Without any uncertainties, we have known that the Japanese American architects, artists, and designers have established themselves as beyond compare in their professional fields. They provided the upcoming generation approaches and concepts to look forward to. Their iconic works were published, exhibited, and with time became an unequally eminent symbol in post-war America. 

Precedents of individuals like Tange Kenzo (1913-2005), an architect, actively involved during the early days of post-war city planning; familiar with both Brutalist and Metabolist movements. Artist Henry Sugimoto, whose arty career went into ruins because of the internment, carried on producing great works depicting his life in camps, his love for his family, and above all, humanity. 

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Ruth Asawa alongside one of her creation ©ruthasawacom

The list of such creative disciples goes on. The provocative thought that follows is that no one discusses the influence of the discrimination and hardships that shadowed during World War II. One may come to think of the deliberation of their past lives as unnecessary because of its sensitivities, impacts, and the sheer difficulties one crossed to reach where they are. 

Yet, we must address the times before and during World War II because it shaped the thoughts and ethics, imposing persuasive incarceration in the lives of the Japanese American Individuals. 

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Masters of Modern Design– The Art of the Japanese American Experience – a co-production of KCET online, is specifically directed to understand how Japanese American individual lives were affected by the US government’s unlawful, coercive removal. 

According to the historical parchments, around 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned and detained in distinct concentration camps with clustered spaces and unimaginable habitats. How did the incident help them move ahead and become the best in their fields? How did they battle the stigmas and stereotypes enforced on them? How did their education within art and design fields suffer? What exactly fuelled the young impressionable minds? The following documentary answers everything, through from the artists and their families, themselves. 

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Isamu Naguchi ©wordpresscom
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Famous works of Isamu Noguchi-the new era of lighting ©archinetcom

The one-hour documentary focuses on five Japanese American artists and designers, namely: 

Artist Ruth Asawa and Isamu Noguchi, 

Architect Gyo Obata, 

Art director S. Neil Fujita, and

Furniture designer and woodworker George Nakashima

The short film originates subtle narratives of the five personalities and showcases small and significant snippets of their lives that would eventually influence their artistic skills. Released in episode 1 of season 10 of the renowned Artbound series, Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience also received the Los Angeles Area Emmy in the Arts category in an online space on July 18th, 2020. 

It starts with Ruth Asawa, a Japanese American with an inclination towards design since before she and her family went to the camp. She attended the Black Mountain College, wherein she developed her famous wired sculpture designs. A rebellion by heart, in her own words, Ruth used her education as a way out of that camp. In the documentary, she with her daughters exclaimed that she likes the way she is, and would not be this person if not for the confinement. 

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Artwork called YELLOW LANDSCAPE, 1943 ©artsynet
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Nakashima (extreme left) with his daughter, and family ©curbedcom

The documentary also portrays that Ruth Asawa holds hostility for no one, but, her art and representation hovers with her past. When asked to design the Japanese American Internment Memorial in San Jose in 1994, she did not stop herself from letting her sculptures speak for the tragic moments. 

The memorial includes sceneries of large camps in bronze-bas relief surrounded by guns and guard towers. Extracts are captured of FBI agents forcing a Japanese-American man to leave (which happened to Ruth’s father) and paradigms of life at camp. 

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The infamous George Nakashima seating furniture ©artsynet

The other segment encapsulates Architect Gyo Obata, who enrolled in architecture school before his family was held captive in camps but underwent the camp life while he visited them. Obata is said to idolize his father, painter Chiura Obata. He started art classes even after transferring to camp because he thought education is a dignified, and endurable way to live. 

Although Obata studied architecture through this time, practiced under renowned architects like Eliel Saarinen, and further served the army between 1946-1947, the architect has an idiosyncratic philosophy. He believes that spaces should not only be functional but reflect within them an enhanced quality of life. 

