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Tomoko Miho is the design world's best-kept secret. A
distinctive presence—but a very private person—she has avoided the
spotlight. She does not need it, for her designs, endowed with a
crystalline clarity, have a luster all their own. She never
attempted to make a name for herself, but she has acquired a
formidable reputation among her peers: “A minimalist and a
Modernist—in the best sense of the term” (George Tscherny). “One of
the most perceptive problem-solvers I know” (Rudolph de Harak). “A
master of the dramatic understatement” (John Massey).
Reserved and quietly elegant, she is a consensus-builder par
excellence. When looking back at her career, everyone agrees
that her work is an example of the whole being greater than the sum
of its parts. Her contribution to graphic design is far greater
than the sum of her talents. Her posters, books, catalogs, logos,
showrooms and architectural signage share a common denominator—an
internal breadth that comes from the exacting relationship between
space and substance, between imagery and information, between
concept and details. There is never any sentimentality in her work,
yet it elicits a strong emotional response—the gratitude on feels
when someone gets it right.
The boldness of her design solutions is not the result of a
stylistic choice, but of a fearless dedication to content. Tomoko's
unflinching commitment to quality is simply daunting.
One of her gifts is to find potential greatness where others
merely see constraints. Born in Los Angeles, Tomoko Kawakami spent
part of her early years with her family in an Arizona internment
camp. “In order to recover, we had to excel,” she ways. “The
experience forced many Japanese-Americans to seek new horizons.”
Her new horizons would be defined by fortuitous design
opportunities. A summer scholarship from the Minneapolis School of
Art (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design) opened a realm
of possibilities. A visit to the Museum of Modern Art during her
first trip to Manhattan after high school helped her focus her
professional ambition. But it was a full scholarship from the Art
Center School in Los Angeles (now the Art Center College of Design
in Pasadena) that would truly challenge her sense of aesthetics and
broaden her field of vision.
With a degree in industrial design from the Art Center School,
she moved first to Philadelphia to join her husband, James Miho,
and later to Michigan, where she was hired as a packaging designer
by Harley Earl Associates Inc. In the early sixties, a lengthy
six-month tour of Europe with Jim and another couple, also
designers educated at the Art Center, gave her a chance to
reevaluate—and consolidate—all her previous design assumptions.
She remembers her exhilaration when she encountered the European
artists—painters, sculptors, craftsmen, typographers—who shared a
same keen spirit of experimentation. The international typographic
style championed by Swiss graphic designers was not an isolated
phenomenon, but an expression of a new concern for the relationship
between form and content. This integrated design vision was soon to
change the way corporate America viewed itself. Complex identity
programs, incorporating various disciplines, would help big
companies develop their design philosophy and with it their sense
of mission. Europe in the early sixties was seething with an
objectifying fervor born form a need to find a consensus after the
war. The Swiss graphic approach—multicultural yet rational and
neutral—offered everyone an opportunity to start all over again.
New sans serif typefaces came to epitomize a burgeoning
non-partisan international democratic spirit. Seen as a universal
expression of an open class-free rationalism, this simplified
European design style was instantly assimilated into the American
culture. “To get a design award in those days,” recalls Martin
Pedersen with a chuckle, “all you had to do was use Helvetica.”
The description of Tomoko and Jim's European tour reads like a
designer's epic poem. In Milan, they met Olivetti art director
Giovanni Pintori; near Lausanne, Switzerland, they visited painter
and sculptor Hans Erni; in Basel they spent time with poser artist
and designer Herbert Leupin; in Germany they toured Hochschule für
Gestaltung—the famed Ulm design school—and made contact with
graphic designer Tomás Gonda; in Finland they were introduced to
Armi Ratia, creator of the Marimekko image, and to industrial
designer Tapio Wirkkala. By the end of this trip, Tomoko understood
what would be her mandate—to “join space and substance,” as she
later wrote. To draw the big picture, its message and its
context—to be a graphic designer.
Tomoko and Jim toured Europe in their new silver Porsche,
creating quite a stir in small villages. They were the future—a new
generation of inquisitive, upbeat, and energetic design
professionals. During their marriage, a creative partnership that
lasted two decades, the Mihos retained their distinctive
individuality. He, charming and charismatic; she, quiet and
observant. They shared the same passion for graphic excellence—and
sometimes even the same clients—but always kept their respective
points of view and independence intact.
Tomoko's impenetrable demeanor conceals an innate ability to
confront unfamiliar situations, absorb new information, and
integrate jarring contradictions. She sees order in clutter; she
enjoys translating abstract concepts in clear visual terms. As a
result, her design solutions have an unassuming, effortless, and
Her serene way with problem-solving made her, right from the
start, an ideal team player. After her European tour, she joined
George Nelson and Co. Inc., in New York City, as a graphic
designer. Irving Harper, a renaissance man—architect, furniture and
industrial designer, exhibit and graphic designer and advertising
maverick—who acted as creative director for the Nelson office,
became an early influence. When he left to start his own design
firm, she was named head of the graphic design department.
