Conversation with Hiyoko Imai, Illustrator and Paper Composer

You may recognize the name Hiyoko Imai from one of our favourite books that we currently stock: Sun and Shiro and the Polka-Dot Snake. It's a charming tale about friendship, adventure, and a creature who loves shiny red apples! 

Hiyoko is a Tokyo-born illustrator, graphic designer, and paper composer based in Amsterdam. Her minimal style is masterfully yet delicately executed by hand, while still exuding a playful spirit.

She reached out to us one day to let us know that she was mailing over a few postcard sets to accompany the book. We thought this was such a lovely gesture and surprise for customers who purchase Sun and Shiro. After this sweet connection, it was only natural for us to ask if she would speak with us for the journal.

Please enjoy the conversation we had about Hiyoko's favourite tools, inspirations, and how simple adventures and meals with her family in Amsterdam inspire her work.

SORT: How did paper become your main medium?

HIYOKO: My works are mostly made with simple forms. With Japanese washi paper, I feel like I can add both depth & feeling to any shapes I make, even the tiny pieces. Washi paper is made from the fibre of plants and processed by hand in the traditional manner. Because of its handmade process, it gives a particular warmth in its colours and textures. It’s just a beautiful medium to work with. 

SORT: Who or what has influenced your work the most?

HIYOKO: I have so many influences and artists I admire. My love for Japanese folk arts has played a huge role in developing my style of work today. Wood works, paper crafts, ceramics, handmade toys...all [the] things I’ve seen in everyday life growing up in Japan are hidden references to my creations. 

Besides that, the works of Paul Rand & Saul Bass are very special. When I became a design student, I was a big fan of their works. Soon I learned that they also made children's books and I loved them all. Then I thought, "One day I want to publish my own children's book too". It feels surreal that this wish actually came true last year.

SORT: Your family played a huge factor in the creative process behind Sun and Shiro and the Polka Dot Snake. What were your favourite ways to gather and collaborate together?

HIYOKO: My husband and son were very much involved in every process. Together we came to the storyline, characters and illustrations – countless time of “family meetings” took place at the dinner table. They are [the] most chill and fun meetings to be in.

Every season we go to the local organic farm in Amsterdam to harvest seasonal fruits & vegetables. It's so nice to be in the open air and enjoy the harvest together. The orchard scenes and animals that appear in the book are all based on memories of our visits at the farm.

My son often sits next to me and [we] work on few things together. For example, sketching out the layout & cover designs, developing ideas for each characters, selecting colour palette from Washi papers etc. I kept all of [the] sketches he made during this period - this would be my treasure for many years to come.

SORT: At the moment, what processes or materials are you most drawn to?

HIYOKO: Since the book [came] out, I started to grow my obsession for kites. The process of making a kite is not that easy, but it’s a fantastic feeling when your kite flies high up in the sky.

During the summer holiday, I made many kites. I’ve been experimenting with different kinds of paper. Shoji* paper is one of them. It’s much thinner & lighter than [the] washi paper that I normally use. It’s fun to discover various ways to make kites.

*Shoji = paper sliding door used in traditional Japanese architecture

SORT: Building on that, what types of stationery would one find in your creative toolkit? More specifically, do you have a pair of scissors or cutter that you recommend?

HIYOKO: Here are the stationeries I always keep in my Postalco tool box:

  • Extra fine paper craft scissors by Hasegawa Cutlery
  • OLFA art knife
  • Stick glue by Yamato
  • MONO eraser by Tombow
  • Microperm pens by Sakura
  • Muji ruler
  • XS measure by Midori
  • KOH-I-NOOR pencils
  • Uni coloured pencils

    SORT: You’ve mentioned that you’re “fascinated with what we eat and how we eat differently”. How does the culture of food differ between Japan and the Netherlands?

    HIYOKO: They both cherish seasonal harvests and a simple way of eating. The big difference is that we have more traditions and rituals to celebrate life through food in Japan. We also take more time in preparation and execution - even for seemingly simple dishes. And Japan has a rich source of unique ingredients from the land and the sea in every season which I wish to [also] find here in the Netherlands. 

    SORT: What is your favourite snack? Do you have a go-to cafe or bakery in Amsterdam?

    HIYOKO: Onigiri – my forever comfort food. Rice cooked with donabe, with salt and nori. Super simple and delicious.

    There are some good bakeries in Amsterdam. We like Fort Negen and Bakkerij Loof (Ed. note: right side photo below). At home I bake regularly for my family – honeyed rye bread is my favourite one to make.

    SORT: What explorations can we look forward to from your studio in the future?

    HIYOKO: For this autumn, I have planned a number of children's workshops – I’m really excited to work with little artists. A lot more kites will be made for sure. Currently I’m creating the kite kit of Polka-Dot Snake for readers. And hopefully I can get to work on the next Sun and Shiro book soon…


    Find more of Hiyoko's delightful work on her website and Instagram, and make sure to check out her book on our shelf next time you're in the shop!