Marehide Susuki is a painter who been a long-time collaborator with Shiseido. He started designing manual prints for in-train advertisements and film posters at age 18, and since 1963, for over 60 years, Susuki has helped art directors and designers breathe new life into Shiseido's design and Karakusa (arabesque) patterns.
In 2019, an exhibition called The Shiseido Karakusa: Original Designs & Drawings was held (ended 13 December 2019,) which publicly showcased some of Suzuki's work for the first time. Susuki sat down for a conversation with Shiseido designers Masako Watanabe and Maria Hirokawa, who have also worked with him on recent projects. As Susuki shares his passion and past production episodes, we have a historical look at Shiseido's unique aesthetics and the Shiseido arabesques.
What is the work of a professional Gako painter?
(interviewer)— "Kakihanshi", or print painter, is a title developed by the project team for the exhibition.
Suzuki I used to call myself a mere Gako painter.
— Since not many know what Gako painters are, could you first describe what they do?
Suzuki Well, to be honest I am feeling a bit awkward because Gako painters are craftsmen who are not accustomed to being exposed in public, such as holding exhibitions or being interviewed like this.
Hirokawa Let me explain. Printing plate, or "hanshita", is the final image before printing. The main job of Gako painters is to produce the final master sketches for the platemaking.
Suzuki Yeah. Today, you use the design created on a computer directly to make plates at a printer. But all of those design processes, or drawing processes, had been done manually for a very long time. There is a technique called "Shohan Seihan" (hand-drawn platemaking,) which is quite scarce today. For example, product packaging or a poster would be made by a painter, separately drawing the final image in four colors of indigo, red, yellow and ink black, thus making a plate manually for each color.
— So it is like producing in CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and key plate, or black) layers today.
Suzuki Sometimes we blend special colors such as gray or pale red, but basically those four colors. Gako painters would draw by calculating the depth of color in our heads, by referring to the original drawing. For example, “the depth of yellow should be XY%.” In the exhibition, a technique called Tsuki Pen is exhibited where density and quantity of the sketch is adjusted based on the assumption of the depth of color. In the past, a poster was created over two to three months, which is difficult to imagine compared to the current speed of the designing process.
— That is why your sketches were shown in layers in the exhibition, so that the whole picture could be seen.
Suzuki Exactly. The sketches for yellow plates were usually done by junior painters, whose skills premature, because flaws are less visible. The main plates in red or ink black were done by skilled senior painters or master artisans. All sorts of printing were produced this way, which was clearly not manageable by one person, so it required literally everyone from the studio to complete the work. Such process has rapidly become obsolete, but I still manually work by hand― everything from illustrations and lettering to logos. That's why they introduced me as the “one and only "Kakihanshi" painter in my profile for the exhibition.
— It is quite similar to the production process of "Ukiyo-e", where "Eshi" (painter), "Horishi" (sculptor) and "Surishi" (painter) work in flow.
Suzuki The production process where designers and Gako painters work as one team is very similar to that of "ukiyo-e". However, due to automation, requests for manual production became less, and all the skillful painters lost their jobs, many of whom then became artisans at printers or retouchers who manually edited photos. That was 40-50 years ago.
Watanabe Despite such change in environment, Susuki san and Shiseido have been working together closely for over 60 years. I believe this means that our colleagues and many designers at Shiseido have needed you continuously for so many years.
Suzuki I'm so grateful for that.
Watanabe Every summer, we bring our new designers to your studio on a voluntary basis, and every time all of us are utterly amazed by the dozens of files of hand-drawn sketches and original drawings you have produced through a number of projects with designers. It feels so fresh to see everything hand drawn in today's world where the main design tool is the computer, and all of the works certainly represent the history of production at Shiseido.
Shiseido will celebrate 150th anniversary in 2022, and the company is now in the process of archiving production materials. As part of this archive, we borrowed files from Susuki san last summer. Since then employee volunteers have started to organize his works, and at last, we were able to showcase some of them the exhibition.
— So this is only a part of his work being exhibited?
Hirokawa Yes, it's less than 1%. The volume is enormous and we still have not finished organizing all of them.
Susuki I'm a backseat role and all the works are assets of Shiseido. I feel like I have been able to return everything in this opportunity. Having said that, it somewhat makes me happy when I hear my daughter, nieces or young designers came to see my work. Unlike museums, they said they were quite impressed that they could touch and see the master sketches directly. Including the way all work was exhibited, I totally trusted Watanabe san and Hirokawa san, and let them do whatever they thought the best.
Once Susuki san's brushstrokes are added, the lines immediately come to life. (Watanabe)
— It is quite rare to keep working with the same client over 60 years incessantly.
Susuki Interestingly, all of Shiseido's designers have been meticulous about design, and they seem to care very much about "hand drawing". They know that manual work in the production process adds more gravity to the entire work and I believe that is partly why we have been able to have continuous partnership until today.
I would bring my work to the head office of Shiseido in Ginza, show it to them, receive feedback such as “this line is a bit too thick,” or “this line is uneven,” then bring it back to my studio in Ueno for redo and bring it back again to Ginza for another review. That has been the routine for many years.
Watanabe There are several types of projects we ask Susuki san for Shiseido. Of course we, the designers at Shiseido, sketch manually too, but there are always parts where balance of lines does not look right, or the contrast of lines is not strong enough. So we ask Susuki san for final retouching, and then we see the lines come to life all of sudden. In other cases, we ask him to clean up a logo we drew, and using the revised one for the final data. Also, like this original drawing exhibition, we tell him our image and ask him to draw from scratch as an illustrator.
— What are the projects you have recently worked on?
Hirokawa For a room fragrance product series called the Shiseido Lifestyle Fragrance that launched in 2015, we asked him to draw the main illustration “Cherry Blossoms at Night”, which was also the brand's image,.
To produce an image that has both an atmosphere of traditional Japanese handcraft and a dignified look, we provided photos of cherry blossoms at night and "ukiyo-e" as references for inspiration. This time, too, we asked him quite a few fine-tuning and retouching work. During the prototyping phase, Susuki san created several versions of cherry blossoms illustrations. Some more realistic, some in a more stereotypical, admirable tone.
Susuki For me, fixing is not a pain because I do not believe my idea or thinking needs to be reflected in the expression. I incorporate designer's intention, and express so that it looks nice and neat, and that everyone comfortably says, “it's beautiful”. That's my ground rule.
— In this exhibition, as part of Shiseido's "karakusa" design, some karakusa works by Ayao Yamana (one of Shiseido's iconic designers in early Showa period, who also built the foundation of the Shiseido design) are showcased. Do you have your own karakusa style for Shiseido in the long history, like your own design for Shiseido?
Susuki You may be surprised, but I never draw karakusa, as karakusa. Especially, when I'm drawing I only think about drawing beautifully. Designers are the ones who breathe the spirit of karakusa into the design or a product. They use our drawing as a piece, and use it cleverly to create karakusa.
— Ms. Watanabe, what was the most memorable project you've had with Susuki san?
Watanabe A fragrance called Rose Royale. My superior, the director at that time, had requested many revisions to Susuki san, and every time when Susuki san returned with his work, it showed significant improvement. While observing such repeated exchange of works, I felt that this perfect partnership of the two people actually shaped the design of Shiseido.
As one can assume from the name, the theme of Rose Royale is the rose, and we gave various references to Susuk san. More specifically, it is a variety called tea rose with fluffy petals. Susuki san drew the roses in black only, and it was me and the other designers' job to transform the design into a product label, a box packaging, a fragrance bottle and a shopper, as well as thinking of the colors and structures of those items. Adding color to Susuki san's work was an unforgettable part of the whole process.
Susuki To me, such back and forth with designers is quite natural. Especially because of the many years of relationships with them.
Hirokawa Many of the designers who have worked in the advertising and design department (Current Shiseido Creative Division) have developed their skills through working on projects with you.
Susuki For me it's other way round. I feel Shiseido has helped me develop my skill.
Watanabe One of the famous memes of Shiseido is the Japanese Shiseido typeface*.
＊Considered to be developed mainly by Japanese-style painter Settai Komura and Sue Yabe in Design Department in 1923.
— The original typeface of Shiseido has been used for over 100 years since the prewar era.
Watanabe Yes. Those who newly join our department spend a full year just hand drawing the traditional Shiseido typeface, closely following the textbook. They are not expected to mimic the typeface but to internalize it, and create their own typeface from there.
Hirokawa This is not only about practice, but also how it's used in the actual products. The logo currently used in the Hanatsubaki magazine is one example. It's design is updated from time to time, like at one time it was narrow and tall.
Watanabe All the Shiseido typefaces are uniquely different but they are all consistent. That is the identity. Thanks to such foundation, Shiseido designers understand the value and beauty of hand drawing.
Hirokawa The illustration works shown in the exhibition are only a small fraction of Susuki san's career. More than half of the projects we ask him are logo-related. The logos drawn by typographers are cleaned up by Susuki san.
Susuki I do not mean this to sound any special, but I can tell the differences in the typefaces by designers and the era. I feel that Shiseido's design always has a consistency even across different eras. Still in these days I often feel the universal strength in Shiseido's design.
— Now, would you tell us some of the memorable projects you did for Shiseido?
Susuki I'm particularly proud of the “ZEN” fragrance series. This was also related to karakusa. They kindly requested me to design upon every renewal. The original work in the 1960's was the first one. When this was renewed in the 1990's for overseas launch, I was fortunately appointed to the project and I felt like my work came back to me after 30 years. It was one of the most rewarding moments in this profession.
Watanabe heard that the designer in charge of ZEN at that time said, “Susuki san is the only person who can draw this!”
Susuki It was a tough job actually. I feel this more, because I also designed the ZEN product for a limited distribution in overseas markets later in 2012. While designing, I realized where my technique was premature back then, and also strongly felt in some parts that I am no longer physically viable to draw it anymore. Such experience made this work even more memorable.
— So, did you have many back and forth between you and designers at Shiseido on this project, too?
Susuki Yes. Probably more than ten times of back-and-forth exchanges. Still at a rough drawing stage.
Watanabe Well, a “rough drawing” at this meticulous level…! I assume you had to draw from scratch many times.
Hirokawa This is not only applicable to ZEN, but sometimes designers modify the original drawing depending on the material to be printed on, like whether it's paper or resin, because the impression of the final outcome can vary. Susuki san knows the platemaking production inside and out, and so he always selects the best lines to draw.
— Just by looking at the exhibition or a part of archive work makes us feel that they are truly amazing works. Is there a way a successor can take over such technique? You say this is already a long-gone technique.
Susuki That's the painful part. When we were young, designers bought Asahi Shimbun to copy the type from the paper because many said that Asahi Shimbun's type was most solid and the best. But once the computer took over position of mainstream design, the tide was changed for good.
At the end of the day, our job is not about practicing to be good at it. It is about remembering with your body through the work. Luckily, I have barely managed to keep doing what I was doing, but there is no chance at all for younger people to build on experiences, because demand for this kind of work has declined significantly.
Susuki There will come a time when hand-drawing is no longer involved and the entire work is done on computer, directly passed on to printing. Platemaking with film and photographs are like taking a detour.
Hirokawa You may say so, but companies are always looking for new illustrators, and I believe there is an increasing public interest in the original drawings like the ones from the exhibition. I think hand drawing will continue to be needed.
Watanabe In a way, design has become more in reach because now anyone can design. That is why it is more important if it really captures the essence. "The Shiseido Karakusa: Original Designs & Drawings" exhibition was a great opportunity for me to realize once again the value that has been inherited in Shiseido's design. Because we live in an era abundant in design, a creative process that involves diligence by hand has special meaning. It is our aspiration to hand down such commitment, as we keep bringing new values to Shiseido's design.