21_21 DESIGN SIGHT designed by Tadao Ando

21_21 DESIGN SIGHT: Japan’s design institution founded by Issey Miyake

Japan holds a unique place in the world of modern design and architecture thanks to energetic trailblazers including: Issey Miyake (1938-, designer), Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988, sculptor), Tadao Ando (1941-, architect), Ikko Tanaka (1930-2002, graphic designer) and Shiro Kuramata (1934-1991, interior designer). For decades, they have influenced each other and helped transform Japan’s post-WWII cultural re-building struggles by offering uniquely innovative answers to counter Western modernism.

They also pursued the idea of creating a design museum in Japan in order to leverage the power of design as a critical resource for Japanese society. Issey Miyake led the way and founded 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT that opened in 2007 in the middle of the super-urban Roppongi area in Tokyo. Tadao Ando designed the building.

21_21 DESIGN SIGHT is located in the swanky Roppongi area in Tokyo.
Photo: Masaya Yoshimura

Modern Japanese design has some distinct qualities; from Issey Miyake’s origami-like creations (he also designed Steve Jobs’ signature black turtleneck sweater) and Tadao Ando’s minimalist bare concrete buildings to Ikko Tanaka’s quiet yet powerful MUJI branding, the designs are always about how to marry human-scale, delicate sensibilities with modern technology. Japanese designers often attempted to eliminate excess frills so that the products displayed crystallize simplicity, universality, versatility by leveraging artisanship, natural materials and behavioral consciousness. They were part of the drivers that helped Japanese to become one of the largest economies by the 80’s. While it is quite an achievement, considering they were working within only a couple of decades since the devastating loss in WWII, the country then stumbled into the “lost decades” – a prolonged recession that started in early 90s. After an almost euphoric growth, Japan lost momentum and was forced to go back to soul-searching.

Issey Miyake and his fellow creators became concerned about the future of Japanese design. Miyake penned an article on newspaper in 2003, stressing a need to establish a design museum in order to allow design to play a critical role in re-establishing social identity, a recovery after the lost decades.

Looking back upon the 20th century the Japanese design world was characterized by a folk craft movement in the prewar years, followed by an explosive surge in development linked to economic growth in the postwar era; and one that penetrated deeply into people’s daily lives. In the field of product design we had such giants as Isamu Kenmochi, Sori Yanagi, and Shiro Kuramata; in the graphic arts there were Yusaku Kamekura and Ikko Tanaka.
The superb work of these and other artists raised Japanese design to an international standard, with a universal and general appeal that became an integral part of our lives.
Nor should we forget Japan’s superb history of industrial design, including household sundries, electrical appliances, and architectural and environmental design. In the field of fashion design, as well, it has also been the work of Japanese designers and Japanese materials that have added excitement to creations elsewhere.
Today, the Japanese are indifferent to original ideas and technologies, as well as to the design process that gives them ‘form.’ They should be more aware of the fact that our daily life is functionally enhanced through original design, and this in turn nurtures us both culturally and spiritually. Nothing comes of simply by chasing after brand names. Too often, attempts to start something new are aborted by comments like “That’s not really possible,” followed by “There’s no money.”

But that’s not really true. Japan’s current impoverishment is not material in nature, but stems from a lack of mental confidence.
We can see this in the lack of administrative policies for the arts and design, the retreat of Japanese corporations from cultural activities, and the hopelessness espoused by our young people.

“Time to Create a Design Museum – Making the Most of Japan’s World-Class ‘Natural Resources’ in Design -“
Asahi Shimbun, published on January 28, 2003

Miyake pointed out that London opened its design museum in 1989, which was followed by similar projects in New York City, Berlin, Zurich and Helsinki among other cities. He observed that vibrant cities almost always had vibrant design communities, as design had been an effective vehicle to showcase technologies, traditions and passions for creativity fostered amongst the public.

He then implored: “Japan has no natural resources. If we Japanese are to make our way with heads held high, we must utilize more intellectual energy than ever. Surely one way to do that is to redefine ourselves as a “design nation” with international recognition. We should remind ourselves that merely to consume is not enough. It is also important to create.”

Miyake’s plea garnered enthusiastic support – businesses, designers and a variety of stakeholders got together to create a design museum in Japan, and 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT opened in 2007 as a culmination of Miyake’s tireless efforts since 80s. 

