To judge from the staid design work he churns out for many of Japan’s labor and environment public-service advertisements, you’d never guess that Tsuyoshi Suzuki is a spiky-haired hipster with a collection of 1950s American crockery.

Now, though, Suzuki is being revealed in all his stylishly eccentric glory — along with many others — as the JAGDA Calendar Salone 2011, a rare “trade fair” for graphic designers, kicks off at Midtown in the upscale Roppongi district of Tokyo.

Organized by the Japan Graphic Designers Association, the event aims to help the group’s 2,600 members promote themselves. As JAGDA Vice President Masuteru Aoba explained to The Japan Times last week: “For a long time, when the economy was good, Japan’s graphic designers didn’t really have to sell themselves. Jobs would come to them.”

But with advertising expenditure plummeting — particularly in the print-media sector on which most designers active today were weaned — the nation’s designers are having to change the way they work.

Late last year, each of JAGDA’s members was invited to submit proposals for 2011 calendars. A total of 94 took up the challenge. At Calendar Salone, which opened Thursday and runs through Tuesday, Feb. 23, the participating designers are able to shop their ideas directly to printing and advertising companies — and, they hope, glean some work.

“If you think about other industries, then the idea of a trade fair is totally obvious, but the fact is that something like this has never been held before for graphic designers,” Aoba explained.

Takafumi Kusagaya, a designer who helped produce the event, elaborated. “The easy times are over,” he said. “In Japan, there has always been this idea that you shouldn’t sully the aesthetic purity of your work too much by talking about money. But that needs to change. We wanted to make this event primarily for business.”

That may be so, but the idea of creating a calendar for an imaginary client prompted a lot of designers to mine their own personal interests for direction.

Hence there’s Suzuki’s calendar dedicated to ’50s American crockery — in particular to mugs from glassware-maker Anchor Hocking’s oven-proof Fire-King line. “I have a collection of about 400 Fire-King mugs,” he said. “I realized that was enough to do a calendar.”

So at Suzuki’s booth at Calendar Salone, visitors will find a deliberately kitsch-colored 365-page calendar featuring a mug for every day of the year.

But if that’s not your cup of tea, there’s much more besides.

Designer Natsuko Ezura always wanted to make a calendar with Braille lettering for the blind. Her exhibit at Calendar Salone is therefore a series of 12 silver boards, each embossed with faintly visible patterns and tangible dots documenting the days of the month.

“I wanted to try to make the experience of the calendar similar for blind and non-blind people,” she explained. “The printing is so faint that non-blind people have to get up close to read it — just as close as blind people have to in order to touch it.”

But is there a market for such a calendar?

One of the potential clients at the event was Masahiro Aoyagi, from Tokyo-based Toppan Printing Co. Ltd.

“The Braille calendar is actually one of the proposals that I think has potential,” he said. “We have considered doing Braille calendars before, but the problem has always been that they don’t look appealing enough to people who are not blind.”

Ezura’s design, with its stylishly uniform silver appearance, circumvented that problem.

Aoyagi, whose primary job is to propose and produce calendars for Japanese corporations to then distribute to their clients, said he could think of a number of companies to which he could shop Ezura’s design.

JAGDA’s Aoba explained that it wasn’t necessary for companies to adopt the proposed designs exactly as they are. “They need only decide that they would like to work with a particular designer, and they can develop the calendar concept from there,” he said. He also noted that they might end up making something else altogether.

Another design that Aoyagi said had commercial potential was Fuyuki Igarashi’s proposal for a “coaster calendar.”

With the months of the year printed on a set of 12 thick cardboard coasters, the designer expects the product would be a fun — and potentially useful — gimmick in offices or restaurants.

Another objective of Calendar Salone is to try to open the eyes of major clients to the breadth of Japan’s graphic-design talent pool. As designer Kusagaya, who helped organize the event, explained, “Once the big printing and advertising companies have built up relations with particular designers, they tend to stick with them for years and years.”

Sure enough, the superstars of Japan’s graphic design world — such as Kashiwa Sato, who recently revamped clothes-maker Uniqlo’s branding — have little trouble finding clients, and hence have little incentive to participate in events such as Calendar Salone (although he and others are members of JAGDA).

“By holding an event like this, we can hopefully funnel more work to JAGDA’s less well-known members,” Kusagaya said.

One proposal that seemed to speak to Japan’s infamous penchant for overwork was a proposal for a set of two separate calendars, one with weekends blotted out and another with weekdays blotted out. The weekday version of Hiroshi Fukushima’s calendar, a large single sheet that skips the weekends, may well be an effective psychological tool to stop “work-creep” into weekends; while the weekend-only version may serve to highlight the sanctity of that leisure potential.

But before the majority of Japan’s graphic designers have need for such a calendar, they must first get down to the business of cultvating new clients. And judging from the positive feedback from Aoyagi and other potential buyers at Calendar Salone, it looks like they are on the right track.

JAGDA Calendar Salone 2011 is being held through Feb. 23 at Design Hub in the Midtown complex in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. Admission is free. Visit www.jagda.org/ for more details.

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