Designer Mana Kobayashi × Marron, Gilbert & George — A Home Built for Cats

Feb 23, 2012 / Interviews

Photography: Shin Suzuki Editing & Text: Madoka Hattori Translation: Seth High

Mana Kobayashi is an interior designer who has worked to create retail spaces for companies such as the Finnish lifestyle brand, Marimekko. The cat-loving Kobayashi lives alongside three felines. In addition to the white 'Marron', she keeps a pair of cat-siblings - Gilbert & George. Being extremely shy, the latter pair made every effort to hide from our camera. Marron, however, was not afraid to show off. She moved around the room with a proud swagger. Full of ennui and sultry charm, Marron mesmerized us into a state of relaxation.

— How did you first encounter each of your 3 cats?

"At first, I only had two cats - Gilbert & George. My cat-loving niece once asked me, "My friend's cat just had kittens... will you go and look at them with me?" So I went and checked them out. There were five kittens in total. Two of them eventually became 'Gilbert & George'. The cats had been born under the home of my niece's friend. Therefore, her family was looking for people to take them in. The other three cats were all quite friendly. However, the cat that came to be known as Gilbert constantly hid behind things. George would pop out every once in a while before rejoining the anti-social Gilbert in hiding. Because I didn't think those two cats should be separated, I decided to take them both in."

— Before that time, had you ever taken care of a cat?

"When I was a junior high school student, I found and cared for a stray cat. Because this experience taught me how to care for cats, it wasn't a burden for me to later take in the kittens. The only problem was that my previous apartment had a 'no cats' rule. So I quickly found a new place to live. Moreover, I had it renovated to make it a better place for cats to live."

— And how did you come to take in Marron?

"Sometime around 2008, my friend found a new-born kitten on a beach in Chiba Prefecture and decided to take it in. About three months after taking the kitten in, he became unable to care for it due to an extremely busy time at his workplace. Therefore, I took over Marron's management for him. Because Gilbert & George were so easy to take care of, I felt that one more cat would be a piece of cake. However, Marron's arrival ended up being a huge challenge. It took the cats a long time to get used to each others' presence. During the daytime, I would take Marron with me to the office. At night, I would have the cats sleep in different rooms. After it had gradually begun to get colder out, I once found all of the cats sleeping together on the same futon. Without knowing about it, it seems that they managed to become friends."

— What are the origins of their names?

"I felt that my first two cats are quite a rarity in the way that they always stick together like twins. Because they reminded me of the British art duo 'Gilbert & George', I gave them those names. 'Gil' and George make an appearance in an electronic picture book titled 'Fashionista Cats' that my New York-based friend created. As for Marron, the person who initially took her in was an artist named Takashi Kuribayashi. When he first found Marron, he called her 'Maro' because there was a spot on her head that resembled a 'Maro' (spots of dark makeup placed above the eyebrows that were popular with the Japanese upper-class in Heian times). When I took over guardianship of Marron from Mr. Kuribayashi, he said to me, "Please, either name her after me or keep calling her 'Maro'. Because I didn't like the name 'Maro' (laughs), I combined it with the French word for 'Kuri' ('Marron'/chestnut), which is the first two syllables of the name 'Kuribayashi'. So her name became 'Marron' ('Chestnut')."

— What kind of personality does each cat have?

"Gilbert & George always stay right by my side. Even though they are shy around other people, this is not the case with me. They will start meowing when they see my face. Marron, on the other hand, is relaxed and uncaring to the point that she could probably live anywhere and not even know the difference. Though she's not really friendly with people, it just seems that she doesn't care much about things... When she does get excited, however, her nose will turn from white to pink and her paws will become bright red. This makes it easy to tell when she's excited."

A Home Designed for Cats and People

— What elements were designed to accommodate living with cats?

To make it harder for them to leave the house, I put double doors in the entryway. Because they will come to greet me whenever I get home, I made the bottom section of the inner door out of glass. Moreover, if I put their food dishes directly on the open floor, there is the chance that I will step on them. Therefore, I created a feeding alcove specifically for the cats in the kitchen. The cat staircase that I had put in is actually an artwork by Kyoko Taniyama. After seeing it at her exhibition, I thought it could be used for cats. So I placed an order and she built it for me. The cats often climb up the stairs and sleep on top of the shelf. Also, to allow them to easily access the storage closet, I had cat-sized holes put into the wall. Whenever guests visit, Gilbert and George run off and hide in there (laughs)."

— Do they have any preferences regarding food or litter boxes?

"Due to Gil's urethral stone and Marron's chubbiness, I give them special 'diet' food made by 'Hill's'. To serve their food, I use a Marimekko plate and a gratin dish. Gil and George are able to control how much they eat. Marron, on the other hand, will wolf down everything that you put out for her. They have two separate litter boxes - one for peeing and the other for 'number two'. For the actual litter boxes, I use compact-sized 'Catoile'. However, I also use german-made litter from 'Cat's Oko' and sheets from 'Nyan Tomo Seiketsu Toire'. Though I feel it would be convenient to use the entire 'Nyan Tomo' system, the cats seem to prefer the current combination - and I've tried a lot of different things."

A Toy Box that Fascinates Cats

— What kind of toys do your cats like to play with?

"They love cat brushes. After brushing them, I'll make balls out of their hair. Their absolute favorite thing to do is play with these balls of hair. Over and over, I will throw the ball quite a distance and they will retrieve it and bring it back to me. With the hope that they will eventually get used to it, I sometimes put them on a leash. However, they look at me as if to say 'Stop putting that on me!' (laughs) To show their resistance, they will even throw their arms out and lay flat on the floor. After last year's disaster, I thought it would be good to practice using a leash just in case another earthquake happens. However, the cats just won't have anything to do with it. It will definitely be hard to catch and carry all three of them if another emergency occurs. However, I do keep a bag ready in the entryway that will allow me to carry the cats if the need arises."

— Do you collect cat-related items?

"Though I generally don't like goods done in a cat 'motif', for some reason black and white cat goods started catching my eye after I took in Gilbert & George. I have come to build up quite a collection. Moreover, cats are not the only animal that I like. My favorite among all animals is the lion. So I have tons of things like lion documentary DVDs and books of lion photography."

— How did you come about to design the 'Cattoy Arch'?

"When I released a new chair at the 2007 Design Tide Tokyo event, I approached the maker with the idea and we ended up making it together. It's simply made out of cardboard boxes. Whenever delivery boxes or other cardboard arrives, cats will not hesitate to go right inside. With this in mind, I contacted a cardboard box manufacturer and the Cattoy Arch became a reality. I had small holes put into the sides of the boxes. Because they are just the right size for cat's paws, you can play with the cats by poking cat-teasers through. Moreover, if you combine it with a cat tower, the arch makes a good valley for cats to hide in. You can also stagger the boxes to make a kind of tunnel for the cats. Marron in particular loves the Cattoy Arch. She's always inside it."

—Do you have plans to make any other cat goods?

"Though I don't have any concrete plans at this point, I'm thinking about designing a type of backpack for carrying cats. Because most of the current bags on the market feature 'sporty' designs, I think there is a need for something that is a little more stylish and functional. Also, because I do interior design work, I want to create more spaces that accommodate cats. For example, when working on my current home, I considered my husband's asthma and decided to place the bed high up off the floor. This meant that the dust cats inevitably stir up when they run around won't reach him. Moreover, considering that up-down exercise is more important for cats than sideways movement, I put in the cat stairs and gave them a place to jump. Even though this is a studio-type apartment, I've designed the interior to allow the cats to freely move around. Because I don't want to force the cats to stay in the living room, I've made the closet cat-friendly and the kitchen a place where I can look out over all their activities. In addition to having a place to live, cats need a place to hide. Because I have three of them, I understand the difficulties of living with felines. Therefore, I feel I am well-qualified to design cat-oriented interiors. In the future, I think that I would like to build spaces that resemble the Tierheim Animal Shelter in Berlin, Germany. Run by donations and the work of volunteers, it is an unbelievably cool building where animals can live freely. I think that these kinds of places need designers."

  • name: Marron, Gilbert, George
  • age: 3, 12 and 12
  • sex: female, male, male
  • lind: mixed
  • Mana Kobayashi
    Kobayashi was born in Tokyo in 1966. After graduating from the Product Design program at Musashino Art University, Kobayashi entered a company that produced advertising displays. Following her departure from the company, she created 'Design Office Ima' alongside her husband, Takashi Kobayashi. Though their work mainly consists of designing retail spaces, Ima also takes on residential projects, creates exhibition spaces, and produces design products. Since 2010, the pair has created retail spaces for Marimekko in cities such as New York and Helsinki.