Each month we select our five favorite posters around a theme, an event, or apropos of absolutely nothing. This month we’re wishing a happy birthday to Japanese master Ikko Tanaka, born today in 1930.
While it’s not entirely uncommon for work by a designer born almost 90 years ago to play upon the heart strings of young designers the world over, Ikko Tanaka’s style of graphic design, which elegantly fused Modernist principles with the Japanese tradition, remains remarkably fresh all these decades later. In his blissfully serene and much beloved posters, you’ll see simplified illustrations of inky streams, or blocky interpretations of geishas and fleshy sumo wrestlers rendered in a delightful, bright color pallet. Tanaka sought the natural flow of graphic lines and shapes, enriching the typographic and illustrative details of a poster by focusing these forces into pure, homogenous forms.
After studying art at the Kyoto City School of Fine Arts and getting involved in the local modern drama scene, Tanaka began working as a graphic designer at the Sankei Shinbun, Nippon Design Center, later going on to establish his first studio in Tokyo in 1963. An air of understated theatricality and a delicacy of fine arts continued to permeate his designs throughout his career. Memorable work includes logos for Expo 1985 in Tsukuba and the World City Expo Tokyo in 1996, as well as commissions from Hanae Mori, Issey Miyake, and the Mazda Corporation.
But it’s Tanaka’s posters that are remembered the most though—whether for Muji (which Tankaka is credited with co-developing), experimental music festivals, publishing fairs, or Amnesty International. Today, we celebrate what would have been the designer’s 87th birthday by speaking with Steven Heller about five essential Tanaka posters.
1. Nihon Buyo, theater poster, 1981
“This is probably Tanaka’s most iconic poster; it’s the perfect example of his transformation of Japanese tradition into late 20th century modernity. It’s known to all as Tanaka’s trademark.”
2. Typographic poster, 1985
“Although he was known for his geometric precision, this poster shows his fluidity with form. He uses the Japanese characters in a balletic and eclectic manner.”
3. Biennial of Kobe, 1968
“The type poster shows Tanaka’s superb skill using shades of grey. Conversely, this reveals his chromatic virtuosity. Black dominates, but color shines.”
4. Japanese Book Design 1946–95, 1995.
“Although I think of Tanaka as a Japanese designer, it’s very clear from this poster for the GGG Gallery that he spoke a universal design language. The shapes and colors of the books are fluent in any language.”
5. Music Today festival, 1985
“Tanaka enjoyed playing with shape and color. He also liked pushing the boundaries of Modernism. This shape-shifting poster is Modernist-post-Modern in its look and feel and playfulness.”