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Friday, Sept. 17, 2010

News photo
High-flying design: Interior designer Isamu Kenmochi, artist Matazo Kayama and textile designer Tsuneko Fujimoto collaborated on the design for JAL's first-class lounge when the airline introduced Boeing 747s on their international routes in 1968. JAPAN INTERIOR DESIGNERS' ASSOCIATION, KENMOCHI DESIGN ASSOCIATES, YASUHIRO ISHIMOTO PHOTO

New exhibition anticipates a design museum for Japan

Staff writer

In March, with the opening of the Design Museum Holon, Israel added its name to a long list of countries that have at least one full-fledged museum dedicated to design. Japan, despite its reputation as a design powerhouse — hard-earned during the 20th century by innovative work such as Sony's Walkman, Issey Miyake's Pleats Please fashion, buildings by architect Tadao Ando and much more — is not on the list, and it is unlikely it will be joining anytime soon.

But, there's no rule against dreaming. And it was the dream that Japan will eventually establish such a museum — and thus join the ranks of Britain, the United States, Finland, Israel and many other countries — that was the catalyst and the guiding principle for an exhibition now being held at Mikimoto Hall in Tokyo's Ginza district.

"Design: '60s vs. '00s," as the exhibition is called, is organized by D-8, or the Japan Design Association Meeting — an umbrella group of eight national designers' associations that represent practitioners working in the fields of graphic, industrial, interior, display, craft, jewelry, package and sign design. D-8 started back in 1966 and it was in 2001 that they began discussing what they now call the "Japan Design Museum Plan."

"To stock and archive examples of Japanese design; to question the meaning of design and disseminate information about it in Japan and abroad; to usher in a true 'age of design': For these reasons, D-8 aims to realize a 'Japan Design Museum'."

So says the written summary of D-8's plan. As a group of design associations, D-8 lacks the funds to build a museum at any significant scale itself. Hence its activities have been limited essentially to raising awareness. Since 2006, they have held a series of talk events and now they are holding an exhibition.

"Design: '60s vs. '00s," which features representative works from two decades in Japan's design history, offers a clue as to what the Japan Design Museum — should it ever be realized — might look like.

The 1960s section includes dozens of examples of designs that represent the first postwar awakenings of Japan as an affluent, industrial and economic superpower. There are the very graphical, depth-erasing treatments for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics printed matter; the still-in-use 150 ml Kikkoman soy sauce dispenser, from 1961; a model of the first shinkansen (bullet train), from 1964; one of cosmetics company Shiseido's early hits, Sun Oil, from 1965; designs for Japan Airline's 747 first-class lounge, from 1968; Nissin cup noodle packages, from 1971, and much more.

Yuko Hashimoto, the Utsunomiya Museum of Art-based curator who helped plan the exhibition, explains that much of the research that went into this exhibition would prove useful should a design museum ever be made.

"Objects from the 1960s are just starting to become rare," Hashimoto said. "With some of the exhibits, such as the Tokyo Olympic pamphlets, it is still possible to find them in secondhand bookshops." The exhibition reminds people that they have to start preserving such items now, she explained.

One significant achievement that came out of the exhibition preparations was the discovery of several important examples of packaging from the '60s. "It's always hard to locate good examples of packaging," Hashimoto said, "because it was essentially made to be thrown away." The original Kikkoman bottle included in the exhibition is the property of a designer who Hashimoto located and who, she suspects, hung on to it all these years as a reference for his own work.

While exhibits from the '60s will no doubt prove popular with the public for their element of nostalgia, it is the section on the 2000s that presented Hashimoto with the greatest challenge and that also provides a clue as to the most crucial part of a dedicated design museum's role.

Hashimoto said that one of the best examples of a design museum in the world is the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The reason, she said, is that "Design as we know it today really emerged with the industrial age, and the V&A has been around from the beginning of that age, collecting important works in real time."

What a dedicated design museum in Japan would offer — and what the '00s section in this show gives us a taste of — is a venue where well-informed professionals can sift through the mass of design materials being produced in Japan every year and think about which of it is important and why.

The '00s section in the current exhibition includes works such as the simple, graphical visual treatments made by Kashiwa Sato in 2000 for the pop band Smap; a model of the second generation Toyota Prius, from 2003; Sony Computer Entertainment's PlayStation Portable game console from 2004; the Train Channel digital signs used on Japan Rail's Yamanote Line; and Coca Cola (Japan)'s lightweight, squashable I Lohas PET bottles from 2009.

The Train Channel digital signage system (displayed on screens above the train doors) tells passengers what station is next, the locations of stairways and elevators on each platform and much more.

"In the past, signs like those used in trains were static," Hashimoto said. "The Train Channel contents are an early example of what will become more common in the future — they are dynamic, easy to read and convey a large quantity of information."

Digging deeper, Hashimoto speculated that mobile telephones have conditioned contemporary commuters to expect and make use of the quantities of information that Train Channel offers. "There wouldn't have been a need for something like this 15 years ago," Hashimoto said.

D-8's efforts to have a design museum established have in fact mirrored similar calls from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — the ministry under whose jurisdiction each of D-8's component associations fall. The problem, however, is that the actual creation of a museum would not be the task of METI, but of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and although the Agency has toyed with the idea at think-tank level, it has never been made policy (and it's unlikely it will anytime soon, considering the Agency's failed attempt to make a new museum for "media art" last year).

Still, Hashimoto thinks it's important to keep pushing for increased awareness about the need for such a facility.

"There are art museums and history museums, so, yes, I think Japan needs a design museum," she said. "People can go through life without ever having a work of art in their house, but people are always surrounded by design items, and some of them are very good, they just don't realize it."

"Design '60s vs. '00s" runs till Sept. 28 at Mikimoto Hall, Ginza; admission ¥1,000; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. For more information, visit www.jagda.org/d-8

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