NOB + NON is the way they write their name and the way they think of themselves. "The sum of Nob plus Non equals more than two," Non said. "We are more together than apart."
They do everything together: work, live, love. They dress themselves. She cooks, he washes up.
Nob + Non are neither twins nor a dance team, though they could pass for either one. They're designers, primarily for Knoll International, the modernist fabric and furniture company. Their own apartment in New York is a message to other young apartment dwellers on how to make the most of every inch and every penny.
These two young rising suns in the design business are Japanese. They've lived in New York since 1970. That's the year they married and honeymooned on their slow boat to the United States. Long ago they learned how to design American, but they're still studying English. And their designs, like their English, are definitely translated from the Japanese and carry the heavy accent of their origin.
Utsumi is their last name, though you have to go to a good bit of effort to find it out. The second problem is to sort out which is which. He is Nob, she is Non, if I've got it straight. Their names are actually something much more complicated. But Nob and Non are standard nicknames for their real ones.
Like their country, the two are an interesting combination of traditional Japanese ways plus avant garde ideas. Their basic attribute is subtlety, in that complicated Japanese fashion called shibui. They don't like to do anything directly. Ideas hide behind other ideas.
The fabrics are, like most Knoll designs, more architecture than decoration.
They like to layer their fabric, using one design behind another. Several designs use faint lines, so their thickness and thinness are obviously hand drawn. On one they use a slash of accent color. Another is a subtle grid. All are designed to seem at their best with light behind them.
Nob + Non love being photographed behind their sheer fabrics, veiling themselves in oriental mystery, adding to the myth of the inscrutable Easterners.
Their colors are not primary, but mixed to subtle hews. They mix their own colors for everything -- including Non's nail polish, lipstick and eyeshadow.
But it's mostly show. When you talk to them they are eager to explain what they do and how they do it. They make their less-than-complete knowledge of English work for all its worth. And their enthusiasim for wheat they do and each other, and their desire to reach others, is enormous.
Nob and Non both originally worked designing fashion fabrics. His butterfly print for Hanae Mori fashion house was enormously popular here in 1967. Non worked in Kyoto, hand-dying couture silks for expensive fashion designers.
This feeling for fashion persists. They make most of their own clothes. If they buy anything, they afapt it. Today they both wear all white. He has on sailor pants, tied at the angles to make them blouse out like puffed pants. His socks, shocking pink, are the only color. She has cut out their signature and sewed it, stuffed (trapunto-fashion) on her white v-neck shirt, over a wrap around skirt and a purple scarf at her throat to match earrings he made for her.
On a visit to the Knoll showroom in Washington they had matching outfits in a handsome wool. She likes to wear hats that pull down to make a line just above her eyes, covering her hair completely. Other times she pulls back her black hair severely.
Non's makeup is as complicated as their fabric. She used a dark eyeliner powder to make a U-shape starting between her brows and on each side of her nose. Her eyes are heavily rimmed in black. The effect is not grotesque, it is striking, focusing on her face. She looks like those wonderful pottery figures that were in the show of Cycladic art at the National Gallery of Art here last summer.
Nob has shoulder length full wavy hair and a face like a Baroque cherub. Non says, "He is 35, and i am younger." She worries that people think because he looks to boyish that he is younger than she, though he isn't, and she has no need to worry anyway. Her classic bone structure will give her face the same beautiful strength when she's 80.
Though Nob looks like an American's idea of a Japanese film star, Non teases him that her mother said, after meeting him: "But you've always gone with such handsome boys." And he says, "My father said, 'I wish I could give you better looks.'"
Non said, "Nob is a lovely guy. No to say he isn't good looking. In Japan, good looking is important. But we think that character and mind is more important. I think the new generation is changing the ideas on appearance."
Going to see Nob + Non is like traveling to Japan. They live on a high floor of an apartment in New York City's furniture and decoration district. The buillding is new but not notable. Their modest apartment, one bedroom, aisle kitchen, living/studio, is comfortable but not plush.
But from the moment that Nob opens the door, you know you've stepped out of the usual New York world of anonymous living.
Just beyond the door, separating entry from the hall, is a length of fabric, a sheer beigey cloth with angled lines like slashes. Non stands behind the curtain, enjoying the effect of visitors and hostess first seeing each other through their design.
Teir living room serves as studio, conference room, dining room. They designed it to make it work. The principal piece of furniture is a stage or a platform, covered with industrical carpeting. Underneath is storage.
Atop the platform are four large, squashy pillows arranged around a low coffee table, for eating Japanese style. Smaller pillows in the corner offer a place to lean. A vase of flowers is carefully arranged in the Japanese manner. A plastic strip of rainbow waters is a color sculpture leaning against the wall -- they make such things for each other's birthdays. Their small television set, white plastic, also sits here. oLight is a silvered photographers umbrella.
At the other end of the room is a long worktable supported on steel sawhorses with a pair of plastic drawers at each end. Above the board is a plastic-covered wire grill to hang things from. Two white adjustable lamps and white paper trays keep everything to a crisp look. A tray of small radio solid state parts is used as an ornament.
In the bedroom they have framed two pieces of fabric. Another of their designs covers the bed with throw-on cushions. The idea of light behind fabric, their favorite theme, is here exemplified by a small piece of fabric thrown over the lamp. Fabric, hung like curtains, covers two walls, including the window wall.
"It's so easy to cover up bad or boring walls by hanging fabric," said Non.
"I wonder why more people don't use it as a way of making a changable environment. You can always take it with you when you go."
Nob and Non don't think of themselves as conventional Japanese. "When I first worked in America [in 1967 for Leslie Tillet]," said Nob, "I was surprised to find out that Mr. and Mrs. Tillet were partners, working and living together. I thought this was a novel and wonderful way to live. But I didn't think it possible in Japan."
Non said she had always believed that work should be a part of life. "And when I met Nob, I thought, this might be the guy I could make such a life with."
Nob + Non, one plus one make more.