What’s the difference between art and design? Some say art asks a question and design solves a problem. Others argue that art is for yourself and design is for others, or that art is a talent and design is a skill. No matter which camp you’re in, the differences can be foggy. For Sei Yamazaki, a Japanese-born art director, artist, designer, and creative advisor for the Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics 2020, he likes being in the fog while on his creative journey. Yamazaki is the founder and director of Seitaro Design, Inc., and radio personality of FM Yokohama “Culture Department”.
Masahito Ono: What were your early experiences as an artist or designer?
Sei Yamazaki: I think I was an ordinary child and no-one called me a talent or a genius. What is perhaps unique about me is that my family had a rule to read books at home and I have played in theater since the age of three. In theater, I learned about body expression and abstraction, and through classical literature, I experienced the human subtleties and beauty of the world.
I wanted to get a job related to expressing myself as a result of these influences. I studied photography in college and architecture in grad school. Twelve years ago, I established my own design studio in Tokyo, Seitaro Design, Inc, and have been working as an art director in commercial and brand design.
I started learning Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) and ink wash painting from a master painter at the age of 30, and now I teach ikebana to people as an associate professor. I’ve always felt that there is a sensitivity unique to Japan or Japanese in my work, such as the use of negative space and abstraction, and I decided to master these models.
I’ve always been interested in searching the essence of beauty that transcends the time. I have an inquiring mind and curiosity towards different fields. Theatrical performance, photography, architecture, product design, and art. I think all these experiences are connected to continually challenging new things and my desire to perfect them.
Ono: You have become an established designer and art director in Japan. What made you now want to focus on fine art?
Yamazaki: When we start in any professional career, it’s like climbing a mountain one step after the other towards the foggy mountain top. I have been a designer for 15 years and it has been 12 years since I started my own studio. I think there are still many things I can do as a designer and art director, but I see the fog on the mountain top has cleared slightly.
To me, it feels most challenging yet enjoyable when I am surrounded by this fog and when I don’t know if I’m climbing up or down. That’s why I want to continue to climb new mountains. Among the many choices I had, the mountain that I felt the highest, steepest, and the most invisible, was in art. That’s why I wanted to climb that mountain and I decided to pursue my career as an artist.
Ono: You’ve been practicing ink wash painting and ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) for many years. How does that influence your artwork? Do you see your experiences in design inform your artist practice?
Yamazaki: Both ink wash painting and ikebana are rituals that incorporate spiritual training and Japanese aesthetics into one’s body. As it’s often said, for example, in terms of flowers, Western flower arrangements are created by filling the space, and Japanese ikebana forms the same space using only 4 or 5 flowers. In other words, the challenge in ikebana is to determine the characteristics of each flower, find meaning in its presence and absence that it creates in the surrounding space, and compose a new landscape.
Ink wash painting does not draw shades as it does in drawing. There is a word in our world that “ink represents five colors.” To draw all objects with only one shade of ink is a work that limits the number of tasks and I face the ritual of abstracting objects. That is clearly the cornerstone of my current form of expression. In that sense, I think the training in traditional Japanese ink wash painting and ikebana can be useful as an artist and will be at the foundation of my practice.
I was worried in the beginning that my experiences in design might interfere with my artistic career. The debate about whether to distinguish between art and design is a recurring debate in the design industry. As I start working in art, I realize that there is still a big gap between art and design. This could be explained in various terms, such as independence in art and asking questions while design offers solutions to social issues. To me, the main difference is how we face society and the timeline of responsibility.
This is a bit abstract. But I realize that the purpose of design is to bring potential into a clear and obvious form. While art is about how to maintain the potentials give it an appearance and presence. As I begin my artistic career and interact with more people in the art industry, I apply my experiences as a designer.
Ono: Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Yamazaki: There is a lot of inspiration I receive from my children, and there is also a stimulus I receive from daily activities, but I think it is nature that I am most consciously aware of getting inspirations from.
I am confronted daily with various forms and expressions seen and found on plants and flowers in everyday living space, the air that touches me and ink painting motifs that I encounter when camping and being outdoors. There are seasons, spaces, lives, colors, and awe. I’m fascinated by the charm and order that they have, and the scenery weaving together as one is always inspirational.
I’m also influenced by minimal contemporary music. Listening to it is always accompanied by what I imagine visually.
Ono: What does success as an artist or creative mean to you? How do you define it?
Yamazaki: Art and design share a journey to seek the essence of timeless beauty. So what is generally called or defined as success in our society doesn’t apply to me and I think I would never feel successful. I always seek new things and continue climbing the mountain of beauty and my life ends without reaching the summit in my lifetime is just as beautiful as that of a mountaineer.
Ono: What are your creative goals in the next few years?
Yamazaki: I would like to develop my artistic activities not in Japan but in the U.S. and Europe. As a design studio, we have decided to establish a new base in New York City next year. There are plans for exhibitions in Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, etc. over the next year, and the details are now being discussed.
Ono: What advice would you give to artists and designers?
Yamazaki: People have a tendency to think that art and design in our society are mainly the product of one’s taste, but they are in fact often structured around logic, knowledge, and experiences. That’s why I think it’s necessary to continue to learn human behaviors as well as other things, like cognitive science, sociology, literature, typography, color, and composition, to know the context and theory of design, and to see it together with the market and society where it will be functioning. If you build that foundation, I think it enables you to demonstrate your creativity with more freedom.
What mountains do you climb in your creative career? What’s the weather like? One thing that is certain about weather is that it changes. As creatives, we’re all on this journey, young or old, emerging or established, artist or designer on in Sei’s case, both.
Masahito Ono is a New York based visual artist with extensive background in broadcast journalism. His works have been exhibited internationally including at Ford Foundation Live Gallery (2019) and the 38th EVA International, Ireland’s Biennial of Contemporary Art (2018), among others.