Kazumasa Nagai
Osaka, Japan, 1929
Who’s Who
Kazumasa Nagai is a master of Japanese graphic design and an acclaimed graphic artist.

He started studying sculpture at Geidai—Geijutsu Daigaku (National University of Arts) in Tokyo, from which he withdrew in 1951 due to health problems. The same year he was hired at Daiwabo Co., a textile manufacturing company where he was in charge of advertising, and so began his career as a graphic designer.

In 1952 he co-founded—with Ikko Tanaka, and two others—the A-Club in Osaka that organized study meetings for local designers. In 1953 he also joined the JAAC (Japan Advertising Artists Club), that strongly contributed to establish the social importance of graphic design in post-war Japan.

In 1959 he joined the 21 Association in Tokyo, a pioneering gathering of talented designers that met together on the 21st day of each month to discuss about graphic design, modern architecture, cinema, and typography. The year later he participated in the launching of the NDC (Nippon Design Center), a leading organization aimed to improve the quality of Japanese graphic design through collaboration with major companies. He designed the official mark of the center that is still used today.

During the 1960s, he designed some beautiful posters for Nikkor—the brand of lenses produced by Nikon Corporation—based on rigorous geometry and optical perception. Author of numerous excellent marks, in 1965 he designed the logotype of Asahi Breweries, the largest beer producer in Japan. In 1966 the mark he designed for Sapporo ’72 Winter Olympics was selected as the winner of a closed competition in which participated some of the best Japanese graphic designers of that time. In 1973 he designed the mark and official posters for Expo ’75 in Okinawa.

During his long career, he moved from a Gestalt-oriented graphic design to figurative and symbolic illustration dedicated to nature started in 1987 with the series “Japan” and culminated with the copperplate engravings titled “Life.” In 2014 he collaborated with Issey Miyake’s Pleats Please, developing a fashion collection and showroom exhibition.

Member of JAAC (Japan Advertising Artists Club) since 1953. Founding Member of NDC (Nippon Design Center) in 1959, he was its President from 1975 to 1986, Vice-President until 2001, and Senior Executive Advisor until today. Member of Tokyo ADC (Art Directors Club) since 1965. Member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale) since 1966. President of JAGDA (Japan Graphic Designers Association) from 1994 to 2000, he is now its Special Adviser. Chairman of the Japan Design Committee. Past-Member of JIDF (Japan Inter-Design Forum).

He was awarded prestigious recognitions including the Art Encouragement Prize from the Japan Ministry of Education in 1988, the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon in 1989, the Mainichi Design Prize—the most prestigious Japanese design award—in 1994, Tokyo ADC (Art Directors Club) Grand Prize in 1996, the Order of the Rising Sun (4th Class, Gold Rays with Rosette) and the Yusaku Kamakura Design Award in 1999, the JAGDA Award in 2009, and many others including numerous Gold Prize and Grand Prix from the International Biennale of Brno, Helsinki, Kharkiv, Moscow, Warsaw, Xalapa, and Zagreb.

His work is part of the permanent collection of major museums including the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York City, Die Neue Sammlung in Munich, the MOMAT (Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo), and the MOMAK (Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto). In 1964 he participated in Documenta III, Kassel.

Enjoy your reading,

 “Design is created on an equal balance of three areas: economy, sociology, and culture. It cannot favor one over the others.”

 “No matter how much technology advances and how many things change, communication is the act of a human being passing information to another human being.”

 “Posters are the form of expression that is closest to painting. They are readily familiar even to laypersons. With a natural combination of words and images they have a powerful persuasive ability.”

 “The aim was to create advertisements that served both as a design movement and that actually improved the advertising culture.”

 “The decision to hold the exhibitions in department stores rather than art galleries was extremely important for establishing the social position of graphic design.”

 “Without applying the Japanese traditions which had been so assiduously constructed […] there was no hope of raising the level of Japanese design.”

Published Feb 10, 2014
Recorded Sep 27, 2013
What did you want to do when you were growing up?
I wanted to be able to make something, for instance paintings, sculptures or architecture.

