JP-Design History Workshop in Tokyo

From hazy Shanghai Pudong to clear Tokyo Narita

From hazy Shanghai Pudong to clear Tokyo Narita

I have a long time interest in Japan. I remember writing my history paper in college about the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) and reading ‘Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in Japan’. Also the aesthetics of Japan appeal to me. Tokyo is only 2.5 hours from Shanghai by airplane so I decided to go there, a holiday with some research for circa 10 days!

For my research I wanted to know more about the pictograms of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The revered Japanese design critic Masaru Katsumie influenced the graphic design of these games, and was involved with the design of the pictograms. A Japanse colleague of mine told me that Katsumies assistent–Michiyoshi–was still alive. He was perhaps the only person who had direct knowledge of the graphic design of Tokyo ’64.

This led to a very friendly invitation to visit Japan, interview Michiyoshi and speak at a meeting of the Design History Workshop–the society for Japanese design history–that was dedicated to the pictograms. To my great luck most of the Japanese design historians I met were reasonable English speakers, convenient since my Japanese is non existent! What struck me in particular during the meeting was how respectfully people treated each other, especially in regard to respect for elderly.

Also I was also able to interview the Yukio Ota, the famous dean of Japanese sign design. In the 1970s he designed the known well known ISO-emergency exit pictogram. Also he invented in 1964 LoCoS ( Lovers Communication System), a pictorial language to facilitate universal communication. A general overview of the development of signs–especially those in Japan– can be found in his book ‘Pictogram Design

Mr. Ota was very much interested in preserving and carrying on the legacy of LoCos. It was fascinating to hear that his interest in symbols was already stirred in his youth. His father traded in textiles. For this he needed to be aware of thousands of mons, Japanese family symbols that were depicted on the textiles. Symbols that Yukio saw on a daily basis

Wibo Bakker and Yukio Ota

Wibo Bakker and Yukio Ota

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Auchan crab grab

Supermarket Auchan had an activity with a high fun factor last month. Customers could grab their own crabs at Auchan from baby tubs : )! Plastic nets would prevent the crabs from climbing out. One month later they prepackaged the crabs, and closed the nets on the tubs. Maybe the the nets proved to be too inconvenient. The crabs don’t give up without a fight!
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Cycling to Mudu


Starting from my hotel in Suzhou New District, I cycled to Mudu. According to tourist guides this used to be an small old town favoured by aristocrats and even the emperor himself. Nowadays it is swallowed up by Suzhou. Is it a sight worth seeing?

Old Mudu basically consists of a three canals lined with houses. Along the canals there were small shops offering food, jewellery and silks. Although I passed on entering the tourist attractions–consisting of a few small villa’s and temples (many of them look the same)–Mudu as a town was much less interesting than Jinxizhen which I visited this spring or Zhouzhang. Less atmosphere, less restaurants, and less interesting walkways and bridges.

Much more interesting–if only in terms of diversity–was the Suzhou entertainment park– that I passed on my way to Mudu. Many of its buildings referred to different countries. I saw English and Italian buildings, and to my surprise also Dutch canal and gable houses! If only the decorations were more subtle…

Initially it was my idea to go hiking in the hills directly behind behind Mudu. But the cloudy skies made this less attractive: I would not be able to catch the nice panorama of the city as was my intention. Maybe next time.
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Suzhou panoramas

Last Sunday something extraordinary happened: Suzhou had crystal clear skies! A good incentive to explore the surroundings, so I though it would be nice to go cycling to the other side of the city, and maybe go hiking there. I booked a hotel in Suzhou New District–the western counterpart of Suzhou Industrial Park where I live–for one night and off I went!

Normally visibility is limited due to the high humidity and the air pollution. But this day sky was very clear. I brought along my camera to make a few pics of downton Suzhou. Perfect opportunity to try out my good old Pentax lens (Pentax-M 28mm f3.5). It did not disappoint me, great detail! Too bad that the next day was rather cloudy: remnants of a tyfoon that turned into our direction. As with all images here: click on them to load larger ones!


Return to San Francisco

San Francisco from the air: Golden Gate bridge on the left, Bay bridge leading over Treasure Island towards Oakland/Berkeley on the right. The smallest  island in the middle is Alcatraz. Golden Gate park is the green rectangle to the left. I used to live at Fillmore, a few blocks right from the Panhandle coming out  Golden Gate park.

San Francisco from the air: Golden Gate bridge on the left, Bay bridge leading over Treasure Island towards Oakland/Berkeley on the right. The smallest island in the middle is Alcatraz. Golden Gate park is the green rectangle to the left. I used to live at Fillmore, a few blocks right from the Panhandle coming out Golden Gate park.

This summer the Design History Society conference brought me back to San Francisco. In 1997 I did an internship here at Pentagram Design. A few years later I returned and applied for a job as a designer, ending up getting offers from several firms. However eventually I decided to stay in the Netherlands to study at university, instead of working in California. A decision that I do wonder about sometimes, what if…

So it was with some anticipation that I returned to San Francisco. Was the city changed, since I was there 15 years ago? Would I still like to live there? A few glances around while being there showed me that San Francisco had become more gentrified. In essence however it was still the same city. However, what did have changed was my attitude towards the city.

Almost two decades ago I loved the youth culture, visiting concerts, performances, bars, coffee houses and clubs, the exoticness of China town, the Castro district and Lower Haights district where I lived with some people who had considerable experience using illegal substances. But with the experience I had gained since then, San Francisco suddenly looked less attractive

The woodwork of the victorian houses in SF looked great though! Still it must cost a fortune to maintain, let alone buying a property like this. Although SF is know as one of the most expensive places in the US, the quality of the houses in general seemed bad, most houses looked squeaky and rather small. Public space was neglected and there were still a lot of beggars. I was aware of this at the time, but did not think a lot about the political underpinnings of all thus. Now I felt a little disappointed.
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