Love, Peace & Money?

by Julian Worrall and Mark Dytham

Tokyo Design Week brings together international and local designers, manufacturers, retailers and entrepreneurs for a raft of exhibitions, gatherings and design-related events, and, of course, parties — wherever designers get together, a party is not too far away. But apart from the civilized pleasure of tripping from opening to opening in the backstreets of Aoyama on a hazy cushion of bubbly, what is TDW all about? The Japan Times ran the champagne gauntlet, slipped behind the designer shades, and tried to find out what’s on the minds of some of the influential denizens of this well-dressed demimonde.

Where does TDW sit in the international circuit of design events? Justin McGuirk, an editor at London-based architecture and design magazine Icon, is one of those visitors who has flown in to see what’s happening. We caught up with him at the opening of the exhibition of “Love & Money: UK Design Now” at the Ozone Living Design Centre in West Shinjuku. He’d just stepped off the plane when we asked him what he thought design in Tokyo had to offer the world.

“At Icon we regard what’s going on in Tokyo as one of the key cultural reference points for the world of contemporary design, along with Milan and London (home-base plug!). While it’s not really a place where international designers come to launch things, it is certainly a place that designers love to be.”

But what makes Japan’s design scene so interesting abroad?

McGuirk says, “Tokyo is highly stimulating. There is a rich visual culture here, part of which the rest of the world has recently been discovering through the export of the intricate graphic worlds of anime and computer gaming. But other things are just as important — the hybridity of Japanese contemporary culture; the high production values; and sophisticated and discerning consumers. The fact that there are a lot of reasonably well off people is, of course, not irrelevant.”

Christine Losecaat, one of the organizers of the UK Design event and an adviser to the trade and investment promotion body of the UK government agrees that it is connected to cultural factors. She says, “Japan is seen as a design-savvy country. This is more than just the discerning Japanese eye for the fashionable and contemporary. There is a depth of appreciation in Japan for the qualities of a man-made artifact that is rooted in a long tradition of craftsmanship and connoisseurship.”

So what do people think is worth checking out this year? Well, there is definitely a buzz around the Swedes — particularly an outfit called Front. A female foursome from Sweden, Front produce their designs by sketching furniture in mid-air while a computer tracks their motions and reproduces them in a bath of thermoplastic with a laser. Front will be demonstrating their technique at Tokyo Wonder Site Aoyama.

Teruo Kurosaki is one of the key figures catalyzing the local design culture and building bridges between it and the rest of the world. After starting Idee, the design-focused manufacturer and retailer, in the 1990s, in 2000 he created Tokyo Designer’s Block, an annual “street festival” of design that seeks to raise awareness of the role that design can play in re-scripting people’s lifestyles. In 2005, Tokyo Designers Block morphed into the current “Design Tide.” We asked him what he thought the current trends were in contemporary design.

“What is happening to design is that it is no longer concerned primarily with form. It is more about communication and media. In the early days, events such as Tokyo Designers Block sought to showcase new furniture. But now they seek to create situations in the city. And simultaneously the scope of design has expanded to include interior design, product design, and even communication design.”

We also asked what distinguished the event from others around the world.

Kurosaki agrees that the significance of TDW is to be measured culturally, not in terms of business volume. Part of the attraction lies in the city itself.

He says, “Tokyo is the only event from Asia that is really established on the international design scene. In London or Milan, everything is upfront, in the show-window, or on the main road. Tokyo has this Asian quality, in which all of the most interesting stuff is found in the ura areas — in all the little streets, shops and galleries behind the main facades.”

If Tokyo is distinctive because of its “Asian” qualities, the question of China is inevitably raised. Everyone we spoke to agreed that a visible Chinese design culture has yet to be established. The lack of protection for intellectual property rights was seen as a major factor hampering the growth of a confident Chinese design scene. This represents a striking contrast with the vigor and visibility of the contemporary-art scene in China. Indeed, the relative positions of design and art appear to be reversed in Japan and China.

Kurosaki is an infamous optimist. He sees design as capable of bearing positive messages and engendering meaningful changes in the world. This year’s Design Tide has gathered together 53 designers to respond to the theme of “Design & Peace.” Kurosaki says “There needs to be a redefinition of peace, so that it can become part of people’s lives and change them for the better. Designers can help this process. Peace needs a new logo.”

We can’t help raising our eyebrows at this idea. When asked why China’s art scene was much more advanced than Japan’s, while its design scene was moribund, Kurosaki suggested provocatively: “Art is political.” Pushing a bit, we asked: “But can’t design be political, too?”

Chuckling, Kurosaki replies, “Design? Design is commercial.”

Love and Peace, yes — but don’t forget our old friend Money.