The idea of a retrospective makes me nervous. Simply put, it often signals the end of something. So in the case of a designer’s show, a retrospective feels like a parting shot, final note or a bid farewell. Not what you want if your motivation is continuous relevance.

Visiting the latest show at 21_21 Design Sight, therefore, comes with a sense of trepidation. Designed by Tadao Ando in 2007, the gallery aims to serve and promote the best of Japanese design and designers. Seen through the eyes of exhibition director Kazuko Koike, designer Masaaki Hinomura (previously a member of Ikko Tanaka design studio) and a younger contingent of special contributors, the current Ikko Tanaka exhibition looks beyond the man himself and toward the future generation his work has influenced. Although the venue’s reverence is more than noticeable, the exhibition holds its own in such weighty surroundings, presenting both Tanaka and his lifetime of achievement.

The show is split into three main areas. Gallery 1 concentrates on book work, with books displayed like objects, showing slipcases and inner-sleeves, and black-boxed vitrines of found material that were used to create the cover image of “The Japanese Annual of Illustration ’68.”

Gallery 2 on the other hand is divided into themes, each one exploring a certain area of activity or period of Tanaka’s career, from the gamut and range of his posters with their visual propaganda and carefully executed composition, to the show he curated at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 1980 titled “Japan Style.” An atrium space leads you in and then bids you farewell with a collection of personal photographs and color experiments. Each part demonstrates how sophisticated Tanaka’s visual expression could be, promoting Japanese aesthetic culture further afield.

The image of brands such as Seibu and the globally recognized Mujirushi Ryohin (MUJI) partly owe their successes to the way Tanaka dictated not only the detail of their corporate identity but their overall appearance with signage and packaging design, both elements of which remain in use. As a figurehead he was unfussed with his own status and cared little for his reputation. He very rarely gave lectures or spoke publicly. He was more concerned with, and interested in, people bringing others together to form a strong cultural backdrop that is now best represented by the Japan Graphic Designers Association Inc. (JAGDA) or Ginza Graphic Gallery (GGG). Although not directly responsible for the galleries, his influence is clear, with his wish to have somewhere the creative community could gather realized.

The show traverses process as much as it does finished pieces. Early printing proofs and mocked-up posters, original illustration, cut-and-paste typography on tissue paper, cartridge and black ink all come together in various states of construction. The book “Moments preserved” by photographer Irving Penn, gives the game away, as do the periodicals “Gutai,” “Eros” and an “Annual of Illustration,” all capturing more cerebral imagery and turning what could simply be solid coffee-table objects into powerful realizations of ideas, dreams and worldly statements as seen through his sympathetic eye.

These objects, however, only provide half the story. The show is more about the future. Design education is as much about meeting people as it is about sitting in a classroom, and perhaps more importantly learning from each other. New work by Issey Miyake’s Reality Lab research studio and the design group ‘Semitransparent’ form this thread, binding Tanaka with what follows him. Both groups ask questions about Tanaka’s work, about what it means 10 years after his passing and though they would have benefited from more space at the gallery, they both explore with purpose. “Semitransparent” captures visitors through a camera mounted on the wall behind and merges it with Tanaka’s 1981 “Nihon Buyo” poster for UCLA Asian Performing Institute. Interference and degraded imagery reveal new unexpected elements of Tanaka’s color palette with a rougher, bolder approach to abstract form-giving. Meanwhile, Reality Lab lay out crisp fabric on a white slab. Dyed and folded, cloth patterns reveal Tanaka’s influence and friendship, making his personality almost wearable, for the time being.

These speculative works, along with other touching moments elsewhere, offer the hope that the show represents not so much a conclusion to Tanaka’s story but its continuation, with a passion equal to his own. “My Ikko-san” is a wonderful photographic slideshow gathering together an unparalleled family album that somehow dovetails the visitor with Tanaka himself. There is no mythologizing his past or even the present. These photographs are testament to that.

While his career clearly influenced others, his work, now seemingly familiar and accepted, was once as uncompromising as it was adventurous, a sentiment not lost on a generation of designers that follow him. As Japan wrestles with its own identity both past, present and future, we are left to reflect on this vicarious culture and its influence, realizing like Tanaka did that the future is basically unwritten and waiting to be established.

“Ikko Tanaka, The Future, Past, East and West of Design” at 21_21 Design Sight runs till Jan. 20; open 11:00 a.m.-8 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Tue. www.2121designsight.jp/program/ikko_tanaka.

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