Tokyo's 21_21 Design Sight opened its 21st exhibition on 21 September. Such an assortment of coincidences appears as an astronomical sign to look enthusiastically into the future and invites us to re-discover the world of one of Japan's leading masters of contemporary graphic design and art direction: Ikko Tanaka (1930-2002).
The title of the exhibition has been chosen by creative director Kazuko Koike as it represents best the concept that "Tanaka's being stands at the point where the meridian of time and the latitude of East and West cross their ways". The translation of the exhibition's title from Japanese to English reveals subtle differences in constructing the concepts of the spoken languages in East and West. The Japanese title, In Front / Behind / Left / Right incorporates a wider understanding of orientation in time and space. Ikko Tanaka was aiming his practice to transcend disparate times, cultures and their challenges through universal aesthetic values. Kazuko Koike points out that Ikko Tanaka brought playfulness, colors and light into the greyness of post war Japan.
The exhibition is divided in four sections, passing first through a hall containing Tanaka's original wood panels Shikisai-Ryusai (1987) and photo banners of the ceramic plate murals Purple Iris and Red and White Camellia (1992) that stand today at the gateway of Japan's Narita International Airport. At 21_21 Design Sight, Tadao Ando's sober architecture contrasts with a colourful paper carpet climbing up the wall from the patio ground. Titled His Colours this installation was devised by Masaki Hiromura, who is in charge of the graphic design and exhibition space.
Ikko Tanaka worked on roughly 640 books, from which a selection of 150 items is showcased under the title Ikko Tanaka: his world of books in the second section of the exhibition. The selection includes some of his contributions as an art director alongside books that Tanaka loved and influenced his prolific production. Koike remembers that in 1960s she was pursuing an outstanding visual representation of Japanese cultural manifestations, which ended up in manifold successful collaborations with Tanaka. One of them is Issey Miyake. East meets West (1978), which elevated the world of fashion into a new realm. Among other notable items, at 21_21 Design Sight there are cover designs for the Novels Now book series, that featured the writings of Italian authors Italo Calvino, Alberto Moravia and Giuseppe di Lampedusa, among others.
Titled Ikko Tanaka: Diversity of Graphic Expression, the exhibition's third section allows us to plunge deeper into the creative process behind Tanaka's designs. Presented at the main gallery, it displays posters and ten thematic tables illuminating Tanaka's relevance as a social communicator and promoter of Japanese culture to the world. Many of his influences came from traditional sources, experimentation with typographies, and some of the graphic techniques used to achieve his unique language are shown. A few tables unveil the presence of Tanaka's legacy in everyday products, through his engagement with people and corporations and design for logotypes and corporative image. Notable among them is the logo for Muji, which aimed to create a neutral identity, to be completed by the user's creativity.
In the final section, Works and Messages as an Epilogue, Koike has involved the collaboration of two design teams who resonate and are inspired by Tanaka's design. Under the name Following his footsteps, Issey Miyake + Reality Lab present new clothing prototypes. Semitransparent Design, on the other hand, developed an interactive installation of Tanaka's graphics through digital media. Like a good book that raises the human spirit, the final section takes visitors from an objective experience to a more personal encounter with a man who enjoyed life and had plenty of good friends. A collection of photos and short essays of his acquaintances is shown on a screen, intimately titled My Ikko san.
Kazuko Koike explains that the exhibition display was inspired by spatial freedom, designing a non-hierarchical layout which invites the visitor to create a larger understanding of Ikko Tanaka's world from small details. Asked about the main concept, Koike concludes that after a life of freedom and colourful experiences, Tanaka loved anonymous design, allowing human nature to emerge through good design. She adds that while the essence of Japanese beauty lies in concepts of Wabi and Sabi (simplicity and passage of time), which are central in the work of Tanaka, Suki stands for his curiosity and joy in colour experimentation.
Looking towards the future, in a world where printed media is decreasing, the Japanese publishing industry will continue distributing a huge amount of books and magazines: 3,880 publishing companies in the country generate 1.8 trillion yen worth of business annually. Hence the legacy of Tanaka as a promoter of arts and social communicator will continue to enlighten the coming generations. Rafael A. Balboa, Ilze Paklone
The authors would like to thank Creative Director of the exhibition Kazuko Koike for her generous time and comments, and the kind support of Italian Press Office for Issey Miyake Giorgiana Ravizza and Public Relations of 21_21 Design Sight Miryon Ko.