Tokyo's 21_21 Design Sight

One of our favourite Tokyo exhibition spaces is gearing up for a glittering new show ~ Irving Penn & Issey Miyake Visual Dialogue. ATL (pre)views 21_21 Design Sight.


Tokyo’s Art Triangle Roppongi is a handy idea: it’s effectively an art map plus a ticketing system that allows for discounts guiding you between three art museums - the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo Midtown, the architecturally stunning National Art Centre Tokyo a few minutes walk away and Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills (guarded at the base by Louise Bourgeois’ mammoth spider “Maman”). But there’s a fourth exhibition space within the Triangle that more than holds its own among the big three – 21_21 Design Sight, brainchild of Issey Miyake.


For years, Miyake, with Ikko Tanaka, Shiro Kuramata, Tadao Ando and others (including the great Isamu Noguchi) dreamed and talked of a museum committed to the ethics of design, the importance of design and the place it plays in everyday life. In 2003 Miyake published a manifesto “Time to Create a Design Museum” and finally, in 2007 (with support from Mitsui Fudosan Co Ltd and other key sponsors) 21_21 Design Sight was born.

It’s located in Tokyo Midtown, a seriously impressive style hub, home to floors of (compulsively shop-able) interiors and homewares stores like Wise Wise Tools, Time & Style, The Cover Nippon and Muji, plus acres of green space dotted with contemporary sculpture. 21_21 stands in the gardens. Due to the genius of architect Tadao Ando and his signature use of area below ground, the building is subtle, minimal and rather beautiful from the outside and deceptively generous inside, with two floors, galleries flowing into one another, a sunken courtyard and clever natural light.

Collaboration and crosspollination, plus commitment to a Japanese aesthetic - these are core values for 21_21 Design Sight. Ando’s idea for the roof of the building as one sheet of folded steel was inspired by Issey Miyake’s philosophy A Piece of Cloth. The most recent exhibition showcased the rich collaboration between Shiro Kuramata and maestro Ettore Sottsass. It was cool to see the original 80’s Memphis furniture and lighting by the duo; Kuramata’s famous Solaris cabinet (1977, and since copycatted throughout history) and Sottsass’ Valentine Olivetti typewriter (designed in 1969); to chart the story of an inspired friendship; and to wander through the final gallery filled with strange, imaginative, never-before-seen glass creatures made from Sottsass’s last drawings based on native American Kachina figures.


The upcoming show focuses on another creative collaboration, that of Irving Penn and Issey Miyake. For 13 years – from 1987 to 1999 – legendary photographer Penn captured Miyake’s biennial fashion collections. He was given free rein – Miyake was not present during the sessions. The result was a dialogue in which each artistic vision influenced the other. With installation design by architect Shigeru Ban, featuring both the individual and collaborative work of Penn and Miyake including large scale projections of those iconic photographs, original prints on display for the first time as well as Penn’s preliminary drawings for photographing Miyake’s designs, an animated film by Pascal Roulin with drawings by Michael Crawford and more, the exhibition directed by Midori Kitamura promises to be insightful, as well as a completely gorgeous visual treat.



Irving Penn & Issey Miyake Visual Dialogue opens 16th September 2011 and runs through to April 8, 2012

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- Susie Burge, all rights reserved