“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 truly a great privilege to be able to hear a giant in design, Prof Kohei Sugiura, speak about his design works today as part of “The Way of Asian Design” seminar. He truly puts a lot of thought into his concepts and why he is doing things and it shows in his works. I think most importantly, I learnt that to be able to engage such a huge array of culture and knowledge to produce great works, one has to be constantly enriching oneself by reading up and exploring.
Gosh, my head is still hurting from the mind-blowing experience… I’ll muse about it again.
(Left to right) Kirti Trivedi, Ahn Sang-Soo, Lu Jingren and Kohei Sugiura