Design Needs Downbeat

White Phoenix by Tamae Hirokawa, Ito Jakuchu Inspired Exhibition, Tokyo Designers Week.

Tokyo Designers Week and Design Tide

Design Tide, 2012
Tokyo Midtown Hall
Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo
31 October – 4 November 2012

Tokyo Designers Week, 2012
Meiji Jingu Gaien, Aoyama, Tokyo
30 October – 5 November 2012

Every year, starting late October, there are two events in Tokyo for (mainly product) designers to show their work. There are many overlaps between Design Tide and Tokyo Designers Week. The time and place overlaps. Design Tide happens at roughly the same time as Tokyo Designers Week, and the distance between them is walkable if you’re feeling energetic, or just a few stops on the Metro, so it’s easy to do the two. Their aims overlap (promotional, trade and developing design careers), as does their audience demographic (designers, producers, entrepreneurs, design students). All this means that comparisons are inevitable; if not from the general design media—which is frequently more reportorial or overtly promotional than reflective or critical—but at least within the minds of the people who visit or participate in both.

Tokyo Designers Week is bigger and more wide ranging than Design Tide. It covers more (emerging and established designers, artists, students, manufacturers, suppliers, conceptually serious works and the crazily kawaii, young producers, experienced makers, aggressive promoters of interesting new technologies and silly gadgets, and the creatively mobile), and perhaps for this reason, it comes across as an unwieldy, confusing grab bag of events and approaches.

This has not been such a bad thing in previous years, when an abundance and diversity of exhibitors, and probably, more money for production and travel, not just in Japan but Europe, North America, Australia and the rest of Asia meant that along with the predictable and the perfunctory there were some gems. This year there was much less work from young designers from foreign places and it removed from the mix that nice quality of surprise —originating from different places around the world—that made TDW attractive. What happened to those small design groups from the UK? Established & Sons and Timorous Beasties (TDW 2008) — or their 2012 equivalents? Where were the Dutch? In past years TDW promised, to those from afar, an interesting mix of quiet brilliance, love-to-hate hubris, humour, remarkable ideas and the charmingly kooky that made paying the airfare and hotel bill worthwhile.

Design Tide is more compact, more organised and structured, more carefully edited and selective. It concentrates almost exclusively on emerging or ‘undiscovered’ designers and there appears to be an effort made during selection to choose works that are conceptually grounded. Also grounded conceptually is the interior design of the venue each year. In 2012 Makoto Orisaki’s beautiful forest of bubble wrap trees gave the hall a delicate, otherworldly magic that softly complemented the work on the long timber tables and plinths and visually tied the whole show together.

Two of these tables held work that I was personally attracted to for two different reasons. One because of the sheer group effort of 8 Norwegian designers (Foodwork) and the well-crafted, formal cohesiveness of their objects,

the other through the depth of its exploration of the traditional Jewish Friday meal—cohesive in theme only and widely, enjoyably disparate in the way each designer addressed it as a solo project. The latter, called Around a dinner table, was by a group of Israeli designers and artists and curated by Design Museum Holon.

By far the two longest long tables were curiously occupied by one of the world’s corporate giants. In a large, dedicated space the Coca-Cola Company presented Bottleware. Two starkly lit white benches on either side of a long corridor showed a before/after production exercise. On one side: a mass of granulated Coke bottles. On the other: a sort of abbreviated evolutionary sequence, starting with the Coke bottle and ending in a range of Coke-bottle-green bowls ranging from small (Dip Dish ¥5,250) to large (Bowl L ¥14,700). Even if the bottles used are downgraded, as the Coke-branded Bottleware site suggests, it’s still a flimsy story on recycling or even up-cycling. Although the product and the exhibition display was designed by Nendo, the product, the site, the exhibition and the support material were all branded Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is a Design Tide sponsor, so you have to wonder, what percentage of Bottleware is a design exhibition and what percentage is a Coca-Cola campaign?

At least Tokyo Designers Week was brazenly upfront with its corporate and trade show elements. The fluff and dubious promotions (Ice Pearl: a smoking area heavily promoting a new cigarette product by Virginia S, Phillip Morris) were easy to identify and therefore easy to avoid, on the search for more relevant exhibits. There were some good bits but disappointingly, not enough of them came from that core of designers whos careers and ideas were most in need of exposure.

In the professional section, the well known furniture and product designer, Toshiyuki Kita, had a chair and stool made from woven water hyacinth fibres and produced in collaboration with a Thai manufacturer.

Hikaru Yamaguchi from Yamaguchi Prefectural University, presented a leather and aluminium laptop bag and Hagi Glass, a range of timber and handblown glass vessels. Even if you didn’t like the look of these objects (I did), the craft in them was exceptional and the finishes perfect.

Alongside the professional section was an exhibition of models by 50 prominent Japanese architects which was extensive enough and fascinating enough to realistically be a reason in itself for visiting the TDW site.

