MoMA Poster Calendar, March 1988 (detail)

Japanese-born educator and designer Takenobu Igarashi’s 20-year creative career brought an architectural understanding of form and space to the world of typography, paving the way for a new field of dimensional type from the mid-1970s to today. His explorations in 3D typography started as axonometric drawings, which he produced by hand using architecture drafting tools. By the ’80s, these drawings had morphed into sculptures rendered in complex interlocking forms of folded paper, metal, concrete, and wood, carving up space in pure expressions of shape and volume. The rich surfaces practically beg viewers to run their hands over them.

Igarashi drawing a plan with a drafter at his studio in Aoyama, Tokyo, 1980

A new book, Takenobu Igarashi A-Z, written by Sakura Nomiyama and edited by Haruki Mori, gives the first major retrospective of his work, complete with process photos, hand-drawn sketches, sculptures, posters, and numerous interviews with the designer. What emerges from all of that material is a portrait of a designer who refused to consider graphic design within its established limits, and instead pushed the discipline’s parameters into entirely new territory. Igarashi’s deep understanding of form allowed him to consider type as architecture, not just a thin layer of ink on a page. He was one of the first 20th century designers to explore more complex spatial roles for typography, even when that type was still part of a 2D printed image. He became a master of 3D type well before computers became ubiquitous tools in the design industry.

The modular 3D characters Igarashi developed show the influence of early Bauhaus masters, such as Herbert Bayer and Josef Albers, and also looked to the future, paving the way for the explosion of dimensional type that happened throughout the 1970s. During this era, new technologies for phototypesetting and computer-based type systems started to take over all types of publishing, from newspapers and magazines to advertising and signage. Designers began to play with new possibilities in type, now that they were no longer limited to cast metal fonts. Suddenly the world was awash in quirky, non-traditional typefaces that did not follow any established tradition. Instead, they hewed only to the whims of their designers, including Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser, whose typefaces Blimp and Hologram, respectively, were both published in 1970.

Meanwhile, Igarashi’s prolific career was taking off. He taught and founded design programs at Chiba University and Tama Art University in Japan, and the University of California, Los Angeles, and worked for various American and Japanese clients on their corporate design. He employed his hand drawn 3D type in vibrant and innovative posters for UCLA, TCP Corp Jazz Festival, and Zen Environmental Design. In the 1980s, Igarashi began to collaborate with other influential graphic designers, including Massimo Vignelli and Alan Fletcher, on OUN, a project focused on design education, publications, and new product development, and with Pentagram on posters advertising the newly-launched Polaroid Impulse camera in 1988.

In 1984, Igarashi took out a five-year loan to buy three Macintosh computers. He experimented with effects achievable only with this new design tool, adding to his practice of manual, hand-drawn design with its focus on physical construction and process, materials, and methods.

In the same decade, his contemporary in the fine arts world Robert Indiana (creator of Philadelphia’s L-O-V-E sculpture) and fellow graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff (whose giant red number 9 stands outside of New York City’s Solow building on West 57th Street) were both working with large-scale dimensional letterform sculptures whose main visual appeal is their brightly colored, glossy surfaces. Igarashi’s sculptural letters are a different breed entirely: They speak to the complex interplay of void and form first, while maintaining a healthy respect for surface qualities as well. During this time, the designer also advanced into the field of product design, creating flatware and a wildly popular calendar featuring 3D numerals for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It included 622 individually-designed numerals needed to represent the 365 days of the year—meaning that he designed 4,536 variations of axonometric three-dimensional numerals, based on 84 different ideas. The calendar sold out eight years in a row.

His first type sculptural series began in 1981 with an aluminum alphabet inspired by old radio parts and variable capacitors, as part of a personal design exploration. A side-by-side comparison of his drawing (graphite on tracing paper) for a capital D next to the finished letterform is like seeing geometry come to life, as if a problem from your 10th-grade math book suddenly sat up and decided to assemble itself into an imposing sculptural object. Igarashi’s ability to imagine and fabricate precise letters using an analog skill set is all the more remarkable against the backdrop of today’s 3D type and motion graphics, where software does much of that work for a designer.

Contemporary dimensional type takes on many forms, from real-world objects to variable 3D effects. All owe a debt to Igarashi. Michael Prisco and Helen Sywalski’s project Type High: Experiments in Dimensional Design and Typography, on exhibit in 2017 at the Cooper Union in New York, falls firmly in the realm of sculpture. Type High showcased four-foot-tall letters A, B, and C fabricated from metal and plywood that visitors could walk through, around, and even into. Also in the entirely real camp is Spanish Western, a set of letterforms milled in wood. Designed by Quique Rodriguez, creative director of Spanish design studio Dosdecadatres, the letters were dramatically lit and filmed as opening credits for a public TV documentary. Dosdecadatres has also made some pretty impressive dimensional type from functional laboratory glassware.

SVG technology makes contemporary digital fonts such as Bixa possible, updating 19th century woodblock typefaces whose eye-catching 3D chromatic effects were created for use in advertising. Whoa, designed by Travis Kochel, features an advanced variable 3D effect that makes other commercially-available static 3D fonts look like kid stuff.

By reimagining type (the flattest of flat design) as objects that took up volume and appeared to have mass, Igarashi inspired the design world to envision typography in a brand-new incarnation, and brought a centuries-old tradition into the future. In 1994, he shuttered his design practice and moved to Los Angeles to become a sculptor. Ten years later he returned to Japan where he still lives and works, producing sculptures and graphic artworks for public spaces nationwide. Ongoing design experiments in type and dimensionality demonstrate that as typography continues to advance further into virtual and spatial realms, designers still have much to learn from the groundbreaking work of Takenobu Igarashi.