We Came, We Saw, We Ate

The AGI Congress in Japan was a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.


Tokyo in autumn is like Tokyo in spring. It rains. A lovely soft warm rain that blurs the ugly concrete egg boxes, glistens off the leaves of the plentiful planting in the richer districts and makes the rainbow neons of the Ginza shopping district dazzle and shimmer with hallucinatory effect.

The first night of the Alliance Graphique International Congress in Japan, September 2006, however, it positively poured and, clutching the courtesy umbrellas provided by their hotels, the delegates splashed through the narrow Ginza alleys for registration at the Ginza Graphic Gallery and an exhibition of Kakejiku; hanging scrolls of calligraphy and illustration.

The AGI is a venerable body of elected members from all over the world, mostly graphic designers, also illustrators and architects, some practicing in all these disciplines. They are the crème de la crème of the international design set, bristling with talent and bonhomie and showing little of the petty jealousies and backbiting that would be enjoyed by a similar collection of architects, say, or psychiatrists. Graphic design gossip is good natured.

At the next stop that evening, which was for an exhibition of AGI Japanese members’ new work, retiring president Laurence Madrelle from France made a graceful speech about the 360 AGI members, “each trying to achieve visual culture in our own countries”, she reminded us. Here, there was a tiered buffet, so glistening and perfect it looked like those plastic foods you find in the windows of Japanese restaurants and which are sold as craft objects (a bowl of replica Ramen noodles can set you back 4000 yen).

I turned away for a moment to talk to David Hillman of Pentagram about the much loved Alan Fletcher who had tragically died the previous Thursday. “We knew he was ill, of course,” said Hillman, “but I still can’t believe it.” Tributes are pouring in to Pentagram. When I turned around, the buffet was bare save the odd bone and melon rind. The bar flourished however and, fortified, we moved on to the exhibition and afterwards to one of those restaurants where you have to sit with your feet in a pit and enjoy a pre-arranged menu: mysterious but delicious.

Next day, off to the Kuwazawa Design School and a programme of student symposiums and speakers. Outstanding was Istvan Orosz from Hungary, quite outside the mainstream of the graphic fashion for primary colours. With simple shapes and attention grabbing ideas, his work was black and white and “drawn”. The most beautiful drawing. He referred to it as “the art of here and now at the point of the intersection of time and place”. Whatever it was, it was a macabre urban vision of a Mauritz Escher world (influence acknowledged), a pretty dystopian vision, particularly the commemoration of the 1956 revolution, with broken columns, hanging and damaged masonry.

There were paradoxes in space, mazes with double meanings, architectural impossibilities (“now you see it, now you don’t”) and, above all, all of it drawn, the most old-fashioned and meticulous drawing. Another speaker, Garth Walker from South Africa, provided a complete contrast; colourful, robust images of beach and street scenes, vernacular packaging of great vitality and a moving monument to Blood River, a famous Zulu insurrection.

In the evening, we were bussed to the Toppan Printing Co and its beautifully presented museum of the history of printing and communication. It was all very up-to-the-minute in terms of exhibition design and very hands-on. The Prologue Zone “offers visitors the opportunity to see, listen, and feel the powerful message of our predecessors”, according to the catalogue. There were demonstrations of moveable type and I was allowed to print my own souvenir sheet and had it signed by the four printers (one of them a young woman) in their best calligraphy.

This new museum is probably the finest printing and communication resource in the world. Normally blasé senior graphic designers hopped from exhibit to exhibit like children in a candy shop. Everything was there from a reproduction Rosetta Stone to priceless original manuscripts, leather-bound first editions, printing for the masses (posters, packaging) and printing in the digital age.

Toppan, a (deservedly) very rich company, also has a restaurant and here we were treated to a banquet and the soothing lute music and songs of Kakujo Nakamura. We ate small lobsters and Kobe beef and exchanged business cards in the Japanese fashion. Patrick Thomas from London, now Barcelona, gave me some postcards.

At the crack of dawn next day we were off to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, the legendary bullet train: swift, clean, comfortable; utterly efficient – but expensive compared with Tokyo’s superb metro network. Part of the pleasure of the two and a half hour journey was the ticket collectors, all picked for their fashion-model looks; tall and slim with an elegant tailored buff uniform, peaked caps and white gloves. These young men, like every one else it seemed in Japan, were utterly polite and constantly  bowing; a graceful incline of the head. The AGI group joked, chatted and munched into their breakfast boxes while the undistinguished, mostly industrial, landscape sped past in a blur.

