Through my work, I've pondered the way we define ourselves through design, architecture and other visual representations. This page has links to my published work and unpublished ideas, and to influences like typography, philosophy, political cartoons, and my prolonged journey in Japan.
I was born in Elmhurst, Illinois in 1963 as Maggie Kinser, and have written and translated professionally as both Maggie Kinser Saiki and Maggie Kinser Hohle. I grew up in a household permeated by the language and ideas of design. My father’s nature was to learn by teaching (graphic design and typography) and by working. As I’ve progressed through my adult life, I recognize in myself his desire to discover the world and try to understand human nature by moving from place to place, creating...
I was born in Elmhurst, Illinois in 1963 as Maggie Kinser, and have written and translated professionally as both Maggie Kinser Saiki and Maggie Kinser Hohle. I grew up in a household permeated by the language and ideas of design. My father’s nature was to learn by teaching (graphic design and typography) and by working. As I’ve progressed through my adult life, I recognize in myself his desire to discover the world and try to understand human nature by moving from place to place, creating an internal lexicon as people tell me about themselves, and building a topographical map informed by my own and other people’s experiences as they relate to a sense of place. My dad’s journey took us from Illinois to Georgia, back to Illinois, and to Pennsylvania. I went on to Annapolis, Maryland, and graduated from St. John’s College in 1985 with a double major in philosophy and math. In 1985, I moved to Japan, where I gradually became fluent in Japanese by working as an annual report writer for a couple of years, and then a freelance writer, covering Japanese design, business, vernacular architecture and traditional rural culture and industry. I returned to the Eastern US in July of 2000, and in 2007 moved to Northern California with my husband and children.
I grew up in the Midwestern and Eastern US in the 60’s and 70’s, when advertising was fresh and new. I learned about the world of persuasion (design) from my late father, Bill Kinser, and my late mother, Charleen Kinser, who won three Cannes awards in the ‘50s for animation, and in the mid-70s established Charleen Kinser Designs (CKD). In 2001, Charleen closed CKD as a response to the general unwillingness to spend more than $20.00 on a toy, and an atmosphere that discredited domestic handcrafting in favor of cheap machine-made objects from overseas. She would be happy to know today that there is a resurgence of crafting and valuing of handmade goods around the world, as a response to years of this same atmosphere. Today, the extensive output of CKD, both Charleen Kinser’s private reserve and products offered through a collectors’ exchange, is handled by egnome.com.
Soon after graduating from St. John’s, where in my senior year I was dating a Caucasian Japanese national, I set off for Japan. I spent fifteen years of my early adulthood there, six years in Tokyo, and nine in the countryside north of Kyoto. I wrote about whatever interested me, and there was a lot: The profitable live beetle trade, the gradual annual retreat my rural Japanese village seemed to make from the 20th Century in the deep snows of winter, and the thoughts and concerns of a grand sampling of Japanese graphic designers active in the post-war period through the present.
I’ve written articles for the Asian Wall Street Journal, Metropolis, Graphis, and Theme, among others. I’ve written books for Graphis, Mark Batty Publisher, Honnoki, Edizioni Press (on John Ciardullo and Kisho Kurokawa) and Robundo. I’ve contributed to the design compendium to be published by Phaidon, and I’ve translated books as a member of the partnership Takumi Translation for Asahi Shinbunsha, Lars Müller Publishers, Rizzoli, Sendenkaigi, Intense-inc., and Seibundo Shinkosha. I’ve written in Japanese for the Journal of Architecture and building Science, Kodomo Pia, Tarzan and the progressive housing magazine Chil Chin Bito. Graphis magazine was a major client of mine from the beginning, commissioning more than 25 profiles of superior designers in Japan, South Korea, China and the U.S. In 2002, Graphis published 12 Japanese Masters as a culmination of this work.
Among my other books are Japanese Working for A Better World, interviews with more than 60 activists trying to involve Japan in a sustainable future; Y.M.D.: Ancient Arts, Contemporary Designs, five essays on the marriage of traditional Japanese rural industrial traditions and the internationally viable product design of Takenobu Igarashi.
