Artist Ikko Tanaka’s work shows design as a primer on culture


Good graphic design imparts ideas. It’s like a short trip: from Point A to Point B in the most direct fashion, with a little information payoff at the end. Great graphic design is no less straightforward in imparting its concept, but it allows the viewer to enjoy the scenery and imparts some kind of deeper truth about the culture it speaks from.

A mandatory object lesson for all would-be graphic designers is the current show at the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, “Ikko Style: The Graphic Art of Ikko Tanaka.” It assembles a smattering of the manifold works of one of the most profound and prolific graphic designers in the world of the past 50 years. As Milton Glaser and the masters at Push Pin Studios have been to American design, so was Tanaka (1930-2002) to visual communication to Japan.

His posters of geishas and historic Japanese men — made entirely out of different colored squares, rectangles and diagonals — deftly deliver traditional Japanese prototypes, but in an entirely contemporary mode. The roots of that vernacular are unmistakably in the cradle of world modernist design, Weimar Germany’s Bauhaus.

Tanaka was born in the ancient city of Nara, where the Japanese culture gestated. He then studied in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural nexus, before going to work in Osaka, the country’s post-war commercial engine.

Curator Yeonsoo Chee, a Korean native, studied art history at Cal State Long Beach and now studies at USC. Her emphasis is on Korean art, specifically artist Jung Seup Lee. That focus gives her an interesting perspective on Tanaka. “There was a 40-year period of Japanese colonialization in Korea,” she states. “Koreans had to go to Japan to earn a higher degree. That created great conflict for Lee. He married a Japanese woman, which added to the complexity.

Tanaka, too, had to balance many things in his work: the traditional, the modern, what was truly Japanese and what was global. “He looked back to tradition,” Chee points out, “but he also enjoyed the global conversation. He lived during the war years and he probably had a very tumultuous time as a boy and a young man. Japan was using Western technology to rebuild their nation, but trying to hold onto traditions.”

A simple yet elegant 1986 poster labeled “Japan” features a bending deer, reminiscent of Art Deco. The colors are warm neutrals, the figure’s back is a perfect half circle and the markings are symmetrical. A helpful accompanying graphic provides a small reproduction of the original centuries-old scroll image. For Japanese nationals, the graphic no doubt pushed several mental and emotional buttons.

In the show, Chee included groupings of Tanaka’s many graphic applications: trademarks, logos, corporate branding posters, magazine covers and theater posters.
Tanaka is known as a leader in the “global” style of visual communication that became so important to countries and markets like Japan who tried very hard to modernize after World War II. Yet she acknowledges that there was always something quintessentially Japanese in his work. “He was very attuned to the national sensibility,” Chee contends.

The show provides examples of Tanaka’s work with fashion designers, one of them Issey Miyake. Chee believes Tanaka was excited by “the styles. Miyake used new technology and took an almost scientific approach to clothing, and he enjoyed new challenges. They each tried to reconcile the new and the old.”

“He was very free in being able to adapt to new demands,” Chee says. “Tanaka was constantly evolving and changing but something remained with him at all times: the ability to give the viewer something simple but powerful at the same time.”

To paraphrase the brilliant Levy’s Rye Bread ad campaign of the 1960s that quietly yet boldly asserted the ethnic universality of the appeal of its product: You don’t have to be Japanese to appreciate Ikko Tanaka’s graphic design.


KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.