Japanese Design Archive Survey


Designers & Creators

Tamotsu Yagi

Graphic Designer, Art Director


Date: 10 July 2017, 17:30 - 19:00
Location: Sheraton Miyako Hotel Tokyo, 1F Lounge
Interviewee: Tamotsu Yagi
Interviewer: Keiko Kubota, Yasuko Seki
Author: Yasuko Seki



Tamotsu Yagi

Graphic Designer, Art Director

1949 Born in Kobe
1984 Worked for Hamano Institute before moving to the US as art director for the American clothing company Esprit
1986 AIGA Leadership Award 2012
1990 First Japanese member of the AGI
1991 Founded Tamotsu Yagi Design in San Francisco in 2006. 100 works became part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA).
1994 Clio Design Award
1995 Solo exhibition at the opening of SFMoMA
2000 Concept and consultancy for the Apple Retail Concept Store
2011 Moved to Venice, California

Member of AGI (USA), Clio Design Award (USA), etc.

Tamotsu Yagi



Tamotsu Yagi, one of the few Japanese designers to have worked with Apple founder Steve Jobs, moved his business from Tokyo to San Francisco in 1984 at the request of Douglas Tompkins, founder of the highly successful Esprit brand, which predated American fashion brands such as GAP. At the time, he had already established himself as the art director of Hamano Institute, where he was involved in a number of major projects. He met Jobs through Tompkins, who was a fellow West Coast entrepreneur. Through his work at Esprit, he built up a network of top creatives and his work took him across the Atlantic to European companies such as Benetton. After working for Esprit for seven years, he started his own design studio, Tamotsu Yagi Design, in San Francisco and since he has worked on projects all over the world from the US, Europe, Japan and China. His work ranges from graphic design to brand design, product design, book design, exhibitions and architectural signage. Each of these creative works is unique, natural, delicate and rooted in everyday life. Mr. Yagi has a wide network of contacts and is also a collector of art and design. The works of the legendary interior designer Shiro Kuramata and the French designer Jean Prouvé are among the many contemporary artworks he has collected, which blend into his studio as casually as if they were household items.
His studio in San Francisco and now on Abbot Kinney Blvd., Los Angeles, looks more like a fine art gallery than a designer's workshop and has been featured in many lifestyle and architectural magazines. Recently, his daughter Ritsuko also owns and operates a select shop called "CHARIOTS ON FIRE" near Yagi's studio. Yagi's designs, which are far removed from trends, are born from a rich sense of life. Recently, he has been in charge of the creative direction of JAPAN HOUSE Los Angeles.



Brand design etc.

Benetton "Tribu” package design (1990), Apple Store concept and prototyping design, working with Kanji Ueki (2000), Next Maruni chair (2005), Hiroshima City Environment Bureau Naka Plant signage project, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi (2006), Kenzo Estate, brand design (2006 - ), "Palm" Package Design (2008), Rohto Pharmaceuticals "Episteme" Brand Design, in collaboration with AXIS (2009), "Shiro Kuramata and Ettore Sottsass" Exhibition Graphic Work (2011), "The Graphic Eye of Tamotsu Yagi”



"Tamotsu Yagi", San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1995)
"Paper and Graphic Design: The Selective Eye of Tamotsu Yagi", Takeo (2013)
"Paper and Graphic Design: The Selective Eye of Tamotsu Yagi", Kitakagaya Sample Book, Osaka (DESIGNEAST 04) (2012)
"The Assemblage of Tamotsu Yagi", Kyoto University of Technology, Museum of Arts and Crafts (2015)



"ESPRIT'S GRAPHIC WORK 1984-1986" Esprit (1987)
"The Work of Tamotsu Yagi and Its Surroundings" Rikuyosha (1997)

Tamotsu Yagi works



Design from the richness of the American West Coast

As a collector of design and art

 As a graphic designer and art director yourself, you have created some wonderful works, but you are also a collector with a fascinating collection of design works.


Yagi My collection includes works by French architect and designer Jean Prouvé, Japanese interior designer Shiro Kuramata, and posters by Makoto Saito. Most of Kuramata's and Saito's works were given to me by the artists themselves.
I am particularly attached to Kuramata's works. Mr. Kuramata was the person who inspired me to come to the U.S. We worked together on a number of projects in Japan, and after I came to the U.S. I became friends with him through my work at Esprit. In the 80's he was one of the most famous designers in Japan and was active all over the world and from time to time gave away his experimental furniture to his close friends. I've received a few of his pieces myself.


