Humor soothes the spirit; humor stirs the forlorn soul. Humor is the heart of communication.

(Katsumi Asaba)

Charlie Chaplin once said: “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain”. Even during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in the Poetics (1449a, pp. 34–35), professed that: “An ugliness that does not disgust is fundamental to humor”. Why then should not it be addressed to the expression of art and design? Studies have been conducted on how art and design become more effective expressive media when they inject emotions into people’s experiences. A piece of art not only breathes beauty, but more importantly conveys a genuine personality, a memorable fragment most manifested in humor. Further: “Bringing a smile can transform that experience from likable to lovable”.

Multi-awarded Japanese designer and master calligrapher Katsumi Asaba has produced such an exposition illustrating the essence of comedy in art and design in the exhibition Sense of Humor at the 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo, ongoing till June 30, 2019. Designing for over 60 years, Asaba is best known for his playful graphics and typographical manipulation in advertisements, such as those for the Seibu Department store, Suntory, Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, the official poster for the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, and logo designs for Homme plissé Issey Miyake and the Democratic Party of Japan, among others.

Well-travelled and forthright in communication, Asaba has always annunciated profound interest in the relationship between written and visual expression. In this exhibition, he has gathered selected designers from France, UK, New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, Japan and acclaimed designers and illustrators Shigeo Fukuda, Kuniyoshi Kaneko, Ron Arad, and more to explore the ways a sense of humor in design pieces can evoke an inner human quality that people can identify themselves with.

Asaba emphasizes: “Where does a laugh come from? What is the essence of humor? … Could there be a form of laughter that transcends all barriers? I want to gather every possible source of humor from across the planet. The means of expression may differ, from soft smiles to loud chuckling, howls of laughter, bursting guffaws, derisive snickers, flirtatious giggling, cynical smirks, and grins both honest and wry. I want to pick each one of them up and put them in the same place”. (From Director's message)

Upon entering the first gallery, an explosion of assorted art and design pieces sits on randomly arranged wooden pedestals in the center. There are charming animal creatures, alien-headed humans, exotic masks, African and Asian objets d’art, including a tall shelf of vintage and retro bric-a-brac memorabilia that shed a nostalgic smile. Asaba’s poster works are displayed on the walls, and a satirical portrayal of the Last Supper depicting famous Japanese designers catches the eye on one side.

The principal gallery brings together a more dynamic showcase of design themes. French graphic artist Damien Poulain exhibits a colorful array of two-dimensional human and animal-like figurines emanating a comical appearance. Black and white interpretations of Mt. Fuji by Masayoshi Nakajo stand out in an utterly surprising fashion never imagined before. Oil paintings by Tiger Tateishi emoting fantasy and astrological themes also add spice to the picture book-like gallery.

Leaving the main galleries towards the return to the entrance, one cannot help but stop at a striking Christmas-like structure of red table tennis rackets by Kohei Watanabe, (Ping pong paddle stand, 2019). It may be worth mentioning that Katsumi Asaba himself holds the title of sixth level master in table tennis (Japan Table Tennis Association), so much so that he used the table tennis racket humorously to interact with the audience during the opening ceremony. Finally, New Zealand art director Dean Poole’s comical play on the human hand (Fingers, 2018), suggesting the various forms of the fingers, leaves a delightful sensation that indeed, art and design can wash away the heart’s clinging anxieties.

Every corner in the rooms delivers that tingling element of surprise, which evidently becomes the essential ingredient in viewing objects with stories to tell. In American graphic designer Milton Glaser’s words: “There are three responses to a piece of design: Yes, No, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for”.