One of the the most engaging sections was an exhibition of works by designers and artists inspired by the Edo-period painter of birds, animals and flowers, Ito Jakuchu. Ito Jakuchu Inspired was in a black-walled area at one end of the central hall, and I was not the only visitor spending a lot of time there, not just because of the visual richness of the work, but I suspect also because of the relief the enveloping darkness of the space provided, from the brightly lit, trade show aesthetic of the main venue. Something else was present in the darkness too: the delightful, liberating spirit of the work. A wide range of techniques and media including sculpture, graphics, installation, animation, film, publishing and fashion— much of it the result of exquisite and seductive combinations of craft and technology—reminded me more than anything else at TDW of the many things I like, as a designer, about Japan.

Overall, however, Tokyo Designers Week and Design Tide in 2012 did not feel as rich or as broad and deep as I would have liked it to be. Not in the conceptual strength of much of the work, or in the number of (genuine) exhibitors, or in the number of people attending. The latter impression may have only been because I visited each event on its first day.

Someone more informed than me — on the connections between the current state of the world and the activity of designing may have already worked it out: why both events were thinner than previous years (my last visit was back in 2008). Japan, and the world, have had plenty of other things to be focussed on in the last few years and some people have forwarded this as a reason. I disagree. The people and the talent, the ideas and the output, are still going strong. What isn’t are these design-related trade events.

Around the time I was drafting the two preceding paragraphs and worrying about their negativity, I caved in to the inevitable and checked the web to see what others were saying. Maybe it was just me. Maybe I was mistaken. And reading through the online reports on both events you would have to think so because while there is no shortage of upbeat reportage, listings of things cool and everything-is-wonderful promotional spin, there was hardly any level of reflection, let alone useful criticism, and in this, there is also much to worry about: this unreal disparity between what is published about design events in the form of reporting and promoting, and what is thought, but rarely published, in the form of contemplation and criticism.

Few people seem to want to take a position and are apparently ok about allowing upbeat spin to fill media spaces that could also be used for conveying thoughts and ideas and even a bit of mind-honing negativity. Design needs downbeat.


A downbeat design quote
‘Mainstream commercial design now is treated as the idiot child of the branding industry.’
Deyan Sudjic
The Language of Things, Penguin, 2009


Namiko Shinohara’s rabbits, TDW Young Artists Japan Exhibition. Upbeat kawaii meets slightly spooky downbeat.

Natsuko Kogure’s delightfully titled Monkey octopus Nudibranch elephant, Ito Jakucho Inspired Exhibition, TDW.

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Design Tide 2012

This year Design Tide returned to Tokyo Midtown Hall in Akasaka, Minato-ku. It’s smaller than Tokyo Designers Week, and I think more focussed. Both events run at about the same time, and their promotional aims are roughly the same—so I’m working on the inevitable comparison… which should be the next post.

Above and below:
Prototype objects by Foodwork, a group of 8 Norwegian designers.

Foodwork’s table.

Above and below:
Student works.


Above and below:
Around a dinner table
Works by Israeli designers and artists based on the Jewish Friday meal and curated by Design Museum Holon.
(Above: Tomer Spector from Design Museum Holon)


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Pecha Kucha at Tokyo Designers Week

The 20 slides x 20-seconds-a-slide show and tell format for designers, artists and anyone with something to say began at Tokyo’s Super Deluxe, the bar/club/live venue that’s ‘open most nights for thinking and drinking’. Now it happens in about 500 places around the world. In October one was held in a bubble structure at TDW.


Tokyo Designers’ Week 2012

Tokyo Designers’ Week 2012 was at Meiji Jingu Gaien in Aoyama. The themes house and play were explored over a range of events and exhibitions. Highlights, for me, were (just) a few pieces in the professional exhibition, an exhibition of often exquisitely beautiful architectural models and an exhibition of design and artworks inspired by the Edo period painter, Ito Jakucho.

From the professional exhibition

Hotei Chair and Otei Stool
Toshiyuki Kita
IDK Design Laboratory

Kita worked with a Thai producer using water hyacinth: the aquatic plant that infests many rivers and lakes around the world.


Laptop computer carrying bag
Hikaru Yamaguchi
Cultural and creative arts, Yamaguchi Prefectural University

From the exhibition object label: The bag ‘utilises the same hand-made aluminium sheet metal technology as that used to manufacture the Shinkansen bullet train. The Hagi glass [below] is hand-blown hard glass made with melted quartz basalt produced from the volcano in Hagi.’

The combination of timber and glass and the way they are finished is particularly beautiful.


Kids’ Nest
Kaori Shikichi
Kaori Shikichi Architect Office

Prototype desk and chair for children with a half tatami mat footprint.


