Ask Italian artist and illustrator Simone Legno to describe his artwork and he'll sum it up with one word - 'Japanisme'. Because while Legno originally hails from Rome, his soul is firmly rooted in the "happy face of Shibuya" and the "magic silence of Kyoto". A fascination for all things Japanese defines Legno's work. With echoes of anime, manga and Hello Kitty, his style is a modern, European take on the cute character iconography that pervades Japanese culture.
Oddball characters like 'Bastardino' are a prime example. The little dog in a spiky cactus suit is one of Legno's favourite creations and it's become a flag-waver for his global art and lifestyle brand - tokidoki. The tokidoki online store sells toys, skateboards, jewellery, watches, badges, knitwear, sportswear, shoes and stationery. Legno has also collaborated with big-hitter fashion brands such as LeSportsac, Fornarina, Fujitsu and Hello Kitty. He's living the dream.
One of Legno's current ventures is designing trainers for ASICS/Onitsuka Tiger. The tiger graphic that anchors the branding is indicative of the sort of 'cute but dangerous' theme that's evident in much of the tokidoki style. The teddy bear shape suggests a cute and huggable friendliness, but the sabreteeth, fierce eyes and lightning-bolts add a wild and aggressive edge. As Legno explains, this stylistic clash represents the "dualism of things: childish and mature, Eastern and Western, funny and serious, exaggerated and minimal, provocative and pure, good and bad."
As far as inspiration is concerned, Legno cites contemporary Japanese artists like Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara as major influences. His tokidoki style also draws upon uber-cute Japanese icons like Hello Kitty and Doraemon - a cartoon about a robotic cat who travels back in time from the 22nd century. The Cactus Friends, Moofia, Sumo Baby, Adios and Ciao Ciao characters fit in so seamlessly alongside native Japanese artwork that tokidoki is often mistaken for being a Japanese brand. Not bad for an Italian who now lives in Los Angeles.
"Japan is so magic that some people fall totally in love with it," Legno says. "What really awoke this feeling in me was the Japanese animation shown on Italian TV during the 1980s. It was not just about the characters and the stories, but through animation I could experience the lifestyle of Japanese people - the way they ate, their houses, neighbourhoods, trains, cherry blossoms, student uniforms, rice balls... everything that is iconic of Japan. As a little kid I got struck by all of this; I have sketches from when I was in kindergarten designing Japanese people and Japanese elements."
When designing new characters, Legno typically starts with a pencil sketch in his notebook. He then scans the sketch into his Mac laptop using the built-in camera, before tracing over it in Illustrator and adding in the detail. "For the cute characters," he says, "it's a process of starting from a few simple ideas, and then developing a perfected style, their stories and the worlds they live in."
One of the biggest lessons Legno has learned is not to over complicate his designs. "At the beginning you want to put in too many details that aren't needed," he says. "But I learned the importance of the thickness of the stroke and now I try to be as minimal as possible. I also learned that if you want to make a cute character, it can't be just a random cute dog or cat. It has to have some original concept or meaning behind it."
So what's the meaning behind the Cactus Friends? The characters are dressed up as cactuses, says Legno, to protect themselves from a world that can sometimes be cold and dangerous. The cute design mixed with the idea of safety and protection is the very essence of tokidoki. Mozzarella (from Legno's Moofia line) is another crowd favourite. It's a cute little kid in a cow suit cradling a Thompson sub-machine gun.
Legno believes that originality is crucial to good character design. "I love very much the work of some toy designers like DevilRobots, Mad Barbarians and James Jarvis," he says. But Legno also sees a lot of poor designs. "I think lots of characters are designed just to be saleable in the mass market. I hate those fake brands that want to be 'super-cute' or 'super love'. They are just a cold knock-off of other artists without any of the real soul or originality of the inventor."
In contrast to the Cactus Friends, the beautiful female characters that Legno draws have a far more traditional feel to them. He admits that they're an attempt to reinterpret the classic Japanese wood prints of Katsushika Hokusai into something more modern and contemporary. "My everyday world is coloured and decorated by Japanese objects - souvenirs, junk packages, toys, books, prints, t-shirts and food. I think Japan is the most inspiring place for anybody working in a creative field. They have always been extremely innovative in graphic design, art and street and couture fashion."
"Characters are very expressive," says Legno. "They can convey feelings better than human facial expressions, which can be hard to read, or somehow not sincere. I think that characters can awaken in myself - and in the viewer - a sense of tenderness that is very pleasant to the eye and soul. Characters can be very amusing as well. I think that designing characters requires study - there's a skill in researching a character's shape and style that's similar to making a logo."
Log onto the tokidoki store and you'll see that Legno's work now adorns everything from designer handbags to vinyl toys. You can shop at a real tokidoki store that's opened in Milan, or bed down in one of the tokidoki-themed rooms at the Fox Hotel in Copenhagen and Fujitsu has just started selling a tokidoki-branded laptop.
This year Legno also gained the opportunity to extend tokidoki's reach into football, to celebrate the recent European Championship finals. "We decided to contact MIKASA, a historic Japanese brand, and they accepted the offer to produce a limited-edition, top quality ball with us."
But in the four years since the tokidoki brand launched, Legno is arguably most proud of his collaboration with Hello Kitty. The interplay between the two brands is subtle, with tokidoki iconography added to a Hello Kitty chain, or Hello Kitty dressed up in one of Legno's cactus suits. It's an artistic mash-up that doesn't stray from the concept of 'cute sophistication' that both brands adhere to. But it's a darker Hello Kitty line, illustrated by the appearance of Legno's grim reaper, Adios, on the classic Hello Kitty bow.
"It was a huge honour for me," Legno explains. "Kitty is the queen of the Japanese 'kawaii' ['cute'] world. We collaborated for a first season and sold out both in Japan and the U.S. Now we are extending the contract for one more year. We are very careful to limit distribution to the best department stores, and stores that have a great quality of product. This keeps the collaboration cool and not too commercial."
When we spoke to Legno, he was preparing for the annual Pool Trade Show in Las Vegas, for the boutique fashion industry. Once that finishes, Legno is working on new trainers: he has a two-year deal with Onitsuka Tiger and has recently collaborated with Fornarina for the second time. He's also developing next season's tokidoki clothing lines - everything from t-shirts, shorts and jackets to dresses, leggings and swimwear.
Legno isn't stopping there. He'll be featuring in a new ad campaign for Yahoo! that aims to reach about a 100 million visitors, and designing new toys and "some headsets with a very cool brand called Skull Candy." He also promises that there's a new Hello Kitty collaboration in the pipeline, some tokidoki stationery, jewellery, watches and a range of New Era baseball caps.
"There's a lot to do and this is the beginning," suggests the hard-working Legno. "As soon as the brand becomes more stable, I want to dedicate more of the future to painting and fine arts in general. But at this point 80 per cent of my work is not designing characters: it's working on products, making samples, concepts, checking materials, writing mails, doing interviews, business meetings, events, trade shows and signings. That's what it takes to keep everything alive."