“Perfection was Tomoko's very own mandate,” Harper remembers. “Her
work was remarkably clean, beautiful pristine.” Tomoko's first
major challenge was to handle the graphics portion of George
Nelson's main account, Herman Miller. It turned out to be the match
of a lifetime. For twelve years, the innovative Michigan-based
office furniture company would be almost a constant in Tomoko's
work—and an important outlet for her creative inspiration.
During the late sixties and the early seventies, Tomoko worked
on various Herman Miller projects—but this time with John Massey, a
consummate designer, painter and communicator. Director of
advertising, design and public relations at Container Corporation
of America, Massey was also director of the Center for Advanced
Research in Design (CARD), a design office that functioned as a CCA
subsidiary and profit center. CARD developed design and
communications programs for organizations in the private and public
sectors. The clients included Atlantic Richfield Company, Herman
Miller Inc.—and its own parent company, Container Corporation of
Tomoko worked for a couple of years in the CARD Chicago office
before going to New York to open a branch to serve CARD's East
Coast clients. During that time—for about eight years—she was
handling a flow of Herman Miller print and communications
In the eighties, as principal of Tomoko Miho Co., she
reestablished contact with Herman Miller, this time creating
environmental art and display for the New York, IDC/NY Long Island
and Los Angeles showrooms, as well as special invitations and a
To explain her particular sense of space, Tomoko alludes to
shakkei, a traditional Japanese garden design discipline
that integrates the background with the foreground, bringing
distant views into clear focus. Meaning “borrowing scenery,”
shakkei transforms the experience of space, imparting a
sense of depth, width, and breadth to a small environment.
Tomoko Miho carefully gardens every inch of graphic space. She
often borrows spatial conventions from the three-dimensional world,
making the two-dimensional plane appear larger, deeper, more
inclusive. For her, the page is not an opaque screen, but a
threshold. Her designs invite viewers to cross over into a
To create a sense of spaciousness, she sometimes punctures hole
through her design. A poster for Container Corporation of America,
announcing the opening of the Great Ideas of Western Man exhibition
at the New York Cultural Center, has a die-cut window with a
diagonal flap revealing a section of a Herbert Bayer composition
illustrating the Wittgenstein quote “The limits of my language mean
the limits of my world.” For Tomoko, though, the limit of the
graphic design language does not mean the limit of her
To expand space, she also borrows from the laws of perspective.
For Omniplan, a Dallas-based architectural firm, she designed a
logo that tricks the eye, and looks either concave or convex. Four
interlocking schematic squares, arranged in a cross pattern,
suggest the firm's multidisciplinary capabilities. Working in
collaboration with designer James Sebastian, she decided to push
the limits of the logo's graphic identity as far as possible. A
concept as well as a logotype, the Omniplan emblem lent itself to
multiple interpretations—as a paperweight, a die-cut Christmas card
and a mirrored sculpture for the lobby.
Like the surrealists, Tomoko plays with trompe l'oeil illusions.
A wall chart for Champion Papers, showing a wide range of envelope
sizes and shapes, integrated a real envelope among the fake
For a series of posters on architecture in New York and
Chicago—now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern
Art—she captured the urban scale by showing partially obscured
buildings: the fractured reflection of a skyscraper of the
monochromatic outline of a bridge in fog. As modern today as they
were in 1967, these posters are timeless examples of Tomoko's
masterful sense of composition and pictorial ingenuity.
A direct application of the shakkei principle is a
three-layer translucent poster for the Herman Miller “Ethospace”
office system. Wafer-thin sheets of tracing vellum, fastened by an
eyelet, rotate to create new and unexpected layouts and vistas.
Like the Ethospace tile system designed to open up the office
worker's field of vision, Tomoko's conceptual poster opens up the
viewer's spatial perceptions.
Tomoko's signature is her exquisite sense of scale. A series of
posters for the National Air and Space Museum, designed in
partnership with Jim Miho when they were principals of Miho Inc.,
demonstrates how easy it is for skilled graphic designers to
transform a plain piece of paper into a boundless patch of sky. The
“Friend? Or Foe?” poster contrasts a huge Air Force symbol in the
foreground with a fleet of tiny World War II fighter planes
silhouetted at the top. The clever juxtaposition emphasizes the
helplessness of the pilot—stuck, like the symbol, in the
middle—faced with a swarm of almost unidentifiable aircraft. But
what really captures the imagination is the way the type helps
create a sense of urgency. Captions identifying the planes are
arranged in short columns at the bottom, suggesting a low horizