Interview: Megumi Inouye

Wrapping and packaging. We have such a love-hate relationship with it.

So often it’s the afterthought, the result of those last desperate minutes before you’re “due” to give the gift. (Think it doesn’t show? Think again.)

Or say the words packaging and wrapping to a hard-core environmentalist, and you’ll get pursed lips worthy of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey.

It doesn’t help that as kids we’re taught that it’s the thought that counts, that it’s what’s in the package that really matters. Well to that, we say rubbish (ha). We think that presentation is meaningful, if done right – it’s not simply a wrapper slapped around the outside. It’s an integral part of the gift (or product, for that matter). It’s part of the story the item tells – no more so than when the item is the work of the hand.

Think about it. Really great presentation slows down the consumption and extends the pleasure of anticipation and of appreciation. It can transform the most quotidian of gifts into something pretty extraordinary. And it makes the recipient feel damned special, which is, afterall, the point.

The Japanese of course, are the masters of the thoughtful package, inspired by the culture of gift-giving. And Megumi Inouye, born in LA, but whose parents hailed from Japan, knows all about that. Her packaging (which often incorporates recycled and found materials) is 3D, ingenious, modern, and sculptural. And as any good design should be, it’s often highly functional and practical.

Megumi’s instincts, background, and attention to her craft has won her awards and accolades – even a stint on the Ellen De Generes show (among other TV outlets.) She’s also consulted for companies like Starwood and is an instructor at the seriously fun craft online video workshop site, CreativeBug.

She also makes a mean plum cake.

Where did this love of wrapping come from?  Growing up, I was always in awe of the many beautifully wrapped packages I received from Japan. I also grew up with a lot of stories about what wrapping symbolized and picked up that sensibility. I remember going to a flower shop in LA with my mom. It was a store she frequented often because it reminded her of one in Japan. Even though she would just purchase a single flower (to place at her mother’s alter daily – a Japanese tradition), the shop owner would carefully and beautifully package this single flower. My mom would talk about the spirit of this flower shop and how she would bring that energy and spirit of thoughtfulness to her mother’s alter.

What is it about the Japanese and gift wrapping? Everything – from everyday pastry to a special gift – is packaged so beautifully. I think of it as a part of the culture that appreciates process as much as result. In the Japanese culture (and in the culture of craft and art) HOW you do things is as valuable as WHAT you do. In Western culture we’re more goal and results oriented. For the Japanese, the how and the what are equally important. There has to be some sort of appreciation and love and acknowledgement of that process.

It’s also very functional, though, not just about art. I remember one time I bought something small – not expensive – from a store in Japan. When the store owner found I was going to be carrying it home, she made this carrier for it – a puff gift bag – out of things she had in the store. I appreciated that care and the practicality and think about it all the time.

It’s interesting that these two examples you give were less about outright gift giving, but were based in the retail environment. Yes, it’s very important in stores and in retail.  But it should be an integral part of everything we do, from the little things we give every day to the bigger gifts. Careful and considerate presentation should be a practice. It’s not just for holidays!

The most humble of objects wrapped thoughtfully become meaningful. I love the idea of wrapping a note. The wrapping is the essence of your expression of the message: packaging the wish, the thought, the intention, a sense of appreciation. All of those things deserve packaging and wrapping.

(For more of Megumi’s approach to wrapping, click to see this lovely video from Creative Bug.)

And how do you go from a Political Science degree at Berkeley to being a master of the craft of wrapping?  It was a long road. I started out working with Dianne Feinstein’s team on a trade mission to Japan. (She continues to do related work bridging US political, cultural, or educational ties with Japan.) But I had always loved art and design. I got a job with Fellisimo (used to love them when they were in NYC), where I worked for over 10 years as marketing director and concept designer, always looking for different ideas. They gave me a lot of opportunities to flex my creativity, and I did some packaging design there–working on a collaborative project with Robert Rauschenberg for example.

Anyway, I’ve always wrapped for family and friends. But making this a more public experience came when I became a runner up finalist in a national search for Scotch Brand’s Most Gifted Wrapper. (There’s a contest for everything.) It tests you on your creativity, speed, the ability to package odd sized objects. I found that this was something I could do that I loved! And it took on a life of its own.

And you ended up on the Ellen de Generes show. I did!  They had me on a flight to Los Angeles from New York and with less than a day’s notice and I was asked to wrap George Clooney’s bungalow next to Ellen’s set.  That idea fell through because of lighting and technical issues and I wound up using my handbag package technique (that saved the day) to wrap something Ellen was going to give to her mother. I also did a wrap off with Ellen herself.  Quite surreal!

