Tokyo Designers Week uses music, art as draws

by Cameron Allan Mckean

Special To The Japan Times

The definition of design in Japan is changing. Depending on who you speak to, what falls under its umbrella is either shrinking or expanding to include nearly all aspects of modern life.

This year’s edition of Tokyo Designers Week (TDW) would be in the latter camp. Spanning 30 sections over 10 days, it is the largest and most ambitious staging of the event since its inception in 1985.

“In the beginning it was just furniture, but now Tokyo Designers Week has expanded to include all types of genres,” TDW producer and founder Kenji Kawasaki tells The Japan Times from his office in the capital’s Aoyama district. The 25th anniversary of TDW in 2010 was large and organizers have tried to keep the event the same size ever since. But beginning this weekend, according to Kawasaki, “it expands even further.”

This year also sees a rebranding of the design fair into what Kawasaki calls a “creative festival” that has taken inspiration from music events such as Fuji Rock and traditional Japanese festivals. There will be a larger selection of food than in previous years, nightly music events, workshops and art exhibitions. An offshoot of the Sapporo Jazz Festival called Sapporo City Jazz in Tokyo will take place in a geodesic dome and feature acts such as the Ai Kuwabara Trio Project and Indigo Jam Unit.

TDW will also host the inaugural Asia Awards, a highly ambitious attempt to position Tokyo as the Asian hub of design. This section is being directed by architect Toyo Ito and art director Katsumi Asaba.

Although previous years have featured both music and art events, Kawasaki says the scale of how TDW is incorporating those art forms this year is a world first. The change came about due to the boost in attendance that music and art brought last year.

“If 100 people come for the music, then 10 people will come for the art and only one will come for the design,” says Kawasaki, admitting design is likely the weakest draw. “I don’t think of them as separate fields, they’re part of one field to me.”

Design Next and Container are two familiar sections from previous years that showcasing corporate and independent products and ideas. But even here designers are pushing the boundaries. Two examples from the Design Next pavilion are fluidDial, a clock made out of water by Seitaro Taniguchi, and the enchantMOON tablet, which claims to have “no user interface.” Takayuki Kawai has designed a chair that can be worn as a helmet in the event of a catastrophe such as an earthquake. He says that a new era of Japanese design is emerging that doesn’t borrow ideas from abroad, but has “an ‘only in Japan’ type of vibe.”

In Container, a group of emerging designers and brands will explore the theme of future living by redesigning the interior of a shipping container. Akinori Hamada and Alex Knezo, the two designers that comprise studio_01, have come up with a kinetic system that can create and divide space, a solution for living in a small apartment or house. The pair are on board with the idea of TDW as a creative, rather than design, festival.

“It seems the next appropriate step in revitalizing (TDW) is for it to depart from limiting the word ‘design’ to only our sense of sight and allow for it to relate to more of the activities that design our lives.”

Events will be a big draw this year, and one to look forward to is PechaKucha, a series of rapid-fire presentations by an “eclectic bunch, covering all fields,” according to executive director Jean Snow [who also writes The Japan Times' "On Design" column]. To Snow, expanded definitions of design are not as important as getting Japanese designers “more support to share their work with a non-Japanese audience.”

TDW will also focus more on art at this year’s edition, further expanding on the main concept of design specialization. Two years ago, Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo held an exhibition at TDW, which was followed up 2012 by a showcase of young artists produced by Internet gallery Tagboat, who will return to TDW this year. In this sense, TDW is starting to resemble Milan Design Week, with its inevitable spread to other creative genres of art.

Tagboat, like Kawasaki and many of the other participants, also has its eyes on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, during which various events will take place relating to art and design.

“As Asian leaders, Tokyo needs to establish a platform for the fields of art and design (now),” says Tagboat CEO Kenji Tokumitsu. “I think TDW should be the core event (of its kind in 2020).”

However, it still looks like it will be hard for TDW to shake off its trade-fair roots. The theme for this year’s art component is “Let’s buy art,” a profoundly unengaging theme that seems less of a framework for curation and more of a desperate plea.

Hamada and Kneza from studio_01 are still hopeful, though, that as TDW expands, Tokyo will evolve into a global design hub and become “not just be a place to show off ideas, but to begin them as well.”

Tokyo Designers Week takes place at Meiji-Jingu Gaien Mae from Oct. 26 to Nov. 4 (11 a.m. till 10 pm.; 6 p.m. on the last day). Tickets cost ¥2,000 in advance, ¥2,500 at the door (with discounts for students). For more information, visit www.tdwa.com.