Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience

On May 9, join us for a special free screening at JANM of Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience. This documentary, a co-production between JANM’s Watase Media Arts Center and KCET for the series ARTBOUND, explores how the World War II American concentration camp experience impacted the lives of five Japanese American artists and designers and ultimately sent them on trajectories that led to their changing the face of American culture with their immense talents.

From the hand-drawn typeface on the cover of The Godfather to Herman Miller’s biomorphic coffee table, the work of Japanese American designers including Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, S. Neil Fujita, and Gyo Obata permeated postwar culture. While these second-generation Japanese American artists have been celebrated, less-discussed is how their WW II incarceration—a period of great hardship and discrimination—had a powerful effect on their lives and art.

We talked to Akira Boch, Director of the Watase Media Arts Center, about the process of making this documentary.

JANM: Did you learn anything surprising or new about the featured artists that you didn’t know before?

Akira Boch: I only had a basic knowledge of each of these artists before jumping into this project. I knew the highlights—that Fujita created The Godfather logo and legendary jazz album covers, Noguchi made the Akari lanterns and lots of public sculptures, Asawa made her iconic hanging wire sculptures, Obata was the architect behind America’s most celebrated sports stadiums (and JANM of course), and Nakashima was famous for his live-edge wood furniture. Delving deeply into their lives made me realize that each of them lived boldly, and had lives of great adventure. They lived with curiosity and without fear—which made each of them a great artist whose work we’re still celebrating today. I hope that we were able to capture some of that and do justice to their lives in our film.

JANM: How long did it take to produce the documentary?

AB: The idea for the film came from an article written by Alexandra Lange for Curbed. I was first contacted about working on the project in September of last year. I immediately started researching and making contact with potential interviewees. We shot the film primarily in October and November of 2018. Editing started shortly after that.

JANM: What was the most challenging thing about making the documentary?

AB: The most challenging thing was creating a structure for the film that told the stories of five main characters and tying them all together thematically. Ensemble stories are difficult to tell because a limited amount of screen time needs to be shared equally. We wanted to be sure that the audience got a good sense of each of the artists, their struggles and accomplishments.

JANM: Was there a location you visited while making the documentary that stands out in your mind?

AB: We shot this film primarily in San Francisco, New York City, and New Hope, Pennsylvania. I think shooting in New Hope was the highlight in terms of locations. There, we were able to see the magnificent compound—utopia, if you will—that George Nakashima created in the woods of Pennsylvania. He was the architect of all of the structures on the property, which includes a couple of houses, a work studio, a showroom, a wood storage barn, and a guest house. Because he had worked as an architect and lived in Japan for several years, he embraced Japanese aesthetics. So, it was amazing to see those Japanese architectural influences in the middle of an American forest. And of course, the buildings were full of his gorgeous furniture.

JANM: What did you learn by making the documentary?

AB: All that I learned about the extraordinary lives of the artists that we featured could not be included in the one-hour time limitation of this film. That’s why the final piece is so packed with fascinating material. For the audience, I hope this film is a jumping-off point for further investigation because each of these artists led such rich, complex lives. In terms of life lessons gleaned from these artists, I’d say that the combination of persistence, hard work, curiosity, and courage can lead to a remarkable existence.

This screening is free, but RSVPs are recommended using this link. A Q&A with the filmmakers and some of the people interviewed for the film and a light reception will follow the screening. If you’re not able to make the screening, starting May 15, the film will be broadcast in Southern California on KCET and available for streaming on kcet.org/artbound.


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