Nakagawa Kenzo

Nakagawa Kenzo moves with calm and little wasted movement. While neither fidgety nor overly animated, his eyes are alive with restless energy. It’s as if, behind them, his mind is working over a number of problems at one time. A myriad tiny gears moving quietly at great speed—that’s how an artist might depict a designer’s mind.

“Do you understand the difference between art and design?”

Art is for art’s sake, while design is for practical purpose?

“Yes! Design has function!”

That dichotomy as the basis for discussion of art and design is a tired one and Nakagawa thankfully offers another angle.

“People sometimes think of design as majime (serious, purposeful) and art as fumajime (without aim), but there is a third way: himajime (“not-of-seriousness”). It’s like looking at things from a diagonal perspective. That’s my clause. I think the Beatles recognized that there were three ways.”

Perusing some of the products and designs in Nakagawa’s sprawling office in Bashamichi, Yokohama, I start to see what he means by this concept. His illustrated map of the city is both functional and playful. The Blue Dal dog character he designed for a special line of local products appeals to both children and adults; it’s simple, memorable, and stimulates the imagination. His logo design for Bay Brewing Yokohama, a local craft brewery, has a look that is both modern and classic.

Nakagawa presides over NDC, a design outfit with ten designers and roughly thirty employees who help run associated goods shops throughout Yokohama. Here, where the city has been trying to brand itself as an art and design hub, his work has become as iconic as his appearance. His success derives not simply from talent and perspective, but a business approach that has found great appeal.

“Let’s say you have some problem, some challenge. Design is the answer. A designer is much like a lawyer or a doctor. Lawyers find legal solutions to problems. Doctors find remedies. Designers do the same in the commercial realm. If a business has a need, we sit down and consult with them. We don’t just make things for people. Communication is very important. And the right designs contribute to a more comfortable life.”

He cites Holland has having cities with excellent design, in large part because design has ensured the survival of some of the cities. I ask him about Tohoku cities along the coast that are trying to rebuild themselves. How can design help them?

“What they had is all gone. How do you recreate a city that yet still maintains the memory of what it was? I think all that rubble should be used to create a seawall with trees, as they are proposing in some places—that idea is good design. It has meaning and purpose—sometimes you should just forget style and beauty.”

Sometimes. It’s clear that Nakagawa is attracted by style and beauty much more than simple function. We talk a long time about Seymour Chwast, of Pushpin Studio in New York, whose style influences Nakagawa’s work. In particular, Nakagawa cites Chwast’s illustrations for magazines such as The New Yorker. Talk turns to publishing and he asks me which publications I admire. I admit that classic Playboy magazines from the 1960s and 70s had fantastic design that still inspire.

“Yes,” Nakagawa exclaims, “Arthur Paul is a genius!” The art director who designed the magazine’s famous logo carried Playboy through its first thirty years, garnering hundreds of awards for design and illustration. But illustrators seem to be a dying breed, as printed publications cut back on personnel expenses and digital art permeates our lives ever more.

Nakagawa assures me, “There will always be a rediscovery of good things, and printed matter will be one of them. And that rediscovery will make printed matter even richer. Obviously, you can feel paper. It is a ‘real’ (he stresses the word) experience. It will actually become more important to us in the future, like live music, which is also real.”

We agree that the world is at a crossroads between analog and digital, with the former diminishing by the days.

“However,” Nakagawa interjects, “the notion that in this digital age, anyone can become a designer is just plain wrong. Software is merely an enabler.”

Nakagawa would know better than anyone. He was the first designer in Japan to begin using a Macintosh computer, and that legacy machine still sits on his enormous bookshelf. Back in 1984 when he began using a Mac, the computer company had not yet asserted its product as the design computer par excellence. In fact, Apple was so pleased by this early adopter, who had made a name for himself even back then, that several years later they flew Nakagawa and his team to San Francisco and drove them to corporate headquarters in a limo.

Nakagawa explains, “People thought I was weird because I started using a Mac. People said the computers were slow. Well, a baby is slow, too. You have to nurture a baby to maturity and I could see that the Mac had a lot of potential.”

This designer likely sees potential in everything, though. I often spot him strolling around Yokohama, quietly studying his environment. Everything is a design. Some are better than others. Nothing is perfect.

“Yokohama is a port city. It is where East has met West in Japan. It’s a crossroads. In our city designs, we have to be aware of this and run with it.”

He nods, smiles and repeats, as if remembering his most important axiom, “Be aware.”




















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