Seeing Asian Design through Books

One of the biggest issues I’ve always felt about my understanding of design (and even the world) is it has been largely from the view of the West. Living in Singapore where English is our first language, I’ve easily gained accessed to the tomes (and tonnes) of writing about design from Europe and North America. Most of these are not only from the West, but are also about the West, as English-language writers and publishers are only just starting to take notice of the Asian design scene.

A hint that designers from my neighbouring countries might have something else to offer first came when I attended “The Way of Asian Design” forum in Singapore a few years ago, featuring Kirti Trivedi, Ahn Sang-Soo, Lu Jingren and Kohei Sugiura. Then, I chanced upon Kenya Hara’s Designing Design, one of a select few English-language publications from an Asian designer. At the beginning of this year, I discovered Chinese translations of Japanese design books on a trip to Taiwan, and I immediately bought them—assuring myself that my rusty Chinese language I picked up in school would hold me in good stead.

It barely did, especially since the books were in Traditional Chinese script, and I learnt the language in Simplified Chinese. Nevertheless, I’ve trudged through a few volumes of these Chinese-language design books along with other Asian design books over the year and here are some things I’ve picked up, accompanied by interesting related links:


Clockwise from top left: Books, Text, and Design in Asia (2006), The Way of Asian Design (2010), Dialogue in  Design: Kenya Hara x Masayo Ave (2009), Graphic Design Magazine #21 (2011), Papier Labo (2010), and Ex-formation: Plants (2008).

Books, Text, and Design in Asia (2006) (亚洲之书。设计。文字)
This volume contains the conversations between Japanese designer Kohei Sugiura (杉浦康平) with his contemporaries from Japan (Tsuno Kaitaro 津野海太郎), India (Kirti Trivedi, and the late R.K. Joshi), South Korea (Ahn Sang-Soo 安尚秀 and Chung Byoung-kyoo 郑丙圭), Taiwan (Huang Young-sung 黄永松), and China (Lu Jing-ren 吕敬人).  Each of them have been picked by Kohei because he feels they dig deep into their cultural roots to design, particularly in their typography work and books.

The conversations mostly revolve around the history of craft and culture in the respective countries and how each designer has tapped into that for their design work. One becomes aware of the possibilities when designing in the language of a particular culture; and it struck me that the traditional Chinese character is both a graphic and word that represents what it means, which is unlike the Roman alphabet that makes up most of our modern-day languages.

The Way of Asian Design (2010)
This is the printed volume of the proceedings that went on during a forum held in Singapore in November 2007. Four Asian designers—Kohei Sugiura, Ahn Sang-Soo, Lu Jingren and Kirti Trivedi— shared their design philosophies and showed how their work were underpinned by the region’s cultures and beliefs. Like during the forum, the speeches have been  translated into English, which makes it very useful for those who can only understand Asia through this language.

A standout speech was Kohei’s design philosophy of “one in two, two in one” and “one in many, many in one”, which he attributes to how ancient sages in China and India thought how the universe works, thus the concepts such as  Yin and Yang. In Kohei’s case, he compares a book to a universe, which hosts a multitude of characters, stories and elements in a single form, thus  “one in many, many in one”. The structure of a book can also been seen as many pairs of pages that extend left and right to top and bottom; and this he says represents sky and earth, beginning and end, past and future. Yet, when the book is closed, this duality becomes one, thus “one in two, two in one”.

Summa Cosmographia (1979). Click on the image to see how Kohei has designed, literally, the entire book.

Kohei then extends this design philosophy to the reader too. He says, “…We readers of books have bodies that reflect this same duality, with the left half and right half. When we pray we join our hands together. In doing so, we unite the right and left sides of our bodies into one. Our body hosts one heart, and this one heart is what we offer together with our prayers.”

It is in this view that guides how he designs his books, which unlike contemporary zen-like Japanese designs are full of colour, details and possibilities—and got me re-thinking what I thought I knew as Japanese design.

Dialogue in  Design: Kenya Hara x Masayo Ave (2009) (为什么设计:原研哉 对谈阿部雅世)

Moving from an older Japanese designer to two contemporary ones, this is another conversation-drive book that revolves around Kenya Hara and Masayo Ave, who travelled between their bases of Berlin and Japan to chat about design in the two countries, society and their personal lives. There is certainly a thread here amongst these Japanese designers regardless of generations: how they see design as integral to the way they live. They don’t see it in terms of its “value-add” or how well it sells, or whether it is aesthetically beautiful. To them, design is an expression of values, which makes it such a personal and powerful endeavor.

Reading the conversations between the duo, I found it curious that the Japanese feel design in their country is too insular and needs to make itself understandable to the global arena to survive. Ironically, this is the reverse of what I have been thinking about Singapore, where design is so attuned to globalisation that it has no voice of its own.

GRAPHIC #21 (2011)
Papier Labo (2010)

These two books are really photo books for me because both are in languages I do not understand.

GRAPHIC is an independent South Korean design magazine started in 2007, and is now trying to reach out to the world by publishing both in Korean and English. The issue I got was Korean-only because it is an “archive” of another Korean magazine, DESIGN, which it regards as a pioneer of the community, having been publishing since 1976. It’s a fantastic flip through 400 of DESIGN’s covers and a selection of Korean works that together paint how the scene has evolved. Unfortunately, I ‘m not able to read the essays, which I can only imagine help to make this issue of GRAPHIC, a significant one in understanding its country’s design history.

As for the Japanese-only Papier Labo book, I gathered from online that it is a custom printing press formed in 2007 in the Sendagaya area of Tokyo, and this is a book that documents the work that goes into this studio. I was simply struck by how beautiful the book is as an object, as well as the photography of the works they have created and studio life.

Ex-formation: Plants (2008) (Ex-formation 植物)

This is essentially a report of the 2007 edition of Kenya Hara’s Ex-formation project, an annual research he conducts with students at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo to understand how little we know, to question what we think we know and understand. For this edition, the group explores the theme of “plants” and they design a series of projects that present us new ways of looking at them as silhouettes, food, products, and colours—which makes the book a delightfully unexpected page-turner.


If you know of other Asian design books worth checking out, do drop me a comment. I understand Jamie Winder and Iain Hector from Where You Going? are already working on a book about Southeast Asian design after traveling through this area, so that should be something to look out for.

One comment

  1. Priya says:

    Nice Read, thank you.
    I studied at IDC, Prof Kirti Trivedi took one course when i was there- ” Indian Thoughts and Tradition” Where he talked about Asian way of thinking and design in general.
    It was very inspiring and changed my views of design.
    We need to go back in time and dig deep into what our own culture has to offer and develop independent thinking. It’s very crucial .

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