In Memoriam - The Work of Miyake Issey and His Legacy of Creation


Miyake Issey passed away suddenly on August 5 in 2022.

Miyake studied clothing design in Paris, established the Miyake Design Studio in 1970, and continually utilized his rich and inventive imagination to develop his artistry. He was a rare talent, an individual whose influence transcended the fashion world and had an effect on design culture as a whole. As a student, he submitted a written opinion to the World Design Assembly reacting to the fact that clothing was not a theme at the conference. As a designer, he always considered what it meant to design for the "times," under the—decidedly neither Eastern nor Western—concept, "A Piece of Cloth," with an eye to designing clothing for the many rather than the few.

In the 2000s, Miyake proposed to the design culture at large the idea of a national design museum—Design Museum Japan. The de facto promotional hub for this movement would become 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, a design museum in the Roppongi area of Tokyo, born out of a dialogue between Miyake and the world-renowned architect Ando Tadao.

21_21 DESIGN SIGHT has already hosted many exhibitions and become an integral part of the world's design landscape. This movement that Miyake established is expected to bring in more of the world's designers and creatives, and to contribute in an immense way to the future of design culture.

Miyake Issey (right), Isamu Noguchi (center), and Ando Tadao (left), chatting in New York in May 1988.

Communicating Design as Culture, and Passing It Down

The idea for a design museum was born out of conversations between Miyake Issey, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and the architect Ando Tadao. The first step towards this design museum was 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT.

It was May 13, 1988. Miyake Issey, who had been visiting New York for the "Isamu Noguchi - The New Bronzes: 1987-88" exhibition, was engaged in a passionate discussion with Noguchi and the architect Ando Tadao about the future of design in Japan. The conversation eventually moved on to the need for a site that could be used to promote design in Japan. The three agreed that they would turn this idea into a reality. By the end of the same year, however, Noguchi had passed away. For Miyake and Ando, the idea for the design museum would become a dying wish they had inherited from Noguchi.

In 2003, Miyake contributed an article to The Asahi Shimbun newspaper calling for the establishment of the design museum. The article questioned why Japan had never properly recognized or valued the design artistry within the country. This, he argued, despite the country being home to skilled designers, distinct techniques and technologies, and companies that have released well-designed products out into the world. The article made quite a splash, with a multitude of companies expressing their agreement. March 2007 marked the opening of 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT.

"What is design?" The museum has hosted numerous exhibitions on this theme since it opened, helmed by three directors—Miyake, the designer Satoh Taku, and Fukasawa Naoto—and, as associate director, journalist Kawakami Noriko. The museum's exhibitions expose visitors to the sheer variety, joy, and wonder of design. They cover everything from products, graphics, and architecture to video expression, music, the latest technologies, and even the cultural anthropological approach to design.

Supporting these exhibitions—quite literally—is the architecture of Ando Tadao, who inherited the late Noguchi's dying wish alongside Miyake. Ando, inspired by the "A Piece of Cloth" concept established by Miyake, conceived of a building that would be comprised of "A Piece of Iron Sheet." The building was kept low-rise, with a single above-ground floor and one basement floor, and 80% of the floor space kept underground, so that it would not disturb the ambience of the surrounding environment. The building, thus mostly buried, is covered by an enormous iron sheet that serves as its roof and also as the symbol of the museum. The roof of the exhibition building measures 54 meters at its longest point. Because iron cannot be bought as a single sheet of this size, it was built on-site by welding iron sheets—each 16 millimeters thick—together. Ando considered the skills and techniques needed to turn Noguchi's wish into a reality as a challenge, and held his own exhibition in the museum.

A Place to Pass the Joy and Wonder of Design Down to the Next Generation

21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, located in Tokyo Midtown in the Akasaka area of Tokyo. Towering behind the museum are Himalayan cedars that have stood in that spot from back when the property was used to house the Japan Defense Agency.

Miyake said that a work by Noguchi had been the starting point, his gateway into the design realm. Born in Hiroshima, Miyake discussed how he had felt inspired upon crossing two bridges that had been built near the hypocenter of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. These bridges had been designed by Noguchi in 1952.

Miyake's dialogue with Noguchi, who had taught him the joy and wonder that could come from design, had given rise to 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT. Miyake had tried to pass this down to later generations. However, the wish that Miyake had inherited from Noguchi is only halfway to being fulfilled. Promoting and popularizing design thinking in Japan—those who studied under Miyake are now taking on the mantle.

A Promotional Hub of Design that Is Perpetually New

Ando's distinct artistry is evident all over the building, with the stairs, ceiling, handrails, and even the tiniest of details carefully considered. The forms within the building are beautiful—dynamic, but with the distinct sense of tension exhibited in many of his works.

In 2017, 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT welcomed designer Satoh Taku as its new director, and established the new Gallery 3. How has Satoh, who has been involved with the museum since the preparation stages, understood this wish of Miyake's?

"When we were in the prep stages for this museum, there was a point when Miyake—after we'd engaged in a lot of debate about the facility—brought us back to square one, a blank slate. Looking back on that, it occurs to me that he didn't mind which direction we'd end up going in. But he did want us to be mindful of the extraordinary 'sense' we have as human beings, instead of getting bogged down in theory."

Now, as the museum approaches its 13th year (as of 2019), Satoh says, "There's no need to keep things going the way they were in the beginning."

"Miyake was someone who doubted himself, maybe more than anyone else I've ever known. He wasn't the type to say there was one way of doing anything. The type of person who, if we're talking rock-climbing, would put the wedge somewhere you couldn't reach. I think this museum is meant to serve as a place where we can think about what we need to do to reach that wedge."

Promoting, disseminating design widely as culture. Miyake's efforts made him a trailblazer. His presence within the design realm had always been fresh, new, precisely because he had created these paths where there had once been bare ground untouched—not even by a single footstep. His journey, even now, will continue onward.

The hallway under the stairs that leads from the first floor down to the basement. Eighty percent of the floor space is located underground, where it opens out on a scale unimaginable given the building's unobtrusive exterior.
Even the sinks in the bathroom are beautifully designed, and made to look like a sheet of folded metal.
An enormous triangular roof made of an iron sheet 54 meters long. The building embodies Ando's goal of creating architecture that serves as the "face of Japan."
Interview and writing by Yamada Yoshinao
Photos by Iwasaki Hiroshi
Translation by Amitt

*This article was provided by Pen Online (published August 19, 2022).