Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 4, 2022
Ory Bartal Critical Design in Japan: Material Culture, Luxury, and the Avant-Garde Studies in Design and Material Culture. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2020. 248 pp.; 57 color ills. Cloth $120.00 (9781526139979)

Tracing the development and transformation of Japanese design amidst larger social contexts—such as rapid economic growth and the shift in Japan’s standing within the world after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 Osaka World Exposition, the first world’s fair held in Asia—is challenging. Ory Bartal takes on the task of understanding this development by examining design as a form of protest and identity making that addressed social issues linked to both global and local concerns for Japanese designers and consumers in the final decades of the twentieth century.

Bartal’s research on Japanese design and visual culture culminated in his first book, Postmodern Advertising in Japan: Seduction, Persuasion, and the Tokyo Art Directors Club (Dartmouth College Press, 2015). This is Bartal’s second book, which builds upon his extensive exploration and knowledge of Japanese design. The strength of this book is its focus on the power of objects and its approach to the “role of design as a social practice” (23). Bartal thoroughly examines the wider context in which these works were created, viewed, and circulated, in turn impacting the social network they occupy. From the preface and acknowledgments, it is clear that Bartal has taken this book not only as an academic endeavor, but as a personal venture informed by his experience, observations, and interactions with Japanese designers of the postmodern era. Composed of six chapters that illuminate different spheres of production ranging from graphic design, fashion, and furniture to digital interactive design, the book attempts to provide a comprehensive overview of the design network within Japan’s complex sociopolitical context from the 1960s to the 1990s.  

In the introduction, Bartal approaches designers as “social entrepreneurs shaping a new environment and lifestyle” (2). As such, the entire book depends on the interpretation and examination of designed works as having agency, specifically social criticism, as part of their design language and analyzes the tension between the relationships of these objects within a capitalist economy and their message and impact as protest and critique. The larger context of social protest and ideologies that Bartal introduces concerns “social issues such as gender, class, race, the politics of identity, and social or national affiliations” (16). The book combines methodologies and theoretical frameworks from multiple disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology, history, and the history of ideas as well as works by scholars of aesthetics and design to examine the role and function of design, style, and objects in creating a social identity.

To discuss the function of design as a social tool beyond the aesthetic and decorative, Bartal employs the concept of “critical design” as the anchor for all chapters, each focusing on different forms of design that raise awareness of social concerns and political agendas from the 1960s to the 1990s. Bartal articulates:

Critical design presents a form of protest that makes use of the power of materials, objects, and images as units of meaning that bring together new social and economic values and a new visual style to critique existing norms, to give rise to new forms of human behaviour, and to create a new habitus. (20)

Bartal continues to explain that designers function as “agents of social change” (20) and that designed objects become both commodity and critique. While intense discussion of the dismantling of binaries in modernist paradigms is included, further consideration of the continuities from Japan’s modern era would provide meaningful links to the trajectory of Japanese design throughout the twentieth century.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the relationship between art and society and how social and political issues became part and parcel of artistic and design production. The rise in consumerism and advertisements and formations of design associations (and the affiliations of specific designers and their collaborations) are mapped along a meticulously detailed description of the economic progression of postwar Japan and the emergence of “super designers” during the 1970s. The chapter also tackles the challenging issue of “Japanese” design. Bartal stresses the contradictions in how “designers emphasised . . . their style of expression and their dialogue with numerous international design languages” while their works were “showcase[d] in Japan’s new centres of cultural power . . . as design stars and cultural heroes,” branding “them as the creators of what is known as ‘Japanese design’ and a unique ‘Japanese aesthetics’” (45).

Through the specific case studies of Suzuki Hachirō’s “Xerox Beautiful” campaign for the Fuji-Xerox company and Ishioka Eiko’s campaign for the newly established Parco Department Store, chapter 2 describes how countercultural and avant-garde visual styles were brought into mainstream commercial advertising. Suzuki’s designs addressed the growing concern for the environment due to industrial pollution by highlighting the beauty in nature and in people leading a more “beautiful” life. Ishioka’s designs were aimed toward a new demographic of young working women, problematizing the role and representation of female models in advertising, incorporating women of color, and celebrating women’s sexual freedom through a liberal feminist approach, positing fashion as a way of life. This chapter is especially rich with quotations from designers and their contemporaries, close examination of posters, and translations of the text within the posters. It is one of the most interesting and well-articulated chapters in the book, bringing these advertisement posters together to highlight the importance of the “critical” in design. 

Chapter 3 concentrates on the avant-garde designer Rei Kawakubo and her fashion brand company, Comme des Garcons (Like Boys). Kawakubo’s designs are discussed alongside other female artists addressing issues of the body through clothing, such as Tanaka Atsuko’s Electric Dress (1957) and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece performance (1964). Kawakubo’s work is analyzed as a form of social protest, concealing the body to reject hegemonic standards and ideals put upon bodies. With extensive analysis of clothing, direct quotations of Kawakubo, and examination of shop interiors and advertising campaigns, Bartal carefully narrates Kawakubo’s journey and Comme des Garcon’s success in bringing subversive aesthetics into mainstream consumption and describes her work as “design that invites the consumer to be critical of the society and the capitalist ideology that surrounds us” (118).

In chapter 4, the lifestyle company Mujirushi Ryohin is analyzed as a conscious protest style in line with antibranding and nologo movements in Europe and the United States during the 1980s. Following the company from its first products in 1980, this chapter traces the contributions by its first art director Tanaka Ikkō and his successor, Hara Kenya, in bringing together traditional minimalist Japanese aesthetics and styles from European modernism (such as Bauhaus and Braun) in their product design (142). These analyses are mainly derived from quotations by the designers themselves in their PR interviews. 

Chapter 5 examines the furniture and jewelry designs by the Hironen studio during the 1980s and 1990s. Comprising the designers Rosen Levin and Ōkawa Hiroyuki, Hironen was known for works that resembled surrealist hallucinations or postmodern fairy tales. Their creations are explained as expressions of “otherness” (such as sex, race, ethnicity, or class) and as outlets for socially repressed desires and natures (152–59). The sense of the playful and nonsensical in the way industrial and artisanal productions are jumbled together is highlighted in the Pi-Isu chair (1994), which decorates the cover of this book. Bartal explains the title as a “pun related to (artistic) piece, peace, and the Japanese word for chair, isu” (168). 

The focus of chapter 6 is the relationship between subject and object through the exploration of contemporary digital design and HMI (human-machine interface), by presenting ideas that address the lines between human and machine, nature and culture, and object and subject. While the case studies examined in this chapter are interesting and thoughtfully analyzed, further integration of these ideas with the critical ideologies that frame the entire book and perhaps a dedicated concluding chapter would have been beneficial.

Nonetheless, Bartal’s extensive knowledge of the designers, institutions, and organizations that created the complex and diverse landscape of design and media in postwar Japan is evident. Bartal’s analysis shows thoughtful and close observation, rich with theoretical references from a multitude of disciplines. This book should be celebrated for its intensely researched and engaging material that astutely weaves together the seemingly discordant waves of designers and movements with the complex sociopolitical context of postwar Japan. 

Nozomi Naoi
Art History, Yale-NUS College