Isamu Kenmochi (剣持勇) is a Japanese designer. He is one of the initiators of industrial design in his country. He adapted foreign manufacturing methods and took advantage of technologies advances that he had observed during his international trips. He thus shaped a two-faced Japanese modern design where a reasonable production coexists in harmony with traditional crafts.
He graduated from the Industrial Arts Institute (IAI) in Tokyo in 1932 and continued his studies at the Sendai one. During the World War II he developed plywood applications in aeronautics field, but Japan went down to defeat and the American supremacy was settled on their territory. Isamu Kenmochi took part of the reconstruction, both theoretically and materially : he worked on the government’s policy of standardisation and promoted the development of furniture as a fully-fledged industrial sector. IAI is a powerful government body where he held position of responsibility and thus helped to define a new landscape for Japanese design.
He decided to left his public career in 1955 to found his own agency. In 1956, he opened his own shop, Living Art, where he offered his own creations and those of other designers, sharing Modernity in their DNA. Niimi Ryu, a professor at the Musashino University of Art, “sees Kenmochi Isamu as the most important personality we could have for thinking about Japanese Modernity”: he combines natural materials and Japanese craft techniques with modern forms and mass production. The Japanese Pavilion that he designed in collaboration with the architect Kunio Maekawa (1905-1986) for the Brussels World Fair in 1958 is a perfect example. They received a Grand Prix for their realization.
His trip to the United States in 1952 was a major upheaval regarding his vision of his profession. As a young director of the design department at the new IAI, he was sent on an official mission for seven months to study their design, their industry and their economy. He also met some of the greatest designers of his time: Charles (1907-1978) and Ray (1912-1988) Eames, Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). If post-war Japan was under the American Way of Life influence, Isamu Kenmochi was surprised to find American design was heavily influenced by Japanese and Scandinavian ones. He embraced the new American industrial considerations to adapt them to Japanese features.
He developed a Japanese “Good Design” upon his return, based on Edgar J. Kaufmann (1885-1955) model – one the designer he had met during his trip. Isamu Kenmochi wrote his reference book “Japanese Modern” in which he underlines the essence of Japanese design : he defends “the perfect matches” of “machine and hand, human and nature, reason and emotion, contradictory things that until now had never harmonized”.
The trips of Bruno Taut (1880-1938), Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) and Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) in Japan deeply influenced the work of Isamu Kenmochi. His design is characterized by simple shapes and comfort issues. His favorite playground remains space and how optimize it. He militated for designers and interior architects to be recognized as important as architects.
Isamu Kenmochi is famous for his large-scale projects such as the Kyoto International Convention Center or the Boeing 747s design interiors of Japan Airlines. He is also an important theorist: he wrote articles on various subjects (everyday design, new materials) and his position as professor at the Tama University of Art in Tokyo since 1959 allowed him to transmit his ideas.
In 1961, Isamu Kenmochi wrote : “it goes without saying that my stance as a designer is avant-garde, and I pride myself own thinking that it exists somewhere in the direct line of the 180-year history of the modern movement (the movement for the modernization of daily life).” His suicide in 1971 is a tragic fate for a designer who worked all his life to define and support Japanese modern design at home and abroad.