The name “21_21 DESIGHN SIGHT” was inspired by the idea of 20/20 vision. As the ability to capture visually what’s going on in your surroundings – not only physically but also metaphysically – is the first important step for designing anything, they tweaked it to 21_21 to convey the message: “try to see ahead of things you can physically see.” It feels so fitting as Japanese design has almost always started from a Zen-like, uncompromising, thorough observation of the world.

Photo: Masaya Yoshimura

Ever since its inception, 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT continues to be the venue to explore a variety of design ideas and innovations, involving designers, engineers, artisans/craftsmen, businesses and the public. Their exhibitions, panel discussions or workshops focus on design that can be found in everyday life so that visitors can renew their perspective on design through their own daily experience.

Tadao Ando’s design concept

Issey Miyake’s long, outstanding career has been defined by his unique design philosophy: A piece of cloth. It is about focusing on your body, a piece of cloth that covers it, the in-betweens (the fit or margin, for example), and these collective relationships that help create beautiful and comfortable clothes.

It is about focusing on your body, a piece of cloth that covers it, the in-betweens (the fit or margin, for example), and their collective relationships that help create beautiful/comfortable clothes.

So Ando attempted to introduce his concept of “A piece of iron sheet:” – a seamless piece of metal covers a building so that it will naturally be embraced by the surrounding environment. In order to achieve his goal, he buried 80 percent of the building mass under the ground. (As a result, the building became horizontally expansive, which happens to be one of the characteristics of traditional Japanese architecture that fascinated Frank Lloyd Wright.)

However, it was a challenge to actually have “A piece of iron sheet” cover the building: how do you process a gigantic piece of 54 m steel so that it perfectly fits over the entire structure? Ando applauds everyone who was involved in the design, engineering and construction, as it required high level of precision and and determination throughout the process. The quality of work is also on display, both interior and exterior: Ando kept up a constant stream of communication with the team who worked on the ground in order to deliver the best results for every detail, including staircases, banisters and ceilings.

Ando hopes that 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT will serve as a cultural hub where a variety of people, especially the young, will experience the potential of design so that they can leverage it in shaping their cultural identity in the future.

Gallery 3 exteriors

Ando hopes that 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT will serve as a cultural hub where a variety of people, especially the young, will experience the potential of design so that they can leverage it in shaping their cultural identity in the future.  

Photo: Masaya Yoshimura

21_21 DESIGN SIGHT interiors
Beautiful details in harmony with the sunlight coming through the windows.
Photo: Masaya Yoshimura

Gallery 3 interiors
Gallery 3 is a space dedicated to encourage collaborative programs with domestic and overseas corporations.
Photo: Masaya Yoshimura

Current exhibition: “traNslatioNs – Understanding Misunderstanding” (through March 7, 2021)

What kind of exhibitions does 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT offer? It’s eye-opening to browse the list of its exhibitions past and future, as they are often not something you’d think of when you hear “design.” For example, the current exhibition is about translation.

Translation – an act of converting meanings from one language to other – is intangible. However, it is a mechanism intricately designed so that you can understand ideas expressed in a language you have no idea how it works. So you can say that translation is a design endeavor, whose quality affects the results drastically: great translation helps you understand others’ ideas accurately, whereas poor translation can actually lead to misunderstanding. 

Also, communication using “translation” is not restricted to languages, the exhibition reminds us: “There are translations where visual or auditory sensations, or even bodily expressions bridge transmitting or receiving communicated information. Diverse interpretations, conversions and expressions that are generated by all these processes have a lot in common with art and design.” Translation is about designing communication,” the exhibition tells us, challenging our casual assumptions.

“traNslatioNs – Understanding Misunderstanding” (through March 7, 2021)

Admissions: General 1200 Yen, College student 800 yen, High school student 500 yen

Venue: 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT Gallery 1 & 2

Midtown Garden, Tokyo Midtown, 9-7-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan

TEL +81-3-3475-2121



Exhibition Director: Dominique Chen

21_21 DESIGN SIGHT Directors: Issey Miyake, Taku Sato, Naoto Fukasawa

Ella Frances Sanders

“Lost in Translation: An Illustration of Compendium of Untranslatable Words”

Google Creative Lab + Studio TheGreenEyl + Dominique Chen
“Found in Translation”

Photo: Keizo Kioku

Asa Ito (Tokyo Institute of Technology) + Akiko Hayashi
(NTT Service Evolution Laboratories) + Junji Watanabe
(NTT Communication Science Laboratories} “Sports Guide Without Sight”

Photo: Keizo Kioku