From the models exhibition


From the Ito Jakuchu inspired exhibition

Soul Mosaic
Yukio Hashimoto

The combination of colours and form and patterns
Masaaki Hiromura

White Phoenix
Tamae Hirokawa


An image becomes energy
Katsuhiko Hibino

Jakuchu 2012
Kenjiro Sano


Kosei Komatsu


Red&Black&White: 2D<->3D
Kazuma Morino

The Shinki of Chairs
Zhang Ke

1000 Jakuchu Ito




Connecting Polarity for Andaz Amsterdam
Marcel Wanders

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Tokyo Bike launch

Tokyo Bike launched in Marys Place, Surry Hills, on Saturday 8 May.

Besides showing a range of beautiful, pared-back bikes and some smart (and kooky) accessories, the web site will run a series of feature stories throughout the year. The first is Yanaka Story—a story in still photography and video by the Japanese photographer Kento Mori.

Conceptual approach: Heidi Dokulil and Graeme Smith. Editing, writing, photo direction: Heidi Dokulil. Web design: Lee Wong, Graeme Smith. Identity design, creative direction, Graeme Smith. Principal photography and filming: Kento Mori. Shop design: Richard Peters, Heidi Dokulil. Badges: Beatrice Chew.


Tokyo Bike

Bike riding in Japan is part of life, it’s about enjoying the ride, exploring the city, and the freedom that goes with that.

Tokyo Bike is a small and independent bicycle company which launched in the old Tokyo suburb of Yanaka eight years ago.

More about slow, than fast, Tokyo Bikes were designed for a city where destination is only part of the story, and losing yourself in the small back lanes and expansive parks and gardens is a way of escaping the crazy pace of Tokyo.

Tokyo Bikes are light in weight (between 9 and 11 kilos), easy to carry up to your apartment, and light on graphics and logo, with new colours released each season.

Tokyo Bike opens its first shop in Australia in May 2010.

Writer/photographer: Heidi Dokulil. Designers: Graeme Smith, Lee Wong.
A holding page giving access to more information will be up after Friday 19 March.

Small screen people

On the small screen of my camera I saw five more people, each looking—on small screens—at this gorgeous installation for all of the senses, called  Eating + Design, by Marije Vogelzang, Axis Gallery, Tokyo.


Gazing at the Contemporary World

Gazing at the Contemporary World:
Japanese Photography from the 1970s to the Present

In my head, I have this observation about what it is poets do (distil amazing sense from ordinary meanings) from Emily Dickinson.

Incongruous as it may seem to use a job description for poets written by a decorous 19th century American to begin a review on contemporary Japanese photography—it’s one of the pieces of language that comes to mind as I look at these photographs; and it does connect (for me) to another quote, from photographer Nobuyushi Araki, on one of the first object labels in the exhibition: about capturing an energy that exists in ordinariness.

Can you guess what the cop said to me that time? It was a classic: “Why are you taking pictures when there’s nothing special happening?” For him, a photograph was something you took when something special was going on. He thought a photo had to be of something out of the ordinary, so he couldn’t see why anyone would take a picture if there wasn’t anything happening. Why photograph the totally ordinary everyday stuff when nothing’s actually happening out there? He put his finger right on what I was doing, or what I wanted to do.

A 60s-style bus, out there somewhere in a soft, dark, enveloping landscape in a picture titled Kariudo (Hunter, 1972); a stylish looking, hands-in-pockets butoh performer (2001); the sweat-crinkled back of a summer dress from the Subway Love series (1962–73); vaguely recognisable city skylines less built than ones now well-known, and four girls presumably out for the night, crouched on a Shinjuku pavement in 1981. Those early 80s hairstyles, the shoes, the makeup, all create an initial moment for me, of ‘where was I when this happened?’ that quickly converts to ‘where are they now?’—indicating the beginnings of a slow and poignant contemplation of the absence of things, often things commonplace, that is sometimes labelled ubi sunt. A ‘where are’ experience.

Some exhibitions of photography seduce and pull you in, but the most transforming also push back, making you fall back more on your own ways of dealing with the image. My own reaction to these photographs, and why they appeal—or should I say affect me—is that so many of them are suffused with this beautiful, quiet, introspective sense of the loss of everyday things, particularly in those nothing-special, non-happenings that are mostly thought of as ordinary.
Gazing at the Contemporary World: Japanese Photography from the 1970s to the Present is an exhibition currently on at the Japan Foundation, Sydney. It was curated by Rei Masuda, Curator of Photography, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

Japan Foundation Gallery
Level 1, Chifley Plaza, 2 Chifley Square, Sydney
22 February–4 March 2010
Monday–Friday and Saturday 27 February

Photography reproduced by kind permission of the Japan Foundation
George Hashiguchi, Rainy Sunday from the series The Look, 1981
Mitsugu Ohnishi, from the series The Long Vacation, 1983–91
Hiroh Kikai, A Performer of Butoh dance from the series Persona, 2001