Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

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

Ruth Asawa, November 1954. Photo by Nat Farbman for LIFE.

In January 2017 I wrote an article for Curbed about Japanese American designers and the internment camps. I had admired and written about the work of Isamu Noguchi, Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima for years, but I had never heard about their World War II incarceration, or thought about how that experience changed the trajectory of their lives. After the article was published, I felt there was more to the story. I pitched it to the producers of KCET series Artbound as the subject of a one-hour documentary, part of their ongoing exploration of California and the arts. They said yes, and recruited a directing team from the Japanese American National Museum.

Last night that episode aired on KCET, and is now available to stream online as “Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience.” I was a co-producer for the episode, and I am hoping there will be a New York City screening in the near future.

From the iconic typeface of “The Godfather” book cover to Herman Miller’s Noguchi table, the influence of Japanese American artists and designers in postwar American art and design is unparalleled. While this second generation of Japanese American artists have been celebrated in various publications and exhibitions with their iconic work, less-discussed is how the World War II incarceration — a period of intense discrimination and hardship — has also had a powerful effect on the lives of artists such as Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, S. Neil Fujita and Gyo Obata.

Continues: KCET Artbound