Art director Hideki Nakajima throws down the gauntlet of design

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

In Hiroshima the sun is setting on a large retrospective exhibition by one of Japan’s leading graphic designers, who for the past 20 years has been working at the edge of his discipline, carving out a unique niche for himself within a very prescribed industry.

Born in Saitama Prefecture, Hideki Nakajima grew up aspiring to be an illustrator, but changed his mind after finding a record sleeve designed by British graphic designer Peter Saville. He realized that he could do more as a graphic designer than as an illustrator. That led to a plethora of diverse work with a number of talented collaborators including musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Nakajima Design was established in 1995 and he continues designing album sleeves, books and an extensive array of personal artwork. His visually arresting imagery has garnered him much acclaim, not to mention the New York Art Directors Club Gold Medal in 1996 and countless other awards.

The exhibition takes place on a quiet backstreet tucked between surrounding houses and a neighboring school. The gallery, Daiwa Press Viewing Room, started life in 1953 as a Tokyo-based manufacturer of car radiators (Daiwa Radiator Factory). It moved to its present home of Hiroshima some 20 years later. Company president Tatsumi Sato has been passionately collecting art ever since the early 1980s and he now uses the gallery to store his collection and show artists he publishes.

Over the past 10 years, Sato has provided support for art-book publishing as Daiwa Press Co., Ltd., enlisting, when able, Nakajima’s art-direction and design. So far, it has published 40 books including photographer Daido Moriyama’s complete works and Jiro Takamatsu’s complete drawings. The Viewing Room has held 13 shows, most notably by British contemporary artist Ryan Gander who is due to return later this year. This latest exhibition by Nakajima is a retrospective of the artist’s career to date.

The range of work is immense — from large screen prints, typography and minutely detailed packaging for cosmetics company Shu Uemera to curatorial art-direction of CUT magazine and slogan-filled sculptures near the gallery’s entrance. It is CUT that draws together the disparate elements, combining text with image and treating the page as pure visual space in the tradition of adventurous foreign magazines. Britain’s The Face magazine and America’s Ray-Gun, for example, were undoubtedly an influence with their own unashamedly exotic and visually ambiguous style.

Consistently challenging his industry, Nakajima works to express the atmosphere and experience of visual media. Graphic design is about communicating regardless of where it is, be it Japan or elsewhere. The spoken word is specific to country; the language of image is universal. Through the influence and admiration of fellow designers, musicians, artists, filmmakers and writers who use their skill to challenge their industries, Nakajima likewise challenges with curiosity, elegance and grace.

“Hideki Nakajima 1992-2012″ at Daiwa Press Viewing Room, Hiroshima, runs till Aug. 31; private viewing only; free admission. To book a viewing, contact Miwa Suzuki at suzuki@daiwa.po-jp.com. For more information about Hideki Nakajima, visit www.nkjm-d.com.