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Series: Support Lines for Things and People #10: Ikko Tanaka's Humming

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Mai Tsunoo / Design Writer
Mai Tsunoo / Design Writer

After graduating from Keio University's Faculty of Environmental Information, worked for a manufacturer and served as assistant to design engineer Shunjji Yamanaka from 2012 to 2016. Later, she stayed in Scotland for a year and is currently working as a freelancer.
While seeking expressions to convey concept without hesitation, she writes for media such as "Nikkei Design", and also works on composition for exhibitions and copywriting.
Major works include the composition of the "もしかする未来 工学×デザイン" exhibition celebrating Tokyo Tech's 70th anniversary at the National Art Center, Tokyo in 2018 and text writing for the "虫展―デザインのお手本" at the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT in 2019.
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I got off at Nara station and took a short walk, and there were deer. I was surprised as I didn't expect to see them so soon. The reason I went to Nara this month is because there is an exhibition called "Ikko Tanaka: Design of Happiness" at the Nara Prefectural Museum of Art. I arrived at the museum in about 10 minutes' walk from the station. Sento was there to greet me.
The late Ikko Tanaka, a graphic designer, was from Nara Prefecture, and the museum has collected more than 200 of his works. This exhibition is a major event, featuring about 180 selected works divided into several genres, such as faces, plants, text, and logos.
The exhibition showcased grouped pieces featuring his iconic face motif, linear flowing water motifs presumably inspired by Rinpa school, posters featuring his original font "Kocho", and other iconic motifs such as pyramids and ropes. Each individual piece seems familiar, but when viewed as a whole, one gets a sense of the subjects, techniques, and attitudes that Tanaka was addressing.
Tanaka wrote many essays, and in his book "デザインの仕事机から", he described his attitude towards design as follows:
"Design should not be a torment. If you suffer, you will fall deeper and deeper into it and won't be able to get out. If you're cornered, you'll be crushed. It's better to do it while humming. The result will have more freshness."
Ikko Tanaka (1990) "デザインの仕事机から" p.75 Hakusuisha Publishing Co., Ltd.
I don't know if he really worked on his works while humming (the next line in the text actually reads, "Having said that, one cannot always work while humming."), but I imagine that what many people feel when they see the works at the show is an impression of positivity and strength, given the richness of colors, the dynamism of the compositions, and the relentless exploration of motifs. Purely empowering design is actually a rare existence.
Before going to the exhibition, I had learned a few things. The influence of the Rinpa school is well known, but the experience of editing the book series "Japanese Patterns" with Mitsukuni Yoshida and others was also significant. The Pyramid series was, in a sense, a counterpoint to the trend of photography-centered poster expressions in the 70s. Interactions with Jiro Yoshihara, famous for his concrete art, contributed to enhancing the originality of his design and graphic art. The stance towards design that emerged little by little from Tanaka's own records and surrounding documents seemed to validate my learning at the exhibition.
Tanaka is well-known for his collaboration with Issey Miyake, and the archives of "IKKO TANAKA ISSEY MIYAKE" are available for viewing at the exhibition. They are precious collections that are now prized. Outside the venue, there was also a special exhibition of posters designed by Tanaka using photos taken by Irving Penn of Issey Miyake's clothing.
Last year, IKKO TANAKA ISSEY MIYAKE Vol. 06 was released, and I had the opportunity to be involved in the writing of the text at the request of Issey Miyake. At that time, I learned a little about Tanaka's career and works. The dress with the motif of "Purple Iris" and the coat of "Red and White Camellia", both inspired by the ceramic tiles installed at Narita Airport, correspond to Vol. 06. The design is not only graphic, but the shape of the ceramic tiles themselves become the structure of the clothes.
While perusing a vast and impressive array of posters and design diagrams, I couldn't help but imagine the degree of solitude that all these creators, so immersed in expressions and designs, must have experienced, an aspect not reflected in their pieces. Upon returning home and re-reading an essay, I noticed the following sentence immediately after a quote from the book mentioned above:
"True creation is hard to hope for solidarity. Ideas are events that only happen to one person."
This is a rare opportunity to get a comprehensive view of the archives of Ikko Tanaka, who built an era of graphic design. From the logo designs of Muji and LOFT to his personal graphic artwork, you can experience the enduring power of design at this event.

Exhibition Information
Special Exhibition: Ikko Tanaka – Design of Happiness
Nara Prefectural Museum of Art
April 22 (Saturday) - June 11 (Sunday), 2023 (Closed on Mondays)
9:00am - 5:00pm (Last entry time 4:30pm)

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