29 August 2013


1960s, Design Conference, Japan

A Personal Account of the World Design Conference in Tokyo, Japan 1960

Edited version of an original article from The Journal of Commercial Art (CA, Volume 2, Number 6, June 1960) by Susan Karstrom Keig, designer for Morton Goldsholl, Inc., Chicago and contributing editor for CA. For more on the World Design Conference (WoDeCo, Sekai Dezain Kaigi), including images, please see our previously published article.

For five days last month [May, 1960] in Tokyo’s Sankei Hall, over 250 designers and architects from 30 countries met to consider and speak on the theme – The Total Image of the 20th Century, what designers can contribute to the human environment of the coming age. The idea of the Conference began with the attendance of various Japanese designers and architects in Aspen in 1956. That it was successfully accomplished was due to the work of dedicated committee members plus a generous assist from both Japanese government and industry.

The city of Tokyo was keenly aware of the Conference, first ever held in the Orient. Opening ceremonies were both telecast and broadcast. Press coverage was heavy and continual. Government ministers attended, made addresses. The Conference symbol was omnipresent. Besides being printed on all programs, Conference reports, badges, guides, leaflets, it was on handsomely designed posters to be seen all over Tokyo. Cab drivers immediately recognized the delegates’ badge, had friendly words to say. Seventeen exhibitions related to the Conference were held in department stores. (In Japan, the department store does more than sell. Almost all are wired with excellent high-fidelity systems, shoppers can hear Western classical music-Chopin to Shostakovich. Worthwhile exhibitions are a standard feature.)

A Personal Account of the World Design Conference in Tokyo, Japan 1960

Sankei Kokusai Hall, Ginza Tokyu Hotel

A Personal Account of the World Design Conference in Tokyo, Japan 1960

WoDeCo Poster Variations by Ikko Tanaka (Logo by Takashi Kono)

A Personal Account of the World Design Conference in Tokyo, Japan 1960

Left: Yusaku Kamekura and Josef Müller-Brockmann
Right: Saul Bass

Conference attendance was thoroughly international. Industrial designer Thank My came from Vietnam. Yki Nummi from Finland. Shona Ray, fabric designer, from India. Escipión Munizaga Suárez, architect from Chile. Bruno Munari, graphic designer, from Italy. Peter Smithson, architect, England. More familiar names – Bayer, Soriano, Pinzke, Bass, Landor from the USA. In numbers, the Italians and Americans were ahead. In profession, architects predominated.

In the amount of materials – printed information, guides, magazines, samples, folders – no one could beat the Japanese! Delegates were loaded daily with handsome graphics to the extent that the hosts thoughtfully provided a neat, well-designed black plastic portfolio for toting the daily haul back to the hotel. One book, Nature and Thought in Japanese Design was especially good. It showed and gently explained, e.g. beside the photograph of a simple wooden doorway, this copy, “Rather than recognizing humanity in the progress of technique, the Japanese recognize a strong humanity in the existence of material.”

The conference staff and physical arrangements were excellent. Manpower is not a problem in Japan, so someone was assigned for everything. A corps of secretaries transcribed and mimeographed each day’s speeches, handed them out to delegates on the following day. Engraved invitations to the Governor of Tokyo’s reception were delivered, not mailed, to the delegates’ hotels. A committee met planes, gave help in the customs shuffle. Guides, translators, helpful hands were commendably abundant.

The conference room itself had an impressive U.N. feeling. Translators sat in glassed-in booths above the floor. Recording secretaries in the middle. Panelists were seated at one end of the room directly in front of displays showing their work or illustrative materials pertinent to their talk. Delegates, equipped with earphones, were placed around the horseshoe. Press and students sat behind the delegates. Translation was made in Japanese or English. There were problems. Trade terms such as layouts, logo, curtain walls, slowed down the translators sometimes to the point where they never caught up. A good half of the addresses were accompanied by slides, often poorly chosen, frequently shown too soon or too late to emphasize the speaker’s point.

Lunchtime was fun. Conference rooms were in the Sankei Building, a large, downtown office building. Luncheon was served on is ninth-floor cafeteria. Delegates turned in tickets in exchange for food, which was served in neat wooden boxes. Sometimes there were exotic foods, one day it held hot dogs! Atmosphere was completely informal. There was a double crossing–of professions and nationalities. The contact did much toward furthering understanding of crafts and cultures of other lands. In fact, this personal exposure was one of the more valuable things gained in the five days.

A conference of this extent could not, of course, be afforded by a private group, such as our own Aspen meeting is. Cooperation from every conceivable area and adequate financial backing were provided by the Japanese government and industry. While it was obvious that certain displays and brochures were slanted in a commercial way, the content of the Conference was not. Most delegates were sent either by their government or their firms. Americans brought themselves, but then, as one said with a wry smile, “We can afford to.”

Impressive sidelight. The tremendous curiosity Japanese youth has in things American. Greater selectivity might be desirable for there are ducktail haircuts, black leather jackets and rock n’ roll. Yet this hunger for knowledge reaches things such as design. Most panelists had evening speaking engagements. Herbert Pinzke was to talk to students for 30 minutes, expected a small group. Instead he stayed for three hours talking, answering questions to 1500 students jammed in a hall, sitting, standing, crowded together, intent and intensely interested.

Most delegates seemed to feel that the Conference was successful even though no plans were made for a future one. The subject matter was extremely broad; for example, conference subheads were Personality, Practicability, Possibilities. There was agreement that more workshop sessions were needed. The main conclusion–an affirmation of the need to improve communications between crafts and between countries.

Images from Graphic Design 3 (1960) and Annual of Advertising Art in Japan 1959.

Reprinted with permission from Communication Arts, © Coyne & Blanchard, Inc.