Yolanda Zappaterra talks to designer Koji Mizutani about his work and involvement with Selfridges’ forthcoming Tokyo Life, London Life exhibition.

Koji Mizutani, one of Japan’s leading designers, has a new mantra for the new millennium, and he’s pushing it with the zeal of any recent convert. “New design, new communication,” he enunciates carefully to me, at least five times, during our meeting in the draughty, cavernous reception area of London’s Berners Hotel, where Mizutani is temporarily resident.

With 24 years’ experience as a designer and art director in Tokyo, you’d expect him to be big on communication. But it’s only in the last two of those years that he’s become so emphatic about “new communication”, and it’s the Merry project – which has brought him to London – that’s behind this new-found enthusiasm, because the success, wealth and fame acquired in Japan’s – and Mizutani’s – boom years of the 1980s weren’t enough. “Something was missing. There was lots of money, lots of work, I was very busy. But I wasn’t happy,” admits Mizutani.

That may be because, having set up his own design office, Mizutani Studio, in 1983, after a six-year stint at the Nippon Design Centre, he quickly became a darling of the fashion and advertising worlds, with all their glamour, wealth and aspirational messages. Clients included Seibu, Virgin and international fashion companies. Awards included gold medals from the New York Art Directors Club and the International Poster Biennale in Warsaw, and requests for additions to collections came in from museums worldwide.

But beyond that patchy PR-supplied information lies a past that Mizutani is not keen to discuss. It’s as though, having reinvented himself and found his calling as a communicator rather than image-maker, the dapper 50-year-old, even indoors bundled up in scarf, overcoat and polo neck against the driving sleet outside, simply wants to forget 22 of his past 24 years in design. Could it be that he’s ashamed of them?

“I became a graphic designer so I could deliver a message, and maybe even have a chance to change things, not to become rich, but somewhere I’d lost direction, lost meaning,” he says candidly. Salvation came through two peculiar routes; the recession and the Kobi earthquake of 1995.

“What was a terrible time for so many and still is, was a lucky point for me. I lost a lot of work and clients, but I found more time to do my own work, and move away from commercial work to more political work. I was asked by the [Japanese] government to produce some posters that would offer hope to the victims of the Kobi earthquake, and that was a turning point. Here was meaningful work that I could do because I’d earned so much during the boom years of the 1980s. I could do public projects for little or no money. I knew already that what makes you happy isn’t money, so I wasn’t scared of not having it,” says Mizutani happily.

Another changing aspect was the move away from conspicuous wealth in design projects. “At the time, Japanese graphic design was all about spending lots of money in order to create high-quality work, irrespective of what the work was about. Design was becoming more like highly qualified craftsmanship, rather than art-related image-making. In printing, paper, repro, colours and so on, everything had to be rich, sumptuous, and the message was lost,” recalls Mizutani.

“At the same time, political posters were coming out of Eastern Europe where the printing quality was terrible – only two colours, printed on cheap paper – but the message, the design, was so much stronger. It was clearly communicating, and it led me to the realisation that I had to forget everything and start again, to rethink what communication meant and getting messages to the people,” explains Mizutani.

Strange then that a trip to the US, paeon to advertising, confusion marketing and the brand, should provide Mizutani with his new direction. From capturing on film the exuberance of three young girls on a bus, came a book which led to the idea of similarly capturing the energy, and, through interviews, the hopes, dreams and desires of Japanese youngsters to create an exhibition which would involve the subject as participant, but also the viewer as participant.

Mizutani explains, “I took thousands of pictures in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, and from these selected around 500 to be made up into big posters hanging from the ceiling of the Laforet Museum. Speakers played the comments made by the girls at the time of taking their pictures. People who came to see the show could have their pictures taken and those images would also be made into posters, which decorated the rest of the museum and spread out into other areas of the Laforet complex.

“What I wanted to do – which reflects my belief that art in the new century will be on a level with the viewer, not elevated above them – was break down the distance between the work and the person looking at it.” The spontaneity and ever-changing nature of the show proved hugely successful: 30 000 people saw it, and also saw the posters being printed on-site by Epson, which collaborated with Mizutani on the show and made the most of new technology to bring printing costs down to £5000 from the £2m Mizutani estimates it would have once cost.

Next month, the project’s latest incarnation, Tokyo Life, London Life, will take over 12 windows (in a collaboration with Jason Kedgely at Tomato) and most of one floor of Selfridges, where images from the Laforet show will be displayed with sound, projected text messages and photography, while back at Laforet the Japanese will be experiencing young Londoners. And at both sites, large-scale projections will display messages sent to the Merry website, at www. 21merry.net. Mizutani has also designed the identity for Selfridges’ Japanese extravaganza.

“I want the work to speak to every kind of person, regardless of nationality, gender and generation. Merry is universal, everyone can be involved in it and it speaks to everyone clearly,” enthuses Mizutani, who believes this positive kind of art/ design hybrid is the future. Which begs the question, what was working with Tomato like? “Its work is the opposite to mine. Where Tomato’s is powerful, dark and underground, mine is very positive, colourful and light. I think because of this it’s a good mixture of work, and it’s an interesting passing point for a generation whose taste is moving towards a more positive style of work,” says Mizutani. “I think art, design and the creative arts will continue to merge, and I think that’s tied to global communication and accessibility. Borders are disappearing. I don’t believe there is East and West any more, what’s important, where the differences lie, is with the individual,” he insists.

Looking at the pictures again after Mizutani touches on the girls using fashion as an escape from financial and family troubles, you begin to see past the toothy smiles to something darker. I ask him if he found there to be much difference between these youngsters and the 500-plus London faces that the Japanese audiences will see, and he looks thoughtful. “At the moment of looking through the viewfinder and taking the picture, my perception was that people are the same, have the same smiling faces, everywhere. But London people are darker,” he says. I suggest that this is because they are more serious and he looks confused, “No, darker clothes.”

It’s definitely the time for new design, new communication.

Tokyo Life, London Life is at Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1A from 1-31 May

Latest articles