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Thursday, Nov. 24, 2005

Designing the perfect balance

Special to The Japan Times

Of all contemporary arts, design exists, at least perceptually, the closest to the money-making principle. Whether it be graphic, interior or product design, the step from the drafting board to the store shelf is seemingly the most transparent, and design -- whether it is experienced at the local konbini, Muji or Cibone or appreciated in a clever ramen package, on a cool T-shirt or in a swank interior -- is a significant part of our lives.

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The 100% Design Bar by Heartland in Jingu-Gaien, which was part of the massive gathering of events under the umbrella of Tokyo Design Week, which ended Nov. 6.

In many ways, designers are the most practical of artists. Their creations must often be functional and, ultimately, they require a distributor to get them out the door and into your living room, kitchen or garage. However, unfettered creativity and pure aesthetics are also a crucial element of the design equation.

And, thus, there is a balance between the two -- art and commerce -- that attends any get-together of designers. On one side is the inclination to see products in an aesthetic light; on the other, the desire to make a profit. It is understandable, then, that any design event would be held in commercial venues, while being surrounded by more philosophical, conceptual conversations among participants.

Every fall in Tokyo, for 20 years now, the Tokyo Designer's Week has been on the list of the season's big events. Bumping shoulders with the Tokyo Internationl Film Festival and the Tokyo Motor Show, the designers' event distinguishes itself both in its focus and its exposure. The work of designers is not just to be seen, but to be used, in both daily and business life, so appropriately, much of the event plays out in shops, trade halls and embassies.

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CMY Rainbow party tray set by ten-sen (top); the Swedish Style booth at 100% Design (bottom top); and the "Day and Night" exhibition of lights by Mile at Sign cafe in Aoyama.
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This year Tokyo Designer's Week was accompanied by three other major events: 100% Design, a renowned U.K. show that leans toward a trade-show atmosphere; Swedish Style, which actively promotes Swedish design companies and individual designers in Japan; and Design Tide, a more adventurous undertaking that unfolded across multiple commercial locations. All combined, they were referred to, somewhat confusingly, as Tokyo Design Week (TDW). Acting as a sort of biennale or triennale for the design world, the staging of the simultaneous events, a relatively new phenomenon, has brought an air of authority to the event and turned Tokyo into the place to be for those with an eye on design.

While acting as a public celebration of design, the week, perhaps more importantly, gives creators and buyers a chance to get together and do business. Hence the need to differentiate the event from a simple series of exhibitions aimed at a general public, and to ensure the fulfillment of the needs of professionals involved. Think of the Cannes Film Festival, which annually celebrates the works of young and veteran filmmakers alike, while providing an important market where the industry can makes deals. TDW is going for the same synergy.

The Tokyo debut of London's celebrated 100% Design, with its showcase of interior-related accessories and furnishings, has certainly contributed to the new commercial focus, and the six-year-old Swedish Style continues to do much to help Swedish designers build awareness of their creations in Japan.

And despite its more "underground" and conceptual vibe, the inaugural edition of Design Tide (unofficially replacing previous years' Designers' Block), certainly had sales and brand-awareness in mind by placing itself in existing shops and cafes.

Designed to sell

With 100% Design's meeting "lounge" on the premises and industry-only events, the event was obviously on a mission to bring together potential business partners. And the convention-like set-up was surely attractive to designers, especially struggling ones, looking to build interest and find distributors.

Kyoto-based pd DESIGN, comprised of designers Izumi Hamada and Hideo Hashimoto, had skipped showing at TDW in past years and instead journeyed overseas to show at trade exhibitions. A desire to promote their products in the domestic market, however, led to their participation in 100% Design this year.

"A 'celebration' element is important, but it isn't reason enough to justify a professional design show," Hamada explained. Although the duo are happy with the event's stronger trade focus, she wouldn't call it a complete success, saying they wished "the separation between the celebration and business was made clearer," and that their future participation depends on the concrete results from this year's schmoozing.

100% Design wasn't necessarily an altruistic venture aimed at giving smaller, not-yet established talent a helping hand. On top of 30,000 yen entry fees, booth space at 100% Design went for 70,000 yen per square meter -- not a problem if you're a furniture giant such as the Bals Corporation but a huge chunk of an independent designer's budget.

