“The Way of Asian Design” (2007) was my earliest introduction to the idea that design could be related to Asian culture. This 200-page catalogue documents the presentations of four professors—Kohei Sugiura 🇯🇵, Ahn Sang-Soo 🇰🇷, Lu Jingren 🇨🇳 and Kirti Trivedi 🇮🇳—who spoke at a seminar of the same name at the Nanyang Technological University as part of the Singapore Design Festival 2007. While each interpreted their graphic design practice in the context of traditional Asian cultures, it was not entirely convincing as they often fell back on vague notions of “duality”, “formless” and “essence”, which are found outside of Asia too. Nonetheless, we can see them as part of a global trend in the 2000s when designers tried to create (or interpret) more culturally-specific works (in this case, “Asian sensibility”) to offer an “alternative to international modernism”.
#ADesignLibrary spotlights lesser known design books, and invites public access to my personal collection of titles that focuses on Singapore architecture and design, Asian design, everyday design, critical and speculative design as well as design theory and philosophy. I welcome inquiries and physical loans.
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).
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was a gathering of editors from design magazines around Asia — Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore — but while the other editors spoke about their country’s respective design scene in Chinese, I was only comfortable to do mine in English and had to depend on a translator.
This odd situation at the Kaohsiung Design Festival’s Editor — Chief Editor’s Forum left me wondering if Singapore Design is “Asian” or “Western”?
Historically, design came to Singapore from the West. The earliest design studios were started by expatriates from UK, Australia and New Zealand and later, Singaporeans schooled in Western design schools. The choice of English as the country’s working language has also made Western design more relevant to us as opposed to that from Asia, which comes in a variety of languages.
Moreover, the concept of Asian in Singapore has also been associated with ‘tradition’. One reason we are taught an Asian mother tongue is so that we do not lose our cultural bearings. But other than that, the development of this country has always been oriented towards the West, which is seen as both economically powerful and culturally influential. In these conditions, “Asian” in Singapore is seen as historical and backward, which creates a further distance between young Singaporean designers and Asia.
However, the rise in China in recent years and the near future may change this. The editors from Taiwan and Hong Kong lamented how many of their best designers have flocked there to practice their design because that’s where the business is. It’ll be interesting to see how Singapore designers react to this, especially since the Singapore government has been very supportive of businesses here to chase the Chinese market.
When asked at the forum about what I thought of design in Asia, my view (in English) was that Singapore designers did not look towards Asia, with the exception of Japan and maybe, Hong Kong. But then again, it’s because these two territories, especially Japan, have received a kind of ‘international’ recognition. I cited language as a major barrier to our understanding of Asian design. Though Singaporeans are bilingual, our primary language is English. More importantly, I didn’t think Singapore designers bothered about this question of their design being “Asian”, “Western” or even “Singaporean” — nationalism or regionalism was irrelevant in a Singapore that wants to be a “global city”. What mattered to design studios today is that they had their own voice in their work.
Surprisingly, the speaker from Taiwan’s Shopping Design, Chan Wei-Hsiung, echoed similar sentiments. Here was a veteran creative director, double most our ages, exhorting Taiwanese designers to globalise so as to bring their conversations outside of Taiwan. He also felt that the future of design was all about individual choices and styles.
The trip up to Taiwan has opened my mind and eyes to designers in Asia and I’m curious if they do have something to offer to the global stage. For one, I realised Taiwan is a good place to learn about Japanese design because while I don’t understand Japanese, I can get access to their writings and works translated to Chinese. For now, I’ve cobbled together a few links related to Asian design below. Let me know if you have more!