Biography, Tanaka Ikko [v.2]

Japanese Culture

The nation of Japan experienced destruction to a degree not seen before WWII and not seen since. Entire cities were reduced to ashes, amongst them, the capital city of Tokyo. In what was a tremendous transformation, Japan became Asia’s first modern consumerist nation only fifteen years after the end of the war. Much of this transformation was fueled by technological advances in transportation and energy. During this period of time, the cultural identity of the nation was also reborn.

At the conclusion of the war, Japanese citizens began to reject traditional Japanese culture and emulate a more western lifestyle. This was visible in various facets of Japanese life from architecture and urban landscape to social and personal mores. Graphic design in particular was influential in promoting a western way of life.

Prior to World War II, there was no distinction between art and design in Japanese culture. The word design didn’t even enter the Japanese language until 1950. It was during Japan’s post-war graphic design period, from 1950 to 1980, that design became embedded in Japanese culture. During this period time, following the war, Japanese graphic design was heavily influenced by western design methods and values.

This influence manifested itself in the form of more western images and visuals used in commercial advertisements. It is through these images and visuals that one can track the cultural transformation undergone by Japan. The transformation of Japan’s cultural identity was fueled by its many designers, the most prolific among them being Tanaka Ikko. His graphic design work is distinctly Japanese but also appeals to a broader western audience. More importantly, Tanaka Ikko’s work is still relevant today.

Tanaka Ikko Background

Tanaka Ikko was born in the ancient Japanese capital of Nara in 1930. He attended the Kyoto City College of Fine Art where he graduated in 1950. Two years later he joined the Sankei Paper Group (an influential organization in his professional design career. In I954, at the age of 24, Tanaka Ikko won the Mainichi newspaper’s Industrial Design Prize. He later joined the Japan Advertising Artists Club (JAAC) where he was awarded the Members’ Prize. This award firmly established Tanaka Ikko as one of the great professional Japanese graphic designers. One year later, in 1960, Tanaka Ikko cofounded the Nippon Design Center. By 1963, at Tanaka Ikko established his own design firm. Despite his youth, Tanaka Ikko was heavily involved in the creation of Japanese design culture and industry.

[QUOTE: “I was born in Nara, an ancient city where the most ancient traditions of Japan are sustained. I studied in Kyoto, another center of the oldest thought. So I have never been able to detach myself from the old traditions. By the time I moved to Tokyo in 1957 — an international place by then — I brought everything these traditions had taught me.”]

Tanaka Ikko’s Design Ethos

Throughout his career, Tanaka Ikko refrained from developing a distinguishable style. If two of his poster’s were laid side-by-side, he wouldn’t want one to know that both posters were done by him. Tanaka Ikko’s desire to create work that stands on its own is derived from the ancient traditions of Japanese theater. In particular, his attitude is similar to the role played by the ‘bakeyakusha’ or phantom actor in traditional Japanese theater. This is a term is used to describe the multi-role actor who wears many different masks to play the parts of several characters. Tanaka Ikko saw many parallels between his role as a designer and the role of a phantom actor in traditional Japanese theater. (Although Tanaka Ikko played the role required by the particular design brief at hand, it is difficult to argue that the work he produced didn’t have an unmistakably style. It could be said that Tanaka Ikko wore many design masks throughout his career, or none at all.)

Tanaka Ikko was also heavily influenced by spirituality, which he wrote about in his short essay, “Simplification and Design.” In this essay, Tanaka Ikko expressed his thoughts on topics ranging from art and design to spirituality and simplicity. [QUOTE: “Japanese arts aims at making it possible to experience spirituality — something that could never be captured by form — by striving to eliminate everything useless and superfluous, helping the comprehension of the essence of thought.”] It is from this influence of spirituality on art and design that Tanaka Ikko derived his idea of simplicity. Tanaka Ikko saw simplicity not as the absence of things but as space representing a multitude of things and ideas. (I think that his idea of simplicity is spiritual in essence, because like spirituality, simplicity is not a tangible thing.)

Tanaka Ikko’s design work was also influenced by the ancient Japanese Tea Ceremony. It taught him to appreciate the beauty of simple things. There is a parallel between the careful preparation required by the host of the Tea Ceremony and the way in which Tanaka Ikko approached his own work. He took great care in welcoming the viewer into his work. His attention to detail grounded in tradition and rational approach is readily apparent in his work. As viewers, we are invited to partake in his presentation of Japanese culture.

