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An ode to Japan’s vibrant, influential graphic design culture

Nearly a century of branding, advertising, and graphic art are showcased in a new exhibit celebrating Japanese designers.

Japanese media has long been celebrated for its uniquely graphic visual language. Think of Takashi Murakami’s colorful “superflat” flowers, or the bright, bold storytelling of manga. Or take the work of Shigeru Watano, the Japanese graphic designer who was known for his vibrant approach to advertising—and for bringing his native Japanese design sensibilities to the Netherlands, where he lived.

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Yusaku Kamekura, Nikon SP, 1957. [Image: courtesy Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam]
In celebration of the late designer’s artistic legacy, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum recently opened an exhibit called Colorful Japan: a creatively curated display of Japanese branding and poster culture. Watano, who died in 2012, was a friend of the Dutch museum, and facilitated several relationships between the Stedelijk and Japanese designers. These relationships allowed the museum to acquire a treasure trove of Japanese art, often donated by the designers themselves. As a result, there are currently 800 Japanese posters in the Stedelijk’s collection—the most of any European institution.

Curator Carolien Glazenburg spoke to It’s Nice That about the exhibit, detailing Watano’s work in the Netherlands. “Shigeru Watano worked as a graphic designer in Amsterdam,” Glazenburg told the site. “He was a go-between, an ambassador for Japan and the Netherlands. It was with his help that the museum exhibited the work of graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo in 1974 at the Stedelijk, which was Yokoo’s first exhibition in Europe. I wanted to thank Watano posthumously for his lifetime efforts to enrich our collections and for introducing Dutch graphic design in Japan.”

Work by an all-star team of designers, including the legendary Ikko Tanaka, is on display in the dynamic exhibit, which features 226 posters in all. The show is artfully organized not by date but by color and offers a vivid sampling of midcentury Japanese graphic design, like a 1957 example that uses a bold typeface to advertise Nikon’s newest camera and a colorblocked face symbolizing a traditional Noh performance. As the museum describes in a curatorial statement, the work highlights some of what makes Japanese branding and graphic design unique:

Compared to its European cousin, Japanese poster design is a relatively recent discipline. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that posters became used for advertising.The posters vary widely in style; some flaunt vivid tones, and others are quiet, reserved and minimal. Japanese designers explore a very different visual language to that found in Europe. Japanese visual culture is less direct and more nuanced, very often poetic. Meaning that, to our eyes, the image doesn’t always seem to match the subject, like a magnified character with a lyrical text for a pop concert, for instance.

Japanese characters play an important decorative role when positioned horizontally (European style) and vertically (the traditional Japanese manner). Particularly after World War II, designers use photography to great effect as the medium becomes rapidly accessible and Japanese manufacturers like Canon and Nikon became major players.

While not all Japanese visuals are unified by brilliant tones and strong lines (see: Ikko Tanaka’s subtle design work for the original anti-brand Muji), they are similar in their nuanced, meditative attention to detail and surprise. The poetics of Japanese design flow freely in the Stedelijk’s show, which runs through February 2020.

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