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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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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Holiday 2: Iparmuveszeti Museum in Budapest

View from the Gellért Hill over Buda (left) and Pest (right)=Budapest

View from the Gellért Hill over Buda (left) and Pest (right)=Budapest

After my stay in Lisbon it was time to go to Budapest. Here the Museum of Applied Arts (Iparmuveszeti Museum) proved to be worth a visit. I prefer small museums like these over for example the Louvre (Paris) or the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) since they do not give me the feeling I have to rush to see everything. Also they are much less MacDonalised. Usually big state museums try to spoon feed visitors with overdone educative efforts which takes all the fun out of the special objects you see there. Praise the day when they abolish cultural education departments in museums! Well, except for children then.

The museum building shows an interesting mix between Art Nouveau and islamic architecture. It was designed by the ‘Hungarian Gaudi’, the architect Odon Lechner, during Hungary’s Golden Age around the turn of the 19th century. Nowadays it looks slightly shabby which gives it a special patina. The inner courts for example seem to be in desperate need for some repair! Although many will find the museum rather empty, it did have some small exhibitions, besides the main chamber of Turkish tapestry, weapons and so on.

Otherwise there did not seem to be much to see in Budapest except for all those 19th century Parisian facades that feature as stand-ins for other cities in movie productions. Also nice was the Gellért Hill that provided a beautiful panoramic view over Budapest. Most surprising was perhaps the great quality of information design for the transport system, even if the system itself, the metro cars for example, seemed to stem from the Warschau-pact era.

Normally I use the Netherlands as a starting point when booking holiday’s in Europe. But why not make things a little more complicated: de-centralize VS centralize. I decided to fly from Lisbon (see previous post) to Budapest, and then back to Amsterdam over Stockholm (see last picture (after: more>), those Swedish farmers have to take into account rocks on their land!). That is what cheap air tickets do for you!

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Holiday 1: Murals in Lisbon


During my holiday in Lisbon I saw some beautiful wall paintings on a stretch of buildings. It takes some time to take in the painted figures. The painters tried to make them 3D by having them interact with the windows (for example pushing arms through them). Also remarkable is the beautiful Beaux-arts building next to them.

It is my third time visiting the city and it is just a very agreeable : ). Also the air in this capital–the most westward of the European mainland–is remarkable clean, partly due to its location on the Atlantic. Thankfully the bright sun is filtered through the magnificent Jacaranda trees in the city. Unfortunately they did not bloom when I visited.




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Can I get a better apartment?

The door frames were a bit loose in the apartment we visited

The door frames were a bit loose

After living for one year in my Suzhou apartment I though it might be time to move to a new place. Currently I live in a student complex. Although being surrounded by students all day does make you feel young, one also is prone to lossing touch with society as a whole.

My apartment was recommended to me by XJTLU. It is 1 of the 4 main apartment complexes that are used for housing students and some staff. According to the human resource office I was very lucky to be able to get into ‘Parfait International Apartment’. It has two major advantages. Firstly it is only 3 years old. It was not degraded that much, as is so typical of many Chinese developments after a few years. Secondly there was heating in the living room and in the bed room!

The city I live in is below the Chinese heating border that runs near latitude 33 degrees north. Above this the state provides subsidised central heating, since it freezes there in winter. Below this–which also means Suzhou–people have to make do with individual electric heaters, when it gets cold. Remarkably even at my university it is not uncommon to have (out)doors open all the time in winter and windows wide open, while at the same time running airco in the heating mode.

I was motivated in my search for a new apartment by one of my colleagues who lived in the same complex. My colleague had made an appointment with a real estate agent, to show him two apartments near the university, one new, one old. I was going with him, as was another colleague.

The first apartment being shown was previously used by three students. It was in an apartment block, that was not older then 10 years. Sadly it was totally run down! The window frames were almost falling out of the wall, the kitchen looked like a stable . . . Price 3500 Yuan. The second apartment we were being shown was brand-new. But again, the finishing and detailing were horrible, also it was rather pricy (5000 yuan).

The bottom line was that for the price and quality we were looking for it was rather hard to find something better. So for the moment I decide to stay at my current place!
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