Design is not for philosophy. It’s for life.

(Issey Miyake)

Among other things highly appreciated in Japan, such as cuisine, nature, provincial and mega cities, Japanese courtesy and punctuality, or even the visible contradictions of the traditional and the modern, Japanese design is equally admired for its sleek lines and contours, its simplicity, subtlety, aesthetics and more importantly its finesse in extracting a traditional feel from a completely avant-garde form. Many people identify Japanese design with the concept of wabi-sabi, the mysterious aura obtained from something imperfect, impermanent, or incomplete, yet exuding perfection in those qualities. Since Japanese modern design grew from Japanese ancient art, where as far as the Edo period, traditional crafts were cradled with the highest level of precision and detail that can proudly represent craft families throughout generations, it is not a surprise that Japanese designers today implement parallel methods and techniques passed on by their ancestors to achieve unmatched beauty and detail in their works.

Never has Japan’s cream-of-the-crop designers exhibited their “secret” works to the public as they have at the Secret Source of Inspiration: Designers’ Hidden Sketches and Mock-ups exhibition being held at the 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT in Tokyo, Japan. Running until March 8th this year, this exhibition should not be missed by anyone who follows Japanese design avidly. About 26 of the country’s excellent designers have collaborated to reveal their sketches, mockups, videos, concept drawings and installations traced back since Japan Design Committee’s foundation in 1953: Product Designers Naoto Fukasawa, Toshiyuki Kita and Fumie Shibata; Graphic Designers Kenya Hara, Shin Matsunaga, Kazumasa Nagai, and Taku Satoh; Furniture Designer Makoto Koizumi; Lighting Designer Kaoru Mende; Textile Designer Reiko Sudo; Spatial Designer Toshiyuki Tanaka; Design Engineers Kinya Tagawa and Shunji Yamanaka; Sculptor Takamichi Ito; Woodworker Ryuji Mitani; Artist Yasuhiro Suzuki; Curator Ryu Niimi; Design critic Hiroshi Kashiwagi; Art Director Kazufumi Nagai; Architects Atsushi Kitagawara, Kengo Kuma, Hiroshi Naito, Masayuki Kurokawa, and Tetsuo Matsumoto; and Designers Keiko Hirano and Motomi Kawakami.

The Design Collection organized by the Japan Design Committee opened in 1955, two years after its foundation. In the beginning, 15 volunteers gathered including Isamu Kenmochi, Yusaku Kamekura, and Riki Watanabe to develop the “Good Design Campaign” that encouraged designers all over the country to create innovative designs. The showcase has been held at the Matsuya Department Store in Ginza for the past 60 years. In the past, the exhibitions usually focused on “Global Eye exhibition”, which promoted excellent designs through international exchange; and “Design Forum exhibition”, which concentrated on domestic entries through a design competition. The members of the Japan Design Committee have continued to conduct various activities with the concept of “design enlightenment,” and it is through the Design Collection that the world of Japanese design has consistently remained dynamic and progressive.

The Secret Source of Inspiration: Designers’ Hidden Sketches and Mock-ups exhibition, which covers a wide breadth of design genre across ages from 40s to 90s, aims to provide inspiration to all designers, artists and architects across various generations from the techniques, methods, and concepts implemented by professional designers throughout six decades, especially from the era when work was done by hand without Internet and digital assistance. The expansive display of “behind-the-scenes” works would hopefully stimulate and guide future designers in creating functional and aesthetical products for the future, as they understand how designers conceived design processes before the Internet age.

The exhibition director Kinya Tagawa is himself a design engineer, one of the younger breeds in the Japan Design Committee, who envisioned “handing on the DNA of Japan Design on to the next generation, by openly revealing almost secret data relating to methodology, philosophy and quality, as accumulated by the committee members over their working lives.”

The exhibition can be viewed by the following stages. The first stage, Variety in Design Field Methodologies consists of prototypes and concept ideas to suggest a wide range of design formats and methods. The second stage is Variety in Personal Design Processes, which reveals the designers’ works from conceptualization to final product, depicting individual preferences. Life-size furniture and architectural models by the exhibitors are on display. The third stage, Stationery and Equipment illustrates tools, such as pens, cutters, boards and paper used for designing. The Design Philosophy stage examines the designers’ creative philosophies. The last stage, In-Depth Observation hopefully helps viewers to ponder on the relevance and significance of the sketches and models. At the end of the exhibition is a room of chairs, each designed by the designers, depicting various materials, shapes, finishes and aesthetics.

The exhibition not only discloses the designers’ hidden concepts but also highlights an essential period in the history of Japanese design, which surely carves a valuable influence to all creative thinkers.