Toward the end of the closing day, designers who wanted to get their money's worth were frantically running around, trying to get any and all press/buyers to visit their booths.

Good exposure, of course, is often worth the investment and this year's design events seemed to have paid off for some.

"Many designers started selling their own products during the show. It was almost unexpected," said designer Yoshino Fukuma of ten-sen, another first-time participant.

Not all about money

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Tokyo Design Week visitors check out the "Swedish Conceptual Design Exhibition" at the Embassy of Sweden (top) and gaze into House Styling's container at the LOHAS Container Village in Jingu-Gaien.
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While there was a strong whiff of commercialism in the air, much of it was limited to interior-related events. However, just by roaming the streets of Aoyama and Harajuku and taking in some of the exhibitions at smaller venues, though, it quickly became apparent that TDW also provides excellent opportunity for designers to experiment and play, while testing the local waters.

Take, for instance, the intersection of food preparation and design found at "Fresh Touch," a French-Japanese collaboration. A good part of the budget went toward the opening-night party, a feast for both the eyes and the stomach. In a space in Laune Galerie in Omotesando, which was full of attractive interior accessories, an endless parade of food items was cleverly displayed and served. Deli meats for sandwiches were cut from large hanging sheets and wine came in flower-shaped glasses, and pretty much everything -- even the plates -- was edible.

According to the exhibition's art director Virginie Lavey, plans are already in the works for more such food-design events. "We would like to work more with Japanese chefs and designers," she said.

Some product designers made their presence felt with gallery-like installations. At the Sign cafe's basement gallery space in Aoyama, design unit Mile created an installation called "Day and Night," in which tiny suspended magnetic spheres would light up when a viewer lowered them to a metallic base. "Poetic correctness and space composition" is how Mile's Kozo Shimoyama described the themes of the piece -- not exactly a pitch for the board room but definitely beautiful design.

At the Swedish Embassy, "Swedish Conceptual Design" grouped an interesting mix of six top Swedish designers, such as Johan Ridderstrale, Mats Broberg and Victor Peters. Their works, which were the kind you'd see in an art installation, were displayed in a space enveloped by a bubble-shaped foam pattern. It was a far cry from the interior-heavy tone of the week -- and very refreshing.

In the public interests

In the end, an event like TDW succeeds or fails on public interest. Swedish designer Jesper Larsson, who created a temporary Swedish cafe in Ikebukuro, was taken aback by the extremely positive reception of a speech he gave at a Swedish Style-related talk at Shinjuku's OZONE Living Design Center: "The response to my speech was really overwhelming. Hundreds of people lined up afterward just to thank me for such an inspirational speech. I hadn't seen that happen anywhere in the world before."

With packed parties -- the Swedish Embassy's bash drew in more than a thousand revelers -- and long queues forming for certain exhibitions, there's no doubt that an audience hungry for design-related events exists.

For exhibitors, it offered an opportunity to get in touch with this audience. "This event was a chance for me to share my vision of light with the Japanese community," said designer Chihiro Tanaka, who exhibited his Spore lighting concept. "Of course, I participated hoping to further my career, but it was also satisfying to show others a glimpse of my dream."

However, to call this year's TDW a resounding success would be a slight exaggeration. Indeed, there were grumbles about the previously mentioned high participation fees, and calls for a greater emphasis on the designers themselves.

And the popular "Container Exhibition," composed of large converted shipping containers, was a hit-or-miss affair, with corporate goals occasionally getting in the way of the fun. Branded content in a playground atmosphere may work for some, but many things in this exhibition could have been pushed further.

All in all, it would seem that Tokyo Design Week accomplished its mission: bring design to a wider audience, while nurturing a viable business forum for everyone. The main challenge for this sprawling collection of events was a symbiotic relationship, mutually beneficial to both sides. It's debatable whether this goal was achieved, but a few things are certain: The 2005 edition of TDW left its mark on the city, boosted the profile of the design overall and cemented its place on the city's event calendar.

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