Making Modern Design in Japan


Gennifer Weisenfeld


Apr 30, 2024

This essay is an adapted excerpt from Gennifer Weisenfeld’s new book, The Complete Commercial Artist: Making Modern Design in Japan, available now from the Letterform Archive.

From 1928 to 1930, Tokyo-based publisher Ars アルス issued a major twenty-four–volume illustrated compendium of commercial design with extensive annotation and theoretical analysis titled Gendai shōgyō bijutsu zenshū 現代商業美術全集 in Japanese and The Complete Commercial Artist in English. With more than two-thirds of each volume comprised of illustrations, this landmark production served as a rich trove of design ideas—all at one’s fingertips—for easy reference or adaptation. Essay contributors included seventy-one well-known professional practitioners, educators, and journalists active in the Japanese design field.

The series appeared in both hardcover (price 1.5 yen) and softcover (price 1 yen) editions, and Ars distributed it through direct subscription sales, with each volume totaling about 150 pages. Most volumes include four separately numbered sections distinguished by methods of printing: First appear two or three pages of tricolor printing (genshokuban), then a section of single-color photo printing (shashinban), next a vibrant section of original designs printed in spot colors with offset plates (genshoku ofusetto ban), and finally a letterpress-printed section of lectures and commentary (kōwa oyobi kaisetsu). Each volume also included a thin supplementary gazette titled Commercial Art Monthly (Shōgyō bijutsu geppō 商業美術月報), with additional information and published letters from subscribers. Subscription cop-ies were sold primarily to Japanese commercial retailers and manufacturers, as well as to printing companies and design schools throughout the country. They were also distributed across Japan’s expanding empire in Asia, where access to such current visual information was limited. As their printed publication dates indicate, the volumes were not issued in order.

At once encyclopedic and carrying a manifesto-like charge, The Complete Commercial Artist was both an important record of original design work by named artists from the period and an invaluable trade publication for disseminating the most up-to-date design practices. It provided a service particularly valuable to small retail shops unable to employ full-time designers but seeking to invest their advertising and displays with the latest creative aesthetics. Not only did the series highlight new styles from around the globe, encouraging designers to suffuse commodities with a fashionable aura, but it also introduced new technologies and materials associated with modern industry to create exciting spectacles for the consumer. The Ars series was one of the most important Japanese design compendia and educational guidebooks published at this time, and its appearance indicated the growing contemporary market for explanatory design texts in Japan as the commercial art field rapidly expanded domestically and around the world.

While the Japanese term for commercial art or shōgyō bijutsu now principally refers to two-dimensional graphic design, in the late 1920s and in the series it was a more inclusive term, encompassing three-dimensional forms used for advertising, such as show windows and architectural structures like kiosks and storefront designs. The definition also overlapped with elements of industrial design, including product packaging. Commercial art functioned both on the printed page and on-site in commercial spaces. The street sales decoration (uridashi gaitō sōshoku), for example, was a temporary addition to the front of a commercial building. According to essays in the series, these structures were designed to elicit a psychological response from pedestrians by piquing their curiosity. They relied on the assumption that if one person stopped, soon a crowd would congregate. As a gateway to the exposition of commodities within, the decorative entrance, whether an arch or a pillar, aimed to produce an atmosphere of excitement. Slick modern materials like glass, metal, and electric lighting went a long way toward facilitating this effect—as did the creatively designed letterforms that labeled these marquees.

Design was traditionally considered an artisanal field in Japan, and activists worked to establish it as a major area of artistic endeavor in the first few decades of the twentieth century. The gradual recognition of design’s aesthetic, as well as its functional value in the sphere of Japanese visual arts, have shaped its evolution and defined its central cultural importance ever since. Its new social status was not a coincidental development. Designers and design theorists, like the contributors to The Complete Commercial Artist, consciously and aggressively forged that status, seeking aesthetic and social legitimacy for the profession. Japanese design historians have charted a gradual conceptual shift around the turn of the century from the longstanding artisanal notion of design (ishō) based on sets of forms and patterns (hinagata or kata) to one that implied more personal autonomy and professional standing on the part of the designer, expressed in the increasingly common terms shōgyō bijutsu, zuan (design), and later dezain (design). Such new perceptions of design were emerging around the globe, and it is important to note that the anglophone term “graphic designer,” usually attributed to American designer William Addison Dwiggins, had just started to gain currency around 1922. The phrase denoted the professional sphere of applied printing, including letter design, typography, book design, packaging, ephemera, posters, and press advertisements.

Commercial art came to the fore in Japan during the period between the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, when many cultural forms underwent commodification and merged into mass culture. The importation of new technologies from Europe and the United States beginning in the late nineteenth century brought a momentous change in the relationship between culture and industry in Japan. Innovations such as the rotary press, wireless telegraphy, photography, radio, movies, recording technology, and railroads enabled the production of a cheap and easily reproducible culture that could disseminate efficiently throughout the nation. What scholars have termed a modern culture industry, consisting of mass publishing, mass media, and mass entertainment, relied on these new technologies. The massification (taishūka) of Japanese culture was also predicated on the cultivation of a literate consumer public extending beyond the elite classes of society. The implementation of a nationwide education system in 1872 significantly increased literacy and facilitated this trend.