The Work of Tanaka Ikko

[QUOTE: “Tanaka Ikko is synonymous with the very best — the highest standards of graphic design from Japan… In the forty or so years that I have been familiar with Tanaka and his work, he simply hasn’t missed a beat. His work is unique now, in the 1990s, and was so in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Ikko is timeless. For four decades this has been true — and it will continue to be so.” — Lou Dorfsman, New York, October 1997]

[QUOTE: Tanaka Ikko is, to be sure, the most powerful force in Japanese graphic design. He is no less a force in the entire world, where with all the best designers of the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, he still stands at the top…Ikko is in control of color, calligraphy, form, and composition… He has a rare gift, given to him who know why. We are the recipients of this talent and we are grateful.” — Ivan Chermayeff, New York, October 1997]

Tanaka Ikko on Posters and Japanese Culture

The following is an excerpt from a lecture given by Tanaka Ikko at the Aula Magna at Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice, in March 1996. Tanaka Ikko traces the history of the poster in modern Japanese society back to ancient Japanese culture. He describes the similarities between the poster and other Japanese art forms. Tanaka also explains the Japanese poster’s emphasis on visual pleasure and beauty, or kirei.

[EXCERPT: The poster is, of course, a two dimensional flat surface using paper as its medium. Its message is presented as a concentrated essence from which all superfluities have been shorn, much in the manner of short Japanese literacy forms such as the haiku and the tanka. The simple, concise and symbolic concentration which is the essence of the poster has much in common with the symbolic approach underlying Japanese family crests, which reached their peak of sophistication during the Edo period. Also, in the sense that posters are decorative pictures designed to adorn walls, they can be associated with Japanese taste and a specific tradition within Japanese art history. 
 Japanese posters differ extensively from those of Europe, in particular Eastern Europe, in respect to how they transmit information. Images such as body parts and blood are almost never found in Japanese posters. Designers of Japanese posters tend to avoid realism: to create a strong impact they are more likely to have recourse to beauty as represented by the concept of kirei rather than to cruel and violent situations.]

[QUOTE: “Japanese package design has always seemed to me to be excessive and much too decorative. This is not really what design is about. For me, design is a matter of adding colors and patterns to a given form, and I therefore feel that this basic quality of design is being misunderstood design should remain more closely linked to function. Even a total lack of decoration can, provided it is underpinned by necessity, constitute an outstanding example of design. In this age of excess packaging, patterns and coloration, I feel that if anything, the absence of patterns and colors is likely to create the freshest and most immediate effect.” — Tanaka Ikko.]

[QUOTE: “When I was working on the butterfly design for Mori Hanae, I began to think about how Kandinsky would have depicted it. I decided to draw their natural curves as straight lines. There was no real logic behind linking Mori Hanae and Kandinsky who provided me with the unlikely inspiration for this particular design.” — Tanaka Ikko]

Influence and Impact

Tanaka Ikko’s influence on Japanese graphic design is still felt today. His influence extends past Japan, reaching beyond the United States and Europe, to encompass the discipline as a whole. Tanaka Ikko was also responsible for changing western perception of Japanese graphic design. He first introduced the western world to Japanese graphic design in 1960 with the World Graphic Design exhibition that was held in the Mitsukoshi department store. Perhaps the most influential exhibition that Tanaka Ikko organized was the “Persona Exhibition” in 1965. For this exhibition, Tanaka invited 16 western designers to exhibit their work alongside Japanese designers in Tokyo. The success of this exhibition launched the careers of both western and Japanese designers. 
 Tanaka Ikko is thought of highly by many of the contemporaries he forged friendships with. Some of his contemporaries included Kamekura Yusaku, Hayakawa Yoshio, and Honami Koetsu. Together with these other prominent Japanese designers, Tanaka Ikko confounded the Nippon Design center. He also developed meaningful relationships with Ivan Chermayeff and Lou Dorfsman, whom he met on a trip to New York after hosting the “Persona Exhibit. Masaru Katsumi was an influential critic co-hosted the “Persona Exhibit” with Tanaka Ikko. A particularly prominent contemporary of Tanaka Ikko was Kenya Hara. Tanaka Ikko and Kenya Hara were connected through their work for the brand MUJI. Tanaka Ikko was Muji’s first creative director and is responsible for developing the brand’s design ethos. Kenya Hara is Muji’s second creative director after inheriting the positon from Tanaka in 2001. Since then, Kenya Hara has expanded upon Tanaka’s ethos.

Tanaka Ikko was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Advertising Director’s Club of New York in 1994 for his contributions and commitment to design. Tanaka Ikko’s work transcended language, his strong images communicated beyond the limitations of the written word. 
 Tanaka Ikko passed away on January 10th, 2002.

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