What was your favorite subject at school?
Japanese and Art.

When and how did your professional career start?
I enrolled in the department of sculpture at Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts), but molding required physical capacity and my overwork during and after Second World War caused me to fundal hemorrhage. I was told that I would have lost my sight if I had not had a rest. It was when I was back to my hometown, Osaka that the spinning company Daiwabo offered me a position and I started working on graphic design for posters and leaflets. However, I studied sculpture and I had no experience on graphic design, though I could imagine the design works. Therefore, I asked an assistant and drew rough designs. This is how I have started in graphic design.

How has your design evolved since that time?
In the first stage it was abstract and geometric, then it changed to imagined scenery combined with photos, and lastly it became more concrete with animals. This is only a brief summary and actually 62 years of change.

Which project do you remember with the greatest pleasure?
It includes Life series as well, but the most memorable are joining the Tokyo 1964 Olympics project, and designing the emblem of Sapporo 1972 Winter Olympics.

What do you currently want to design?
I do not think I can be directly involved due to my physical condition, but as Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics I would love to join the project. It covers all fields, ranging from products, graphic design, and architecture. I hope I can contribute something. [Note: In 2015 Mr. Nagai was Head of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Committee, choosing the identity system designed by Kenjiro Sano—one of the most interesting of recent Olympics identities—that, sadly, was later abandoned due to stupid polemics about absurd accusations of plagiarism.]

Which designers have you most admired?
I most admire A.M. Cassandre on the international stage, and Yusaku Kamekura in Japan; His trilogy of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics posters is still amazing today.

Who are your favorite architects?
Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.

What is your favorite typeface?
Among Latin alphabets, Helvetica and Univers. Among Japanese alphabets, New Gothic and Ming (Ryomin).

Lettering is always integrated with pictures in your posters. How would you describe your approach to typography? Do you prefer using existing typefaces or handwritten characters?
Because I draw illustrations, as shown in Life posters, I use such characters that the illustrations can stand out and audiences can easily read. Sometimes I write letters by hand but I basically choose existing fonts.

Do you have a particular iconography as your reference? Where does your inspiration come from? I am interested in the origin of your aesthetics.
I try to design something that uses the advantage of primitive power or nature power as much as possible. I am attracted to cave paintings and simple drawings which indigenous peoples make.

Without considering technology, what are the differences between the design in the past and today?
The design in the past was more unique because designers had their own styles. The design today has leveled up in terms of sense but designers are likely to follow similar patterns. It mostly works on peripheral nerves but should be more appealing to our souls, I suppose.

Has the way people perceive design changed?
Previously, people had the way to perceive design in nature, but now we perceive it from the internet.

What advice would you give to young aspiring designers?
They start to design on the computer from the initial stage, but I want them to give more credit to their hands. I want them to design by hand.

How would you describe a good design?
We have five senses and perceive things in nature. Now, design has functions. When we make the most of our five senses and design the most appropriate one to the function, I believe what we perceive from nature reflects on the design in a spontaneous way.

How would you describe your design?
I strive to deliver what I perceive from nature through my hands. “Strength to live,” I want audiences to feel the energy. With this in mind, I work on design.

Thank you very much.
Thank you.

© 2013-16 Kazumasa Nagai, Nicola-Matteo Munari. All rights reserved.
Poster, c.100×70 cm

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Links & Docs
Nippon Design Center Asahi Beer
Nippon Design Center Sapporo ‘72

AGI Kazumasa Nagai

Animalarium Life is Change
Animalarium Mutations
But Does It Float Kazumasa Nagai
Spoon & Tamago Design Award


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Archivio Grafica Italiana is the first digital resource to the Italian graphic design heritage. Founded by Nicola Munari in 2015.

Design consultancy based in Piacenza, Italy. Founded by Nicola Munari in 2015, it operates in the whole field of design.

© 2013-16 Nicola-Matteo Munari. All rights reserved.