on a cold and sunny morning, when we were very pleased to be welcomed into the warm for a chat.
How did you get into making jewellery?
Working solely on large sculpture was getting a little impractical, due to the space needed to store the pieces, so I decided to change tack and try working in product design for a bit while I was still in Japan. Then, after we moved to the UK, my professor from university came to England and introduced me to a Japanese guy who was doing really well in silversmithing over here, which got me thinking about going back to metalwork. I wanted to make something smaller and more intricate that was still conceptual. I still make everything myself as I care so much about the finish and the details.
It must be very satisfying to make every piece by hand. How did your move to the UK come about?
When we had Hana, I was already 38, and I said that if we were going to try living in the UK, I’d like to do it before I turned 40. We ended up moving when she was just six weeks old! We picked Clerkenwell as we had visited in summertime to look at property and I just loved the pub culture, and seeing everyone outside having fun. It reminded me of a festival. So I said, “Let’s move to Clerkenwell, I love it here!” Then we got here and realised we couldn’t get into any of the pubs with a baby.
London pubs must have been a little different back then. What surprised you most about being in the UK?
The thing that struck me was how kind people are when you have a small baby, which isn’t always the way in Tokyo. People are so helpful here. Also, I never felt like a foreigner in London, it was actually more of a shock to have a baby than it was to move continents.
Two major life changes at once must have been a challenge. Do you ever miss Japan?
I miss all the little restaurants I used to go to in Tokyo. I miss the seasons, too, and the sounds of nature, like the typhoons and the gentle rain on the leaves during the rainy season; the wind in the trees, and the noise of the linden bugs in summertime.
Yes, London’s soundtrack is a little less soothing. Has your life in Japan influenced the home you’ve created for yourself here?
I think I’m drawn to simplicity, and a clean, modern style, but I like old houses with a history, too. Many of the houses in Tokyo were destroyed during the war, after which American culture began to dominate and housing was built in a slightly strange fusion of Japanese and Western style.
So you were drawn to the history of this old mews house?
Yes, I like the mix of old and new. We used to live in a home in Tokyo that had been renovated in a very contemporary way, then, when I moved over here and saw how people live, I realised I actually quite liked the warmth and character of people’s homes, which I wasn’t sure about to begin with. I’ve also started to understand why family homes in the UK often have more things in them, more items on display… they tell a story. In Tokyo, people don’t have much space, so will often only have a few decorative pieces or artworks on show, which then get changed seasonally.
Your home certainly has its own story, particularly as you’ve made so many things here yourself. How did you learn to make furniture?
Back when I was working only on sculpture, I needed more money to live on and to pay for my studio, so I turned my hand to making many things in order to generate extra income. I also love finding out how things are made and can learn a lot by using new materials. I don’t think I was very good at working with wood at the beginning, but if someone wanted me to make something, I would always accept, and then ask friends and learn on the job.
Oh, to have such skills! What’s the best thing about your work and your craft?
I love that I can can control everything, because it’s all on such a small scale and I don’t have to outsource production.Certain details might seem minor to someone else, but I know how important they are when it comes to the main concept of the product. The pieces themselves don’t have to look polished or perfect, but they have to be perfect to me. I wanted to produce something that was really good quality, things that wouldn’t become part of a throwaway culture. That’s also why I chose to work with precious metals, so the pieces would be something people would keep and treasure. And, it’s nice to be able to do some of the work from home, where it’s cosy and warm. I have to go my studio to work on bigger pieces.
It must be a lovely space to work in. Do you have a favourite memory associated with this house?
A man who used to live here when it was still a working mews came here to visit us once, he was in his 80s and he knocked on the door with four generations of his family – they even had a tiny baby with them. They showed me a picture of him here as a child, with his parents. His father’s job was to take care of the horse stabled here, and amazingly, his mother was a jeweller. I never made jewellery before I came to this house.
What an incredible coincidence. What’s the best thing about living here?
Living in this mews, because it feels like a little village. It’s a really friendly street, and everybody is happy to help each other out when they need anything. Plus, we have a lot of good friends nearby. I love going to Tutti’s on a Friday morning as I know I’ll probably bump into someone we know.
It sounds like a lovely sense of community. How to you tend to spend time here when you’re not working or relaxing?
We like to have friends over for dinner. You can’t fit many people in the kitchen so I made a big board that we can use for a low table in the living room, which we all sit around. I have a lot of beautiful Japanese ceramics that my grandfather collected, and I love to bring them out for guests. love that I can can control everything, because it’s all on such a small scale and I don’t have to outsource production.
And what do you cook?
I mainly cook Japanese food, like aubergine with soy, ginger and chilli, and fried rice with beef, crab, eggs and soy sauce. Sometimes we have tamaki sushi parties, where we make hand-rolled sushi. I get everything I need from Atariya, who supply a lot of good restaurants in London, so it’s really easy. Cooking other Japanese dishes can be pretty time-consuming. It can take a whole day to prepare everything when we have people over, but I do love doing it.
After having a closer look at some of Kei’s beautiful silver, metalwork and jewellery designs (Santa, take note) we went on our way with rumbling stomachs and a serious sushi craving. To see more of Kei’s work, head to keitominaga.com, or visit Hackney’s Momosan, the Tate Modern, Twenty Twenty One, or Wearers in Camden Passage.