So what’s your secret? How do you present things so beautifully?  It’s not just the aesthetics. What makes anything beautiful is the extra effort taken and sincere consideration given to someone. It’s about packaging an intention. You have to believe in the essence of what you’re packaging: the wrapping should bring out the essence of your intentions.

The most impactful things don’t have to be costly or extravagant. We tend to over think so much and forget that the simple things are the most powerful.

How do you do that?  It’s instinctive for me as it will be for everyone else – it’s about a personal connection you have with the person you are presenting the gift.  I do like to listen to the story behind the gift and understand the feelings surrounding it. This helps me. After that it’s about applying the techniques of wrapping – cutting paper to size, appropriate creases, clean lines, coordinating colors and textures which all enhances the presentation.

But gift wrapping is also very practical: gift wrapping and packaging had practical applications in its origin. You want to protect what you are giving and make it easy also for transport. It’s a form of consideration on all levels.

What’s your favorite found material to wrap with? You seem to have a knack for taking functional discards … Right now, its revitalizing used file folders. I was so excited to discover that the fold in the file folder can help eliminate a step in constructing a bow and to become a design element. Very handy. But I’ve worked with shredded paper too. And I also have this obsession with sewing patterns – I love how they look and the tissue-like quality makes it so easy to work with as a material for wrapping. I love the idea of giving a new life to something that might have been tossed out. I love leveraging design elements in the cast offs – those elements were carefully thought out by someone and it’s nice to be able to take that thought and consideration and use it in unexpected ways. (Again I think this is what you were getting at!)

What inspires? My family, of course. Nature, of course. I have many creative friends. And great textile craft and fashion. That show with Isabelle de Borchgrave recently was amazing, and I’ve applied elements – especially a sleeve or ruffle detail – to a package I did.

Robert Rauchenberg was a great inspiration to me in his ability to turn something found in the New York alleyways into art.  It got me to look at repurposing and transforming objects deemed throwaways as materials for creating something.

But if anything, it’s the smaller things that inspire me. I observe a small detail and see life in it. I want to take the things that you throw away and turn it into the centerpiece. I like that. The less value that’s placed on it, the more interest I have in bringing it to life through my gift wrapping. That’s what excites me. Finding the essence of things that may seem useless on the surface and exposing the possibilities, treasuring materials as well as people – that inspires me.

I think we were all moved by the intensity of the 2011 earthquake in Japan. Talk about what that meant for you? My daughters and I participated in the America-Japan Grassroots Summit in Miyagi, Japan and home stayed in Ishinomaki and Sendai.  We met some wonderful people, and it was devastating to hear the news.

With the help and notes of support from volunteers from my daughter’s school, Lick Wilmerding, funding from the Rotary Club of Chinatown, shipment by Japan Airlines, and backing from the SF Mayor’s office, we sent 500 backpacks and school supplies to the children of Ishinomaki–kids who’d lost their homes, families, friends and school. I was able to travel to Ishinomaki one month post- earthquake/tsunami and deliver the packages personally. So many people came out to assist us. It was incredible!

It was both moving and horrific to see the devastation first hand, but touching to see the spirit of the community working together to support each other.   The children were so incredibly thoughtful- asking for very little so that others more in need can receive.

What 5 things define you? Aside from my family which goes without saying…

My cooking: when I make delicious food, people gather and connect so I love doing that – it definitely brings the family together

My love for gift wrapping because I put my heart and soul into packaging – it’s my vehicle for expressing my thoughts, intentions, wishes. 

I love making things with my hands and receiving handmade things. I have a passion for bringing life back to things no longer deemed valuable.

The passing away of my mother defines me most of all, because everything I value and appreciate in my life comes from the experience of a devastating loss of someone that close to me. I surround myself with family, friends, people and things I love and do what I believe in because I know that being alive is a privilege and how we choose to pass our time is what ultimately defines us in the end.

What’s your most treasured possession? It’s always those things that are handmade: things I can feel who they are with what they’ve given me, things where the spirit comes through in what’s been made – that’s what you keep and treasure. My son wrote a beautiful story/poem for me …it’s such an emotional experience to receive something like that. My kids do that because they know it means a lot to me.

My husband built me a custom gift wrapping table from recycled wood he salvaged. The storage box in my studio he made for me from a wooden crate he found on the street – a shipping box from Christie’s Auction House. He knows what I love. Did I mention he designed our kitchen?  All of this-personally handmade, the personal touch is special to me.


Images of wrapped goods courtesy of Megumi Inouye

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