Take two Tomatos

Michael Horsham and Steve Baker at Tomato-designed Daidaiya in Ginza
Pictures courtesy of Tomato

Global design gurus Michael Horsham and Steve Baker of Tomato in conversation with Matt Wilce.

Coordinating their first major Asian exhibition in a space that doesn' yet exist the newly renovated LaForet Museum hasn't phased Steve Baker and Michael Horsham of Tomato. Founded in '91, Tomato is the British design collective responsible for an impressive portfolio that includes eye-catching ad campaigns for Nike and Coca Cola in the US and Adidas in the UK. In addition to high profile commercials, Tomato have helped re-brand the Spanish nation, created distinctive movie titles (Trainspotting, The Beach, The Jackal) and even got the Dalai Lama to contribute to a book for the first MTV Europe awards. Then there's Underworld, innovative gods of techno responsible for the hit single "Born Slippy" from the Trainspotting soundtrack, who are otherwise know as Tomato's founding members Karl Hyde and Richard Smith. Eclectic indeed, but the ever-expanding empire doesn't end there: there's Tomato Interactive, Tomato Films Ltd, their New York office and Curious Pictures.



Baker and Horsham, two ordinary blokes of the kind you'd meet "down the pub," would probably object to the term "empire." They give the sense that Tomato's success has been organic and uncalculated. As an antidote to the '80s ethic, founding members Baker, Smith, Hyde, Dirk van Dooren, Simon Taylor, John Warwicker, Graham Wood and Colin Vearncombe consciously chose Tomato and not Tomato Design to allow them "to get involved in all kinds of projects because we don't want to lock ourselves down into one category." Ten years ago when they started, there weren't companies around who were called things like Tomato, now there are plenty of imitators. The legend goes that in the beginning the group needed a name to put on an invoice. "That's being glib, but we did need a name, and there really is no deep significance to it. I mean, its memorable, its got three syllables and it kind of works," Horsham says.

Fallen Angel
Fallen Angel

No strangers to Tokyo, Tomato's portfolio reads like a who's who of corporate Japan: Toyota, Shiseido, Mitsubishi and Sony are all happy clients. Designs for the interior and graphics for two chic Daidaiya restaurants (in Shinjuku and Ginza) and the trendy watering hole Yusoshi in Shibuya provide Tokyoite Tomato fans spaces to hang out, while Simon Taylor's clothes for the Urban Action label (available at BEAMS) provide their wardrobe. A series of short films commissioned by Spaceshower TV might conceivably segue into a promo for Japanese rock group L'Arc en Ciel. A slew of Tokyo Type Directors' Awards reside in Tomato's trophy cabinet and the team are currently planning a second season of Tokyo workshops. Founded with the radical idea that "people shouldn't expect to be taught anything," the workshops were a resounding success last year - 2001's are already over - subscribed. "It's good to be reminded how open and generous and brave people can be," Baker enthuses. "The work was amazing, it made me feel quite humble," and he is genuinely excited about plans to launch a Tomato school.

Even working for Japanese giants has given Tomato freedom to create. "We don't "tailor what we do to the idea that it's a Japanese company," says Baker. "The big difference about working here is that we have to work through translators, but that's not necessarily a barrier. Sometimes it opens up a different channel of communication and I think there might be a value to it-maybe we maintain a foreignness that makes us more interesting to our clients."

When Sony, approached Tomato to work on an ad campaign they sighed, "Oh, TV ad." But after a "year-long conversation," Tomato created something that they think is "amazing." An increasingly animated Baker positively glows as he describes the "living changing identity" produced as the final tag for all Sony commercials in Japan. The "living algorithm that creates a graphic identity" will "listen to the world and change through the feedback." If it works, the identity will go global.

Daidaiya in Shinjuku

Daidaiya in Shinjuku

Talking Tomato
"Conversation" is a term that is encountered frequently when talking to Tomatos. Their website states "Tomato is, and always has been, about conversation," and this ethos is largely responsible for the groups experimentation. Baker thinks he'd most like to have a conversation with Marilyn Monroe before she killed herself, but quickly adds, "I gave that answer in a telephone poll once and they told me more than 40 percent of men give the same answer." He adds that he loves talking to anybody - "I'm interested in the bus driver, just ordinary people."

A Japanophile, Baker once used TC to find someone to swap flats with, an experience that led to him procuring a second home here. "I like most places in Tokyo but Tsukishima [site of his apartment] is cool." His frequent trips to the city include regular pilgrimages to Tokyu Hands, Shibuya and Akihabara to catch up with the latest gadgets. His animated explanations of the computer-generated components of the forthcoming exhibition show he loves technology. He even bets us that "3D holographic projection is just round the corner."

The last member to join Tomato in '98 Horsham says he's not sure at what point he became a Tomato. While working at the BBC in London, he called up the office and spoke to John Warwicker, who it turned out lived in the same street. "We became friends and then through that friendship I got involved in a couple of things that Tomato were doing. Seven years later, here I am." Currently pursuing his interests in music and writing, he feels lucky to be doing work that he enjoys and to "have the luxury of choosing to do interesting things."

"Tomato is, and always has been, about conversation."

Tomato's forthcoming Tokyo exhibition Real and Imaginary Flowers - the launch event for the revamped LaForet, is an installation of Tomato creations that blends mediums and interactive elements. Visitors logging on to an i-mode site can change the music and sounds that the computers play. A second site will provide gif animations created randomly on the fly. Showcasing a diverse range of work from film and music to print and photography the exhibition and the accompanying book Tycho's Nova by Graham Wood perfectly expose the group's dynamic of working off each other's individual obsessions. An additional event at Lapnetship features collaborations between Tomato and Underworld.

Although Tomato claim they aren't aware of their popularity with Tokyo's design aficionados because they don't live here, the exhibition will undoubtedly offer fans some consolation for the fact this year's workshops have been rescheduled due to over-subscription. Building on last year's success in Tokyo, 2001 will also see additional workshops in New York, Dublin and Sydney.

NY 1am
NY 1am

Blending the disparate strands of Tomato's world into an installation that's essentially a single piece of art can't have been easy-especially with construction workers still rebuilding the space, but Horsham and Baker have the kind of laid-back cool that's a product of their impeccable track record. A design powerhouse with a global sensibility, Tomato will no doubt continue to leave the competition playing, ahem, ketchup.

Real and Imaginary Flowers runs from Mar 10 to Apr 1 at the LaForet Museum, LaForet Harajuku. Open 11am-8pm, entry JY700 website

Bonus Event at Lapnetship, Mar 10-28, open 11am-9pm

Daidaiya Shinjuku Branch 3F Shinjuku NOWA Bldg 3-37-12 Shinjuku (Tel: 03-5362-7173), Ginza Branch

Yusoshi, 1-15-7 Jinan, Shibuya-ku (Tel: 03-5428-3434)

Underworld site: 
Curious Pictures:  
Virgin Atlantic Tomato competition: 
Sony campaign:  
Urban Action:  
Mitsubishi:   or



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