Research at AIIT

Dialog with an Uncertain Future / Excerp (Irregular updates)

The 14th Installment“The Birth of Industrial Design”

by Yoshie Kunisawa,
Professor, Master Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering

“Industrial design” refers to the design sector concerned with the manufacture (monozukuri) of general industrial products that include automobiles, household electrical appliances, and information equipment, as well as furniture, fixtures and fittings, household goods and suchlike, together with industrial and commercial equipment, and so forth.

This term is considered to have taken root in Japan as a result of various factors: from the 1950s onward, recognizing the importance of design, managers of all large manufacturers established(1) in-house design departments; in 1952 the Japan Industrial Designers’ Association(2) was established, and the role and function of industrial design came to be understood; and the importance of design received wide publicity when Raymond Loewy(3), the then successful industrial designer who came to Japan in 1951, was commissioned by the Monopoly Corporation to produce the packaging design for Peace (cigarettes), resulting in a three-fold expansion of sales.

However, writing in the editorial “The History of Industrial Design in Japan” carried in Kogei News(4) [Industrial Arts News] Vol.21-1, 1953, the author Katsuhei Toyoguchi(5) states, “The discovery that the expression ‘industrial design’ had already been mentioned as part of the curriculum in the Tokyo High School of Industrial Arts(6) English information pamphlet 50 years ago is still surprising to me.” Since this editorial was carried in 1953, it means somewhere around the early 1900s. Incidentally, the design era in Europe at the time was that of the new décor known as art nouveau, composed of organic curvilinear forms with plant and other motifs, which bore no trace of the lineage of modern design that is Deutscher Werkbund [German Work Federation(7)] (1907) or Bauhaus(8) (1919). What is more, it also makes it 20 years before industrial designers began to be active in the United States.

In the same editorial, the author goes on to say, “The opening up of Japan to the West in the Meiji era was accompanied by remarkable development in commercial and industrial enterprise, with printed matter for commercial advertising or dyeing products for the textile industry in particular requiring artistic designers. Initially, this work was performed by traditional Japanese-style and Western-style painters engaging in artistic design as a side business, since furniture, machinery and tools, everyday sundries, new-style artifacts, and such like were mundane, foreign-made imitations, far removed from the lives of the Japanese, so that if anything it seems distinctly ludicrous when we think of it today … The emphasis on luxury items, a bias toward the manufacture of industrial artworks, instead of thinking more deeply how to beautify common utilitarian goods, was a big mistake …in particular, the time has now come for the importance of design to be emphasized in education and sales and marketing.” This shows how European countries began to focus on design development as a trend, and as the practice of that trend, leading to the morphological and aesthetic revolution of utilitarian goods in order to improve the competitive standing of the products of their own countries, and how this was fully understood in Japan, where the full-scale process of nurturing industrial designers had begun.

Incidentally, the morphological and aesthetic revolution of the time becomes consolidated in ideas of modern design that took hold later. Underpinned by the demands for standardization and regularization of modern rationalism in industrial society from the industrial revolution onward, this is the act of “manipulating shape” while placing importance on rational sensuousness. With this, the focal point had become how to design items that fulfill primarily a physical function rationally and efficiently, in other words, items that employ minimal morphological language (designing with the minimum shaping elements) making them as morphologically simple and easy to manufacture as possible.

Finally, the practice of this modern design trend characterizes the early period of industrial design, especially from the Taisho period to the early Showa period.

1 In 1951 a product design section was established at Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd., said to be the first in-house design organization in Japan. This was created by Konosuke Matsushita on his return to Japan following a visit to the United States in 1951, where he observed that a radio was being sold in Macy’s Department Store for 10 dollars more simply because of a difference in design (external design), giving him a first-hand understanding of the importance of design for the future of his business management. Around the same time, other companies also established similar organizations.

2 Founded in 1952, becomes an incorporated body (under jurisdiction of Ministry of Economy, Trade) in1969. Japan’s only professional organization for industrial designers, it aims to contribute to the healthy development of industry through the dissemination of education in respect of industrial design, carrying out research studies and so forth, and improving the culture of industrial design in everyday life.

3 Raymond Loewy: A pioneering figure in industrial design. Born 1893 France. Went to the United States after the First World War, where his work in department store decoration and illustration led him to start a design business. Went on to work on numerous industrial product designs and packaging designs. His designs were reputed to result in increased sales, and thus the profession of industrial designer is said to have taken root in the U.S.

4 Volume 1 was issued in 1932 (June, Showa 7) by the then National Research Institute of Industrial Arts (established March 1928 with the aim of providing industrial art (design) information by the national research body. Despite the gap during the war period, it was enjoyed as a valuable source of information for those involved in industrial design for 42 years. Publication was discontinued with Volume 41, Nos. 3-4, July 1974.

5 Katsuhei Toyoguchi: Born 1905 (Akita Prefecture), graduated from the Industrial Arts Design Department of the Tokyo High School of Industrial Arts (1928), formed the Keiji Kobo [Ideal Form Atelier], and pursued research into the comfort of chair seats at the National Research Institute of Industrial Arts. Became Art Director of Japan Airlines DC-8 (1958), established the Toyoguchi Design Research Center (1959), head of the Industrial Arts Department of Musashino Art University (1960), Display Adviser for the Osaka Expo (1969), etc. Awards include the Order of the Sacred Treasure, 3rd Class, the Third Kunii Kitaro Special Prize, and the 1st Award for Distinguished Designers. Died July 18, 1991.

6 Tokyo High School of Industrial Arts corresponds to the present-day Tokyo Institute of Technology, and set up an Industrial Design Department in 1901 (Meiji 34), which aimed to “seek the beautification of everyday utility goods through research into industrial design that is applicable to common products,” and may be said to have truly put into practice the early education goals in respect of industrial design.

7 A group formed in 1907 in Munich, by industrialists, architects, designers, and critics. Advocated manufacture (monozukuri) by mass production based on standardization and regularization. Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927) became central to the group’s activities, asserting that in order to achieve the quantitative and qualitative improvement of German goods, “standardization” should be promoted. In 1914 held his first exhibition in Cologne. Works exhibited included those by Walter Gropius (1883-1969), the first head of the Bauhaus school, Bruno Taut (1880-1937), and Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956), who was active at the Vienna Secession.

8 A comprehensive educational body for art, industrial arts, design, architecture, and so forth, established in Weimar (Germany) in 1919. Brought about the development of modern design thought based on functionalism (the idea of design and molding against the backdrop of rationalism from the industrial revolution onward). The morphological and aesthetic revolution in everyday life brought a qualitative dimension that helped consummate the results of the industrial revolution.

Back to index page

  • The 15th Installment

    “My Research”

    by Shogo Shimizu,
    Assistant Professor, Master Program of Information Systems Architecture
  • The 14th Installment

    “The Birth of Industrial Design”

    by Yoshie Kunisawa,
    Professor, Master Program of Innovation for Design and Engineering
  • The 13th Installment

    “The Ability to Recognize Successful Technology When You See It”

    by Shigeru Shimada,
    Professor, Master Program of Information Systems Architecture