Takenobu Igarashi’s bold and brilliant three-dimensional letters introduced new ways of expressing symbols. The cult Japanese graphic artist created new forms of visual communication – design that has conceptually altered how we view the medium. A new book celebrates the work of this visionary creative. Takenobu Igarashi: A-Z is an exhaustive guide to his life’s work, his experiments with typography and his methodology. It features Igarashi’s celebrated prints as well as designs published for the first time, and archival plans, drawings and production drafts which reveal the process of thinking, creating and making.
To understand the world of Igarashi, though, is to step back in history and to Japan’s space and place in the story of design. Graphic design played a pivotal role in communicating modern Japan’s position on the world map following the defeat and devastation of World War Two. The success of events such as the 1964 Olympics Games and the 1970 Osaka Expo helped open doors for local designers and brands, who needed a unique visual expression to mark their place on the global market.
Japanese designers worked within the context of international movements, specifically modernism, but also brought to their work elements of tradition, of craft, colour application and poetic symbolism as well as references to local anime and manga. The 70s saw post-modernism enter the discussion with a new breed of graphic artists rebelling against modernism – eschewing the traditional grid pattern in favour of free forms and personal expression. It was within this scene where Igarashi began his personal typology experimentations.
Born in 1944, Igarashi’s visual world was dominated by American culture – the abundance of goods and the bold colourful graphics of Hershey chocolate bars and Lucky Strike cigarettes. He writes in the preface to the book: ‘the colourful American culture symbolised abundance and freedom. Immersing myself in the world of alphabets overlapped with dreaming of the future.’ He became fascinated by the Roman alphabet for it is ‘composed of basic geometric figures, it has a fascinatingly simple structure which makes even the most complex expression possible.’
Igarashi studied at the Tama Art University in the 1960s under the influential graphic designer Akio Kanda – his ‘Pure Graphics’ course introduced experimental methods for planar construction and spatial quality which set the foundation for his typographic practice. Later, while at UCLA, Igarashi met another mentor Mitsuru Kataoka, a pioneer of cutting-edge technology in design practice. In the US he explored the Roman alphabet further and became familiarised with Arabic numerals.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, at his independent studio in Tokyo, Igarashi set out to liberate lettering from the limits of communicative functionality. Working with the fundamental principles of graphics, he started to explore the possibilities of alphabets, using the axonometric method to draw three-dimensional letters. ‘My strong urge to free myself from conventional rules and to go beyond the drawing methods that were technically possible at that time opened up doors to a new world of creating form in infinite variations,’ he says.
Igarashi’s letters are like architecture – meticulously constructed buildings that appear three-dimensional – with the essential geometries of the alphabet, the circle, triangle and square, his building blocks. He writes: ‘The circle as a symbol of perfection is frequently used in composition for the formative nature of a circle’s centre point. The triangle serves directly as an expression of its powerful shape; and the square, with its capacity for space, is a typical framework for design.’ As he concludes in the preface to A-Z, ‘In the journey of making, there is no terminus.’
Takenobu Igarashi: A-Z is edited by Sakura Komiyama and Haruki Mori and published by Thames & Hudson. All images are strictly © Takenobu Igarashi