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Individuality in the Service of Design

From advertising to Hollywood, Eiko Ishioka has specialized in risky work that makes her viewers think hard.

November 26, 2000|SASHA ANAWALT | Sasha Anawalt is the author of "The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Company," and a theater and dance critic for "Theater Talk" on KCRW-FM

On the phone from her New York apartment, Eiko Ishioka answers a question with a question. "How do you look at my world?" she asks.

Ishioka, an artist-designer whose work ranges from advertising to art films, Hollywood costumes to installation art, says the question is central to all her work.

Throughout her career, her purpose has been to coax--often jolt--people out of their preconceived perspectives. "You have to examine how you are looking at me and what values you bring," she said. "It is perhaps more important than the reality [of what] you are looking at."

Most recently, what you may have been looking at were the skinned-alive armored characters in "The Cell," or any of that film's dozens of other exotic and detailed costumes. Or the similarly radical designs in Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula." Ishioka was also responsible for the surreal and beautiful production design of Paul Schrader's art film "Mishima," and the vibrant Chinese red sets of David Henry Hwang's play "M. Butterfly" on Broadway.

All of that work and more--17 years' worth--is captured in a new book, "Eiko on Stage," which will be a jumping-off point for Ishioka when she lectures this week at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. In the introduction to the book, Coppola provides one answer to the question of how one might look at Ishioka's world: "Beauty itself," he writes, "is her medium."

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If Ishioka's handling of beauty is unconventional, it is perhaps because she comes from a family with unconventional values. She was born in Tokyo in the war years (she won't say when), the eldest of four children. Some of her earliest memories are of bombed-out buildings and hunger. Her family's fortunes turned after the war, when her father rose to some prominence as a commercial graphic designer. Her mother was a frustrated novelist-turned-housewife.

"I grew up under very artistic circumstances," said Ishioka. "When I was 3, I showed special talent for drawing. And because my mother couldn't be a creator--because her mother told her to find a husband instead--my parents spoiled me. They encouraged me to think about myself and find my voice. This characteristic helps me be an artist, but it also makes it hard to be part of the team. My 'look at me-me-me-personality' is still this way."

Not surprisingly, Ishioka rejected Japanese cultural expectations and headed for a career, using the design department at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1957 as her launching pad. There she made friends with fashion designer-to-be Issey Miyake, her classmate.

In 1961, she joined the advertising division of Japan's largest cosmetics company, Shiseido. When she won Japan's most prestigious advertising award four years later, she was not entirely prepared for the firestorm. It was the first time a woman had won. "I'll never forget one man, a very talented designer, said he envied me because I was a woman and that my name would not be famous if I were not a woman," she said. "This made me strong. It made me angry."

Ishioka didn't just get even, she got manipulative, and toward a positive end from her perspective. Throughout the '70s, she served as chief art director for a chain of upscale Japanese department stores called Parco. Ishioka said Parco was built on the philosophy that Japan's young professionals had no identity and needed to establish their sense of values in connection with the rest of the world, particularly the West.

Ishioka responded by not once placing a Parco product in her ads. She essentially innovated what Americans would come to know as the Benetton ad.

Text was scare or missing altogether. The images were of people, mostly women, from foreign lands in vibrant native dress--or in nothing at all. "Don't stare at the nude; be naked" read one ad. Ishioka's point was to "put a stop to offensive voyeurism. . . . Undressing the mind and body is fashionable." Another of her bold campaigns featured a close-up of a black woman pulling down the neckline of her red dress with her eyes shut in ecstasy, alongside the simple imperative: "Girls, be ambitious!"

"Commercial work's purpose is to sell merchandise," wrote sculptor Isamu Noguchi of Ishioka in her first book, "Eiko by Eiko." "But Eiko used it to fight a battle, to move a message into society--to subvert consumerism."

By the end of her tenure at Parco in 1980, Ishioka had broken into stage design and direction, and she had opened her own design studio. That same year, she took a long vacation in the United States, and she would continue to move back and forth between the U.S. and Japan until 1991, when she settled permanently in New York City.

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