At Kyoto Seika University we were greeted by a hundred or so students lining the steep approach to the lecture hall. “Hallo, hallo, welcome”. Most of them snapped us, and each other, with their state of the art digital cameras. Others handed us diagrams with the location of the toilets.

The keynote speaker was Dr Lee O Young, the founder and former minister of the Korean Ministry of Culture. He was introduced by the head of the department of communications who told us about “wabi” and “sabi” – the idea of a spare and lovely beauty, sensitivity to detail and the appreciation of subtle beauty, understatement and refinement; “enryo” – a need to hesitate or refrain; and “kio tsakou”, which is about sensitivity to others and anticipating their desires. How wonderful; how Japanese.

Dr Young, obviously a formidable intellect, gave a somewhat obscure address on hierarchies in Japanese culture and elements that engender change, using the game “rock, paper, scissors” as a complex metaphor and a local drinking game “snake beats frog, frog beats rat, slug beats snake”. A graphic demonstration would have been welcome.

Demonstrations there were, however: present wrapping with Mizaki (starched mulberry paper string) with ritualistic knots and symbolic colours. Then there was Ukiyo-e, a form of printmaking incorporating techniques of Japanese painting. Here the artist crouched in front of his equipment and ever so swiftly applied colours to the engraved wood printing block, aligned the registration marks, placed handmade heavy paper on the block and rubbed it with the handmade Baren or rubbing pad. This process was repeated for different colours and, voila, a superb wood block print.

A fun demonstration was made by a merry fellow in a business suit with a Furoshiki, a square of cotton cloth. With accompanying patter he wrapped a book, a bottle, a tube and, marvellously, a watermelon, each parcel with its own special knots. Delegates were given a boxed Furoshiki to practice with, but with its special AGI graphic it is too beautiful to use. Environmentally-friendly, a Furoshiki is used over and over until worn and then cut up for dusters. Better than Tesco bags.

We then travelled north east to Enryakuki Temple on Mount Hieie. It was tranquil and chilly at 845 metres high, a complex of buildings and gardens of great beauty. Here in the ancient wooden central temple bulging, smelling of incense and sounding with gongs, there was a memorial service for those AGI members who had died in the last year or so, including our beloved Alan Fletcher. It was very moving.

Back to the Kyoto Seika University, this time to the tatami room for Zappin – an AGI tradition – a seven minute presentation by ten speakers. Here, some of the younger members got a chance, including the newest and youngest AGI member, Chinese designer and publisher, Jianping He, now resident in Berlin. He, I suspect, was one of the stars at last year’s congress in Berlin and gave an animated presentation complete with sonorous cello soundtrack. Utterly sophisticated.

Micheal de Boerg of the esteemed Studio Dumbar in the Netherlands gave us a presentation of old work (Post Office, Dutch Rail) and new, the EU logo. An enthusiastic speaker, he exhorted us to “follow your heart to create design” and reminded us to “constantly question whether we were in the business of creation or creation of business”. Taku Satoh then traced the genesis of the penguin on his packaging for Cool Mint chewing gum. “Flipper up or down, left side or right side?” Henning Wagenbreth, from Berlin, gave us some very strong illustrations of St Helena, Napoleon’s island of exile and we also got a sneak preview of the Beijing Olympic graphics. New York’s Christoph Niemann brought the house down with his very funny and pointed drawings. “I work without preconceptions,” he said. “Design has to have an idea.”

After a Geisha performance there was another generous reception. This time with a stunning view over the whole of Kyoto.

The next day was quite relaxing. A sightseeing tour of two of Kyoto’s most famous temples: Ginkakuji, which is a celebration of nature and the four seasons and Ryounji Temple, where there is a mysterious rock garden consisting of nothing but white gravel and 15 rocks. What does it mean? The walls are made of clay boiled in oil. As time went by an abstract patterning emerged from oil seeping through the clay.

Then to an exquisite traditional restaurant in Tokyo’s old quarter. I, alas, had to leave for the Shinkansen and then back to London and missed the final night banquet which was apparently quite sensational. “It was just wonderful, absolutely fantastic,” says Melbourne designer David Lancashire. “It was in a club on the fifty-third floor of a building in Roppongi, the lift was lit from the underside; magic. The food was exquisite; they really laid it on, and there were Taiko drummers with their six-foot high drums; two of these drums had been brought together for the first time in 100 years.”

I remember these drummers. There was a group of Taiko drummers at the AGI congress, last in Tokyo 18 years ago. I was there and the incredible sound they made reverberates through me still.


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