 For example, what are they?


Yagi The collector's favorite "Miss Blanche” chair and a table with a broken glass table top as well as a table leg piece made of expanded metal. All of Kuramata's designs have an overwhelming sense of presence and shine like art. However, they are very delicate and should be handled with care. At one point I had to put the Miss Blanche in the bathroom out of the sun because I thought it might discolor if left in the sun. Recently, I put a table with a broken glass top up for auction in New York. It's so heavy that it took six people to move it around. It was getting a bit heavy for me in many ways. I liked it very much, but it was a long and difficult decision.


 In a previous interview with creative director NIGO in the book " The GRAPHIC EYE of TAMOTSU YAGI", you said, "Collecting things that I think are valuable and passing them on to the next generation has as much or more meaning than designing them myself...." That's what I have in mind for my collection. I was very impressed.


Yagi  I don't think that art and design works have to be owned by the same person all the time. I think the best thing for a work of art is to be owned by someone who loves and cares for it at the time. I felt the same way about Kuramata's table, which I sold at auction. I believe that good things are handed down from person to person and from age to age. I think it would be unfortunate for a work of art to be covered with a cloth and kept in the back of the room just because it is valuable.


 You actually use Prouvé's works, don't you?


Yagi I think the appeal of his work is the "everyday wear feeling". I was originally interested in Art Deco furniture made of chrome, but I became tired of always having to polish it. I was shocked when I stumbled across a piece of Prouvé furniture. Even though the paint was peeling in areas, it was still attractive and I could actually enjoy using it as a piece of furniture. I still enjoy using them as part of my everyday life.


 For you, art and design are not just about collecting and holding, but about actually integrating them into your life.


Yagi That's right. It's a bit off topic, but I feel like a lot of today's design is conceived only on the computer screen, but I think it is important to conceive of design from the environment as a whole. Touching things, observing... there is knowledge, wisdom and discovery that can only be gained from such experiences. In the process of working, if you have similar experiences and sensations, you can talk to each other and intuitively understand each other, for example, "I want a feeling like this” or “let's look for a color like that”, but if you don't have experience, if you don't know things, if you don't have the same sensibility, no matter how much you talk, you can't understand each other. I'm a very sensual person, so it's very important for me to be close to art and design that I'm moved by or fascinated by, in order to be able to come up with designs based on real experiences and environments.


Yagi's own design archives


 It's time to ask you about your own design archive, what do you think about your work and idea sketches?


Yagi It's my job, so I do keep a bit of everything. I don't design many posters but more brand design (logos, packaging, etc.), architectural signage, book and booklet design, and interior direction, so it's difficult to keep the real thing. When a project is over, I tend to dispose most of the sketches and samples I've made for presentations. It's a fresh start. My style is to turn around and then start a new project.


 You are a member of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA). You have had a number of solo exhibitions, including one at SFMoMA, and for this you have created a wonderful presentation that tells the background of each design piece rather than just displaying them. For example, the panel illustrating the concept of the Benetton fragrance bottle "Tribu” was more like a piece of art than a temporary exhibition. what have you done with those samples?


Yagi I have kept some, but I have also disposed many as well. Paper objects are relatively easy to keep, but three-dimensional objects take up a lot of space, so it is difficult to keep them.
I'm also inspired not only by art and design, but also by actual objects such as leaves, branches, old stamps, packages, etc. I keep them in boxes and sort them. You never know when you might need them so it's hard to get rid of them.


 By the way, how is the progress of the limited edition of your book " The GRAPHIC EYE of TAMOTSU YAGI " (Special Edition), published five years ago? I remember that the plan was to make a limited edition book based on the popular edition, and to attach to it some of the things that you had collected, such as various tickets and paper samples, to make a three dimensional book, an art book that was one of a kind. If completed, it would be a true your design archive.


Yagi  Unfortunately, I'm not at the stage where I can publish it yet. However, if it's the only art book in the world, then I guess you could say it's my design archive. At the moment, I'm just enjoying thinking about it. Of course, I'll let you know when it's ready to be published.


