When Luis Mendo was 44, he had an epiphany. The Spanish designer was busy running his Amsterdam-based studio Good Inc., when he went to Japan for a three-month sabbatical. It’s fair to say he fell hard and fast for Tokyo.
“I discovered the Japanese way of life was something that suited me much better,” he explains. He closed his studio, waved goodbye to his friends and family and set out east to seek a new adventure.
“I decided to move for just a year at first, but after six months it was clear to me this is the city I wanted to live in.” It was also clear that he would struggle to continue his career as an editorial designer in his new home. Unphased, he reinvented himself as an artist and illustrator.
“Those were a lot of changes for a 44-year-old guy!” he says. “But starting from zero is something that seems to be part of me. I’ve done it many times and still get a lot of energy from it. Also, drawing pays less than designing but it’s far less stressful and much more satisfying.”
Luis’ clients include some of the world’s biggest brands and magazines – Sony, Adobe and North Face, Monocle, Vanity Fair and New York Magazine. He often uses just a few colors, but he creates work that is bursting with intimacy, whether it’s a lemon plant or a tumbler of whisky or the London skyline.
On the right side of my jeans, I have a special pocket sewn at knee height so I have always my pens at hand.
Tokyo though remains his main muse, and his street scenes of his home city combine his insights as a local with his objective viewpoint as a foreigner.
“Japan and Tokyo are two different things,” he says. “I like Japan but I absolutely love Tokyo. There’s the same energy you can find in cities like New York, but much more gentle and friendly.
“Tokyo is like a vain lady who gladly poses for artists. Being a gaijin (foreigner) is something that you are always conscious of, since your face immediately gives away that you aren’t Japanese. But if you don’t let that get into you, there’s no problem.”
Like many creatives, Luis carries his sketchbook with him at all times, pulling it out in those “dead moments” waiting for trains say or sitting on the bus. “There’s always something that catches your eye, and making a quick sketch of it will help you enjoy it, observe it and preserve it better than a photograph.”
But Luis’ compulsion to sketch what he sees goes further than most. “On the right side of my jeans, I have a special pocket sewn at knee height so I have always my pens at hand. And once I forgot my sketchbook at a friend’s for four days and I got physically unwell from it. Not having a paper at hand to draw is a difficult thing for me.”
His regular gig for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant turns his talents to a different city every week, a dream commision he describes as his “playground.” But it’s Tokyo which has his heart.
“Japan breathes beauty and there’s a incredible attention-to-detail – from the way a cookie is wrapped to the music they play when they are about to close the park gates.
“This consideration for beauty and doing things elegantly are continuous inspirations for me. You want the same. To do things in a harmonious way is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned by living here.”