PRINT May 1986


Kohei Sugiura: contemporary offerings to the shrine of the book.

A BOOK IS NOT ONLY a vehicle for its author, it is also a container of emotion for its readers. It may produce laughter or tears; it may offer a leisurely promenade for solitary meditation, or be a convenient, replaceable object that can overshadow pictures on the wall as an element of interior design. It embodies access to circulating information. But there is more to it. A book represents the maternal, productive nature of design and the freedom of visual art. There is even a temple dedicated to books: the Shrine of the Book, in Jerusalem, created by Frederick Kiesler and Armand Bartos in 1965.

With some exceptions—notably in the genre of works made and conceived by artists and known for the last two decades as “artists’ books”—the field of books as visual art has been stagnant for a long while. Novel cover designs appear one after the other, as sheer decoration; like haute couture fashion design, they give little consideration to what is inside them. I miss a creative attitude toward design, and designers who understand their books’ contents, who read the minds of their authors and editors and if necessary show them something they don’t expect. We have been lacking such radicals for some time. But I know of one man who does experiment with the most ambitious kind of editorial design, and that is Kohei Sugiura.

Editorial design in Japan over the past twenty years has qualitatively improved almost solely through Sugiura’s insight and adventurousness. A graphic designer who graduated from the architecture department at Tokyo’s National University of Arts, Sugiura, since the outset of his career, has concentrated on books and magazines, that is, on printed materials with editorial content. He has also designed books of artists’ works, music scores (in collaboration with musicians), and postage stamps, along with various cartographic diagrams—“image maps.” He is a perceptive researcher, with interests in ethnic and contemporary music and in the iconography of the mandala. Western art too is important to Sugiura: in some ways he is a true descendant of El Lissitzky and Herbert Bayer, and he taught for a while at the Fachhochschule in Ulm, West Germany. He was, in fact, a forerunner in the crusade to bring together Eastern and Western concepts of culture, a meeting that held for him the promise of an intellectual variant on the religious conversion.

Sugiura’s versatile talent cannot be adequately described through reference to a single group of his works, but one may try to approach it chronologically In the ’60s, with the philosophy of the Bauhaus as his foundation, Sugiura was using rigorous mathematical images to express the complexity of perception. In the ’70s his images became suffused with the concepts of prāna and ch’i—yogic ideas, the former Indian and the latter Chinese, but both deeprooted in Asian culture at large, conflating breath with the vital force or spirit. At the same time, Sugiura was trying to loosen up his graphic images with elements of “noise’’ and redundancy In the ’80s, one may say that a kind of comprehensive cosmology of design has emerged in his works, a cosmic sense that might be called ”omnireciprocity.’’ But in this column I would like to focus on Sugiura’s continuing contribution to the reformation of print as art.

Sugiura’s influence on Japanese books and magazines has been immeasurable. In the late ’60s and early ’70s his experimental designs for the legendary Japanese architectural magazine SD, and also for Toshi-Jutaku (Urban housing), on whose concept he collaborated with Arata Isozaki, far exceeded in their variety the experiments of the contemporary American designer Herbert Lubalin. Editors eagerly pounced on him, descending on his studio to try to persuade him to design something, anything, everything. I was no exception; at the time I was starting the magazine YU, which thanks to Sugiura’s participation came to symbolize the look of Japanese magazines in the ’70s.

In the mid ’80s, the image of Sugiura’s greatness remains intact. But where does his true fascination lie? For one thing, his designs process a great deal of material to its maximum density. If one compares them to the work of other designers dealing with the same themes, one finds that they render visually ten or twenty times more information, just as a videodisc brings clearer resolution to a greater range of images than a videotape can. Secondly, Sugiura’s approach to the book takes into account and incorporates the experience of the reader. In most editorial design, the reader is expected to follow two separate elements that develop in linear parallel: text, and graphics, photographs, or other illustrations. Sugiura, however, deconstructs the reader’s visual and linguistic experience, breaking them into complex fractions, and then reintegrating them. He understands the leaps and pauses of the reader’s eye, and works with them, allowing a kind of retinal fluctuation and variance rather than imposing a linear track. Thirdly, he realizes these effects by continually developing and selecting eloquent type fonts, letter forms, and images. And finally; he neither imposes conformity on all the parts of a book nor proceeds by single pages or spreads, but considers the work as a continuum. One fully grasps the integrity of one of his books only by picking it up and flipping through its pages from cover to cover.

These qualities are clearly visible in Sugiura’s recent work for Tokyo magazines as different as Episteme, a post-Structuralist journal, and Ginka, which specializes in folk craft. In Episteme Sugiura radically changes the syntax of the layout with each article, while the densely, uniformly arranged information in Ginka permeates from the core of each issue to the cover. Sugiura’s latest book work, Cosmology of the Written Word (Tokyo: Sha-ken Co., Ltd., 1985), beautifully embodies his philosophy, especially since all the images included in it were collected by Sugiura himself. If properly designed, a book can be sculpture, architecture, a sensorial device, a toy. It may even become a sort of biofeedback laboratory, a fantasy museum, an artificial intelligence equipped with pages. It offers a congregation in which people can simultaneously join while staying at home; it offers a ritual through which one can dedicate one’s prayers. Why has it been so hard for the actuality of books to become as versatile as their potential? The answer, I regret, lies in the laziness of editors and designers, and in the lack of understanding of books in the world at large, which restrains them in their present roles and restricts their lives.

Seigow Matsuoka is the editor-in-chief of objet magazine YU and a freelance editorial director who lives in Tokyo. He contributes a column on philosophies of craft to Artforum.

Translated from the Japanese by Kazue Kobata.