 Your studio is like a gallery. Do you have any plans to turn it into your own museum?


Yagi To be honest, I've never thought about it. If I like someone else's work, I collect it, but I don't care about my own. I think it's too much work for a single individual designer to maintain a design archive on his own because designers are more concerned with the job at hand than with their own archive.
And as I said before, art and design works should be in the hands of people who love them, or they should be in the collections of public institutions. In Europe and US, collectors and museums buy and sell valuable works of art through auctions of contemporary art and design.


 You have lived in the US for a long time, what is the reality of design archives in the US?


Yagi  I don't know the details, but in the United States, the state governments take the initiative and museums and universities actively collect art, design, architectural models, and other objects of cultural value, including those that have won some kind of award. In fact, many of my works are in the collections of the SFMoMA and the Museum of Modern Art in New York(MoMA). The SFMoMA actively collects works that have been shown in exhibitions, which gives us a sense of security as a public institution.
In addition, in the US, each university has a large number of museums, libraries and research institutes, which are very keen to collect materials and works in various fields. It seems that archiving has become an academic discipline and is striving to accumulate knowledge. It is also worth noting that the US has a donation system that encourages archival activity.


  In Japan, the momentum for design and architecture archives is finally growing. Each of these activities are small, but I believe that if they were to form a network, it could become a big thing in its own right.


Yagi  Isn't that enough? I think it is important that the national government and other public institutions take the lead in establishing museums and research organizations for the archiving of design and architecture, and in particular for securing space for their collections. What happened to the idea of a "National Design Museum" that Issey Miyake once proposed? I think it might be difficult to realize in Japan. A design archive should not only store artworks, but also organize and research materials and use them as cultural materials. This would be too big a task for an individual or a small organization to tackle.


Another Design Archives


 You published a letter from graphic designer Ikko Tanaka in your book. Do you have any other valuable materials such as works, sketches or letters that people don't know about?


Yagi  That's right. I've been in the US for a long time, so when Ikko Tanaka, Shiro Kuramata, Eiko Ishioka and Tadao Ando came to visit me, I had many opportunities to show them galleries and stores, and to have dinner at their restaurants. In return, I often received letters, small works of art and gifts. Some of them are memorabilia or messages that are very dear to me. For example, I have a collection of old neckties that Kuramata produced as limited edition items for some occasions. It has never been published in any of Mr. Kuramata's books, and perhaps even his wife Mieko doesn't know about it.


 You were also very close to Eiko Ishioka, weren't you?


Yagi Yes. We went back and forth to each other's workplaces. Ishioka-san would sometimes work in my office, organizing big projects such as costumes for films. Ms. Ishioka moved to New York in the 80's and since then, in addition to her graphic design work, she has been designing sets and costumes for films and operas. Her costume design for the film "Dracula" won an Academy Award in 1993, and her costume design for her last film "Snow White and the Queen of Mirrors" was also very popular.
There has been talk of an archive of her costume designs for some time, but it is a pity that this has not happened. As for posters, I understand that in accordance with her wishes, 476 posters have been donated to the DNP Foundation for Cultural Promotion, of which DNP is the parent company.


 We hope that there will be a retrospective exhibition of all the work of Ms. Ishioka, whose advertising designs for Parco and other companies dominated the world in the 1970s.
I think the letters and small works you mentioned earlier are valuable because they are another design archive that only you know.


Yagi You’re right. They are private letters so we have to be mindful of the contents, but many of them contain wonderful messages, so I would like to preserve them in some form. For now, I would like to convert them into digital data, edit them and compile them into a book. In any case, it is impossible to preserve everything, as raw information is rapidly disappearing, but I would like to do something to pass on valuable works and materials to future generations. I want to pass on the precious works and materials to future generations, because it is very stimulating to come into direct contact with their raw materials.


 Thank you very much for your time today. You have a lot of valuable materials, not only your own works and materials, but also those of many other creators, so it would be great if you could somehow pass them on and make use of them. Thank you very much for your continued support.




Tamotsu Yagi Design


For questions about Tamotsu Yagi's Design Archive, please visit the website of the NPO Platform for Architectural Thinking. (Please contact us via https://npo-plat.org.)