I spent the last nine years of my life in Japan living in a 100 year-old thatched farmhouse, where I became intrigued, and ultimately frustrated, with the tenacity of tradition in the craft of Japanese thatching. In 1999, I instigated a cross-cultural rethatching of the house, bringing together on the roof for a two-month project an eager young Japanese thatcher and a mature, efficiency-minded British one. An hour-long documentary about the project aired twice on prime-time Japanese TV (TV Tokyo), attracting the interest of thatchers and homeowners around the country. On both thatching and design, I have spoken to audiences of several hundred in both Japanese and English.
Bill Kinser, designer and teacher (1931-2002)
To my dad design was not an art, but a trade, with simple, verifiable rules. Dad was fascinated by the transformation of logic into visual symbols and the use of those symbols to persuade. He taught me to look at the world as a puzzle that could be decoded, and delight in the dreams that lead people to attempt grand acts. The interviewer in me came from my dad, who took me everywhere with him and talked with everyone he met about what they knew and not what he knew. With Dad I visited gas stations, design labs, sale barns and photographers' houses. Dad collected ancient books for their typography and printing, and was forever fascinated with the kinship between social history and visual history. Read More...
Charleen Kinser, animator, designer, craft writer, editor, creator (1933-2007)
It's been my favorite never-ending job to describe my mother's world. With her whole life she's taught me how to edit the details to describe character, though her characters have most often been three-dimensional. After a powerful career in animation, shortened by marriage, she worked her design education at Chouinard Art Institute into her life as a mother. She spent my early childhood in Illinois and Pennsylvania working freelance as the crafts editor for American Home Crafts, doing weird, memorable one-off commercial projects like a line of a half dozen 3 foot-high Orphan Annie dolls for a Chicago store window, and a huge 3-d soft sculpture hot dog (with mustard) for 7-Up. And she wrote books. I remember most clearly her working on Outdoor Art For Kids, (Follett, Chicago 1975 [TK]). My late brother Tom and I were the guinea pigs and models for the crafts, and the stories inspired me to write. In the late 1970s, when I was becoming conscious of the world, Mom established Charleen Kinser Designs, which for 26 years was a small group of artisans creating characters Mom designed to be played with: toys made by hand for an international market. She gave teenage me my first writing job: to describe these creatures in story and doggerel. The production crew finally disbanded in 2002, but for Mom's one- or two-of-a-kinds, I still write the stories. People call my mom 'whimsical', but like all good characters, hers are real, and I think of my writing about them as non-fiction. More...
Life in Japan
My freelance work in Japan taught me by example that man is inherently flexible, intellectually and physically. We can understand any point of view, any value system. We can take on any way of life. From the beginning, almost all of my friends were Japanese, and--in their language--I asked them to elucidate their values, their habits, their emotions. Japanese is a good language for this kind of talk. In 1990, I married a Japanese, an artist from a family that for generations had held a Shinto shrine on the southern island of Shikoku. We moved into a thatched farmhouse in the mountains north of Kyoto. We began a family. Sheer immersion in the same rural life my neighbors lived, with their centuries-old festivals and their easy belief in animism, made their concerns mine, and their values mine.
A tutor at St. John's once told a class pursuing Pascal, "translation is impossible." After so many years in a foreign culture that became my own, I still long to prove him wrong, if only slightly. More...
Every writer has stories he wishes he'd pitched or wishes he'd sold. Below are two from the early 1990s that I remember with regret, each for a different reason. In 1999, when I met a young Japanese thatcher who'd visited the UK, studied thatching there, and dreamed of thatching a Japanese house with the much more efficient British methods, I went to my dad with my great idea of writing about this young thatcher. His response depressed me at first: "if the dream isn't realized, there IS no story; there's just another young man with a dream." That one comment burned me up so much I determined to make the dream come true, with or without the young thatcher. In 1999 I brought over a British thatcher to work with yet another Japanese thatcher, and together they performed the first cross-cultural rethatching of a 100 year-old Japanese farmhouse. The first thatcher, the one with the dream, ended up dropping out of the thatching business altogether, depressed by the weight of his dream. But other thatchers did join our project, and through TV and newspaper exposure, magazine articles and lectures, it went on to influence many more. When I'm discouraged I remember the truth I learned that year: A dream is just a dream.
Okishima, Island of the Heike