In an article for Gebrauchsgraphik in 1927, Eduard Wildhagen proclaimed that despite a long and illustrious history of creative advertising, “it seems as if the Japanese, abandoned by all the good spirits of his immediate past, had delivered up the art of advertisement to crude daubers and dilettante students.” He instead praised traditional Japanese woodblock prints and family crest symbols as the perfect precursors of modern advertising:

Old Japan deserves on the score of its former achievements to be called the classic land of advertisement and poster art. In the course of a long artistic development, it has col-lected for future use all the elements of propagandistic art in its most perfect form as no other civilized country has done.

The editors of The Complete Commercial Artist shared Wildhagen’s interest in Japanese graphic history, as evidenced both by articles in the series that address this topic and by the choice to devote volume 22 to “Advertisements in Japanese Taste.” One illustration of signboards (kanban) from this volume portrays the striking and clever variety of means devised to broadcast shops and services in Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868). However, Japanese designers and trade journals were mostly interested in design’s contemporary, transnational, and universal qualities in an increasingly global marketplace, often highlighting their tensions and interplay with the distinct nature of national production.

As with Gebrauchsgraphik, progressive artist-designers abroad pioneered many of the artistic styles and techniques covered in The Complete Commercial Artist. Those artists included Russian and international constructivists, the Dutch followers of De Stijl, and especially the diverse group at the German avant-garde art school the Bauhaus, who were attempting to integrate fine art with social praxis through design. Reflected, for instance, in a set of illuminated signs by German designer Walter Dexel reproduced in the series, their work was predicated on the notion that a designed environment could alter the perception and action of its inhabitants. Artists associated with the Bauhaus figured prominently in the illustrated examples accompanying Hamada Masuji’s major theoretical essay in the final volume of the series. His close colleague and fellow editorial committee member, Nakada Sadanosuke, was an avid Bauhaus proponent who had visited the school in the early 1920s and was among the first to introduce its work to a Japanese audience beginning in 1925. He contributed five essays to four volumes in the series, commenting on Bauhaus experiments in the simplification of typographic design, the use of modernist photography in advertising design, the international constructivist work of Hungarian avant-garde designer Lajos Kassák, and new trends in modern book design.

Considering this strong internationalist orientation, the publication’s articulation of commercial art corresponded with developments in Euro-American design that art historian Paul Greenhalgh has designated the “pioneer phase” of the international “modern movement,” extending from World War I until the early 1930s. Greenhalgh refers to a group of avant-garde artist-designers who, like their Japanese counterparts, put forth a vision of how the designed world could transform human consciousness and improve material conditions. These designers tended to have a holistic and absolutist worldview, and their foremost concern was to break down barriers between aesthetics, technology, and society to produce works for the masses. Hamada’s capstone essay for The Complete Commercial Artist was exemplary in this regard. Informed by Marxist theories of culture, Hamada proclaimed that “pure art” (roughly, fine art) was “controlled by bourgeois ideology” and served only the needs of the ruling class. It was his foremost goal to redress this artistic hierarchy by elevating commercial art to the level of pure art. Due to its intrinsically compelling nature, commercial art, Hamada felt, would eventually eclipse all forms of art for art’s sake as part of a more egalitarian society. In the meantime, just naming the field was a significant act in the contemporary climate of the Japanese art world, as it identified a vast realm of artistic production that went entirely unacknowledged. Hamada lamented that “in some respects, it can be said that shōgyō bijutsu has not yet been born in Japan.”

Advertising art in the 1920s and ’30s was an art of the present but also one of the future. Keeping up with new technologies in the field was a critical endeavor for design publications. As playfully announced in a flyer for the series featuring a chicken laying new eggs and crowing “Complete Works of Modern Commercial Art”, The Complete Commercial Artist offered an invaluable tool for broadcasting this new information while also giving shape to a new conception of design. In arguing for the systematic application of visual art techniques in commercial design, this compendium successfully helped forge the new category of artistic production under the new label of shōgyō bijutsu, which infused art with a purpose and aestheticized commerce. The series published the names of individual designers generally engaged behind the scenes in this process. Seeking to influence consumers by visually manipulating their perception of goods, daily life, and even the urban environment, its editors and contributors portrayed commercial art as a means to affect social change through innovative forms and new functions.

This depiction marked a convergence of concerns between modern designers and fine artists around the world. Artists active in the modernist new art movement (shinkō bijutsu undō 新興美術運動) in Japan, as well as various avant-garde groups abroad, increasingly sought to incorporate a more productivist perspective into the realm of fine arts, aspiring to make their work more applicable to the conditions of daily life. At the same time, those in the commercial art sphere sought to aestheticize their production by applying modernist visual techniques to everyday design. The abundance of publications on various areas of design practice, the explosion of design study groups, and the establishment of educational programs in design, both as independent institutions and within fine art academies, greatly reinforced the importance of this area of artistic production in the Japanese art world. State support and interest in design also grew in this decade, reflected in the incorporation of a crafts section into the official annual salon sponsored by the Ministry of Education in 1927 and in designers’ active participation in state initiatives ranging from clothing reform to propaganda production.

To look at The Complete Commercial Artist today, the reader is confronted with a vision of the possibilities and the future of design from the vantage point of the 1920s that was much more entangled with the global in real time than conventionally thought. Ostensibly interrupted by the horrors of war, this vision in fact fed into sophisticated propaganda production that supported wartime mobilization, then later helped relaunch the postwar Japanese design world. From our own vantage point, we can look back with fresh eyes at this important time in Japanese design history as it set the groundwork for much commercial design practice up to the present.

This essay is an adapted excerpt from Gennifer Weisenfeld’s new book, The Complete Commercial Artist: Making Modern Design in Japan, available now from the Letterform Archive.