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The infamous George Nakashima table ©artsynet

Evidently, his family members mention in the documentary that people in the camp found scraps and materials to beautify their bleak surroundings. They understood the dearth and deep meaning of designing characteristic living spaces, an essence that people today hardly grasp. 

The life of Isamu Noguchi, an internationally acclaimed sculptor and designer, is intrinsic and deeply innate. He volunteered to stay in one of the ten camps with hopes of redesigning the surroundings, teaching traditional Japanese craft, and hence subsidize meaningfully through the power of art and design. 

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S Neil Fujita ©thenytimes

Instead, things did not go in his favour. He was unable to implement any of his landscape designs onto the camps, or help other internees understand sculpture making because any material did not arrive. Furthermore, when he requested his transfer, the officials refused to think of it as his “suspicious activities.” 

Noguchi assuredly remains as one of the most notable Japanese Americans to create art with such hardships. The detail that inspires and stimulates the spectators most about his journey is that he does not think of art as objects of beautification or ornamentation for the public. He is proof that people tend to create the most understated, beautiful things under immense pressure. Art reverberates survival. 

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Cover art for Charles Mingus, Columbia Records ©midcenturiacom

When talking about George Nakashima, two words come to the mind – a master of traditional Japanese woodworking and a perfectionist. Before he interned with his family in Camp Minidoka, he had already gone through architectural school, completed his masters, and traveled the globe, working on different projects. 

Throughout his time in camp, he became known for his highly-coveted hand-produced wooden furniture. The mesmerizing fact about Nakashima is that even in such brutal conditions, the man let himself free and got inspired by the natural environment encompassing him. In the documentary, several snippets of him with his daughters and family members have been clicked; caught working on his furniture, and passing on the skills to his young daughter. 

The man battled the harsh reality of Japanese-American individuals’ imprisonment with enhancing his crafts. His story is not only an encouragement but rather a need that architects and designers ought to learn in the current scenario. His methodology towards woodworking with discipline and continuing patience is of enormous worth. 

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Cover art for Dave Brubeck Quartet, Columbia Records

Lastly, the short film tells us about the man who designed many iconic jazz albums and book covers, including the famous Godfather logo, S. Neil Fujita. S. Neil Fujita worked as an art director in the camp newspaper called Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and with his later works, helped define the twentieth century. Before the commencement of World War II, Fujita started his artistic journey at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. 

During his time at camp, the army created the 44²nd Regimental Combat Team, the first-ever Japanese American segregated unit. Among these soldiers was S. Neil Fujita, wherein, he fought battles in Italy and France as part of the most highly adorned crew. After he graduated from Chouinard, Fujita transferred to Philadelphia, where Columbia Records hired him to design award-winning covers. 

His best works came in the 1950s, which included abstract, vividly coloured record covers. The abstraction in his works represents a symbiosis of a kind; A different rhythm bouncing from colour to line and then towards the eyes of the reader. His son in the documentary says that he designed for a lot of Jazz Covers, which characterized freedom for him. The abstraction in itself is more like liberty and self-determination.

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The godfather typeface and logo design ©midcenturiacom

The one thing that the entire documentary etched deeply in the brain is that Art, Architecture, and crafts are not hobbies. Instead, they are essentials for subtle creatures, their comfort, and emotional survival. Throughout the episode, the selected artists manifest their emotions with art or designing and emerge prosperously. 

The Japanese American individuals showcase dignity, patience, peace involving themselves in the world of art. The art is in a synergistic and opposite relationship with their incarceration; it holds no barriers. Masters of Modern Design– The Art of the Japanese American Experience is a delight in disguise because the artists, architects, and designers do not lead you to troubled struggle; instead, they teach you to believe in your convictions and mould your philosophies. 

Ansha Kohli
Author

Ansha Kohli is whimsical andenigmatic when it comes to her life. Wanting to pursue a career in architecture journalism after completing her graduation, she is on the road to seek something new and exciting, and subsequently enthusiastic to share as well as understand different philosophies associated with art and architecture.

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