Sunday 21 September 2014
Meeting Tomoko Miho

After having tried to get in touch with Tomoko Miho for months, we’re standing in a clothes store on Broadway when the phone rings. It’s Tomoko, and she tells us she’s been in hospital for some time. Without going into details, she explains that the situation is serious, and we understand that there’s little hope that things will improve. But the main reason she’s calling is to say that despite her illness (or maybe because of it) she’s decided that she wants us to make her book, and she’s looking forward to starting work on it as soon as possible. This is the only time Tomoko mentions her illness and, although we’re in close contact we never bring up the subject again. From now on, we just talk about work, and over the following months, the book slowly takes shape.

Tomoko’s friend Eric Breitbart helps her go through the countless boxes of work materials and transparencies that have been stored for years in a room in her apartment. Despite her illness, her stubbornness and her devotion to her work remain intact, as does her need for control and her obsession with details.

Tomoko Miho was born Tomoko Kawakami in 1930s California, where her parents of Japanese descent ran a flower shop. Part of her childhood was spent in one of the camps in the Arizona desert where Japanese Americans were interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, during the Second World War. When we ask how this shaped her, it becomes clear that it’s something she doesn’t want to talk about: »Those were difficult times but we all came out well in the end«. After studying at the Minneapolis Art Institute, and then at the Art Center School in California, Tomoko Miho decided she wanted to be a designer. She became one of the best we’ve seen.

We meet Tomoko Miho for the first time in her apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, across from Central Park. The mood is polite nervousness. With her reserved manner, Tomoko feels more Japanese than American. She offers us green tea. Afterwards, we learn that she has deliberated for two months over whether we should or shouldn’t meet. It seems that she never makes hasty decisions.

By the time we leave, we’ll have a notebook full of names. It’s the names of people that Tomoko has been inspired by or worked with: George Nelson, Herman Miller, Frank Gehry, Lester Bookbinder, Ray and Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Buckminster Fuller, Irving Harper, John Massey, Lella and Massimo Vignelli. She spells each of them out carefully for us, »N-O-G-U-C-H-I«, but of Tomoko Miho herself we learn very little. For several hours she skillfully avoids talking about herself, and the only thing we actually learn is that she was married to a man who worked in Chicago, and that one of her brothers was an architect. Optimistically, we schedule a follow-up interview to find out more.

However, what we’ve experienced on this first visit is the charm of browsing through her work, which we’ve previously only seen in pictures, and we’re utterly fascinated. Tomoko Miho is a dedicated modernist and, despite the formalized idiom, her work has a spiritual dimension that greatly moves us emotionally. With her creative solutions and her self-will, Tomoko Miho is a designer’s designer. Although we know that what we’re seeing is the result of many hours of work and the fine tuning of details, it looks so free and easy. Influenced by her Japanese background, she’s an architect in paper, even applying spatial solutions to printed matter. Nothing follows a standard format; her posters are often built on several levels, with different folds and layers. The tactile qualities that arise through particular choices of materials and print techniques can never really be reproduced accurately in pictures.

As so often during the Hall of Femmes project, it feels like we’ve opened the lid of a treasure chest and found something far too valuable to be seen only by us. We want to make this book about Tomoko Miho because we want to show the world everything she’s done. We think that a museum should purchase all of her work. We’re beginning to dream of mounting an exhibition ourselves.

Standing in the doorway to say goodbye, Tomoko takes us by the hand
and says, »Everything is history now, and then it all carries on«. When we get out on the street, a downpour has started and we just cry.

We take great pleasure and pride in the fact that Tomoko, after much consideration, decided that this book was worth pursuing, even though she wouldn’t get the chance to see the final result. We hope we’ve managed the task and the responsibility well, and that as many people as possible will become familiar with Tomoko Miho’s work, and be as inspired as we were; her contribution to our design history is significant. Her archive is now part of the design collections of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

– Samira Bouabana, Angela Tillman Sperandio, 2013

Preface Hall of Femmes: Tomoko Miho, 2013
Editor: Maina Arvas

Buy the book here.

Posted by: 19:34

Categories: Books, Maina Arvas, Preface, Tomoko Miho, Uncategorized

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