Discovering the Beauty of Script: 100 Years in Settai Komura’s Typographical Playground − An Exhibition by Young Shiseido Designers


Settai Komura, the creator of "Shiseido typeface"

--The "Settai Komura & The Shiseido Design Department - 100 Years in Settai Komura's Typographical Playground" exhibition is now taking place at the Shiseido Art House to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Shiseido Design Department. Settai Komura (1887-1940) is a Japanese-style painter who produced many masterpieces. What was his relationship with "Shiseido typeface"?

Kobayashi:As a Japanese-style painter, Komura was involved in wide-ranging artistic activities, including book cover and stage design. He was also a member of the newly established Shiseido Design Department (now the Advertising and Design Department). He helped to build the foundations of the Shiseido aesthetic, and was also instrumental in designing the "Shiseido typeface." Even today, new designers who join the Advertising and Design Department attend lessons on drawing this typeface by hand during their first year in the company. It embodies the Shiseido aesthetic, and is featured in each artist's work. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the department, we decided to organize a collaborative exhibition that features the works of Komura, a pioneering designer in his time, alongside works by designers currently in the department.

--At the exhibition, classic illustrations and prints by Komura are displayed alongside panels of the Shiseido typeface drawn by three young designers especially for this occasion. How were the texts and words for the panels selected?

Kobayashi:The exhibition features a wide variety of texts, including an abstract from a section of a novel containing Komura's illustrations, as well as lines, poetry and prose that were inspired by his prints. As contemporary designers, we carefully studied what Komura sought to depict in his works and then tried to express these in the form of words. The production process involved first trying out the proposed configuration of the words, then deciding on the final configuration, sketching the design draft, and coming up with the layout while considering the size and balance of the script. Finally, using tools such as a Rotring (a drawing pen), we inked the text onto ganpishi, a type of Japanese paper that Komura actually worked with.

--Even the configuration of the text has a graphic look, doesn't it?

Katayama:Originally, the Shiseido typeface was designed to have more elongated characters than standard fonts, with a vertical-horizontal ratio of 10:8. You might say that the slightly vertical elongation and svelte lines of this typeface shared the same characteristics as Komura's drawings of human figures with high waists. In the production of the panels for this exhibition as well, we incorporated the characteristic svelte lines that could only have been created because Komura was also a painter, while adding our own interpretations to the drawings of the text.

Kobayashi:One of the characteristics of the Shiseido typeface is the fact that the font itself has never been digitalized; rather, we have carried on the tradition of drawing it by hand. This is to ensure that we never lose the potential to make it even more beautiful. While the typeface has some features that we should continue to retain, each designer interprets it in his or her own way. The typeface began with Komura, and has continued to be shaped by successive generations of designers. However, it has become less frequently used in advertising and packaging in recent years. As such, this exhibition also aims to foster renewed understanding among an even larger audience for these assets that Shiseido has inherited over the course of its history.

Panels with script by current designers are lined up alongside Komura's works
Top: Sketch. Bottom: Actual work drawn on Japanese paper (Ganpishi)

Beautiful hand-drawn script inspired by Komura's works

"Ayashii mon ja ne yo." ("I am not scheming anything.")

--What were some of the specific things that you became aware of upon confronting Komura's works?

Kobayashi:An example would be the work "Ayashii mon ja ne yo" (meaning "I am not scheming anything"), displayed alongside the original illustration for a newspaper novel titled "Osen." This was the original illustration for the scene where the main character, Osen, is asked by her older brother for money (1933, 43rd newspaper illustration). There is indeed something suspicious about the atmosphere. In an attempt to lower his sister's guard, the brother says the words "Ayashii mon ja ne yo," (meaning "I am not scheming anything.") Her older brother would surely be experiencing a broad range of emotions, such as guilt and desperation. Looking at the illustration, I was able to imagine the emotions that the painter had imbued the character with, and expressed these through the unruly arrangement of the script, symbolizing his unstable emotions, as well as through the extra spacing between the script and the period mark (。).

Kurotani:I was conscious of the close connection between Komura's works and the Shiseido typeface. The woodblock print titled "Aoyagi" (around 1941) depicts a shamisen and small hand drums placed in a room. Despite the absence of people, signs of a presence seem to remain. Inspired by this print, I had transcribed into words the sounds of these instruments "chin ton shan, ten teke ten" that were not in fact sounded. I feel that this allowed me to capture the expression and beautiful connection of the print and the words. I also felt some pressure in having my own scripts displayed alongside Komura's works, but it was a positive sort of pressure and tension that helped me to produce my scripts.

--It is interesting to see how each designer determined how far to push the limits while still maintaining the tradition of the Shiseido typeface.

Katayama:It has been four years since I joined Shiseido. The aesthetic of the script increasingly takes a physical form as I continue to write the Shiseido typeface. Even in my regular graphic design work, the criteria by which I judge my work is whether or not a particular layout feels comfortable. I wanted to add the elements of our era to this typeface that exudes the beauty of Shiseido, and this exhibition gave me the opportunity to be inspired by Komura's works and learn from his pioneering spirit.

Kobayashi:A separate illustration that appears in "Osen" (1933, 58th newspaper illustration) depicts the emotions of a girl striving to move forward feebly, gasping for breath, after she has lost someone she loved. Based on this illustration, I have chosen the words "Muri kara saki e saki e" (meaning "Moving ever onward from an impossible situation"). The words "Muri kara" (meaning "from an impossible situation") are compactly fitted into the upper half, while the words "saki e saki e" (meaning "moving ever onward") are forced out of the frame, expressing the emotions of the girl who is almost falling forward. In addition, I have expressed the illustration of the scene where Osen flees from a crowd ("Osen," 1937, exhibited in the 1st Exhibition of Kokugain Coterie Works) with a single character "Kasa" (meaning "umbrella"), laid out by deconstructing the character. Although I do not have sufficient experience yet, it has been very stimulating to draw on ganpishi paper, which I am not accustomed to, and actually explore how far I can break something down while still keeping it recognizable.

"Chin ton shan, ten teke ten" (Onomatopoeia for the shamisen and the drums)
"Muri kara saki e saki e" ("Moving ever onward from an impossible situation")
"Yuki no asa" ("Morning snow")

Contemplating anew the form and beauty of scripts

--In addition to illustrations and prints, I understand that many of Komura's other works are also on display at the exhibition.

Kobayashi:Yes. Book covers designed by Komura are also on display, and visitors can experience multiple facets of his designs.

--In the course of producing this exhibition, did you experience any changes in the way you feel toward Komura?

Kurotani:I had thought of Komura as a painter, but as I contemplated his works, I gained a strong sense of his character as a designer. For example, the woodblock print titled "Harusame" (meaning "spring rain") (1942) shows two women holding umbrellas in the spring rain, drawn in straight lines. Don't the curves of the umbrellas bring out the straight lines of the spring rain ever so beautifully? I feel that Komura had the sensibility to depict whatever he wanted to, in its most beautiful form.

Katayama:I gained a renewed sense of the breadth of his artistic activities. He produced works ranging from Japanese paintings to book cover designs, as well as texts and perfume designs. It brought home to me the fact that we, as creators, have to continue expanding our horizons and take risks as we forge a new aesthetic for Shiseido going forward.

--I believe the perspective of enjoying script itself is generally considered unusual. Through this exhibition, which explores the roots and potential of the Shiseido typeface, I believe the audience will also make great discoveries.

Kurotani:It is true that the world is overflowing with textual information. However, I think we often focus on the meaning of the words and have few opportunities to take a renewed look at the form of the script. I hope that those who see the script that we have taken the time to draw out carefully by hand will have an experience that resonates with them.

Kobayashi:I was also unaware of how interesting scripts are during my student days. I considered drawings as being separate from scripts, and focused on the former. This time, however, I had the opportunity to earnestly contemplate the Shiseido typeface. It has changed the way I look at script, and I feel that I have uncovered its beauty. I usually do graphic design work, but I have learned about the expressiveness of script and how to use "space" through my encounter with Komura's works and the Shiseido typeface, and also learned how to explore the limits of set constraints. I hope to apply these concepts to my work in the future.

29 book cover designs created by Komura (1914-) are also on display.
"Kirazuri," a mica printing method used in ukiyo-e, was applied to the white space of "Harusame" to enhance its resplendent appearance.
Shiseido Creative Division
Ikki Kobayashi
Yumi Kurotani
Shohei Katayama
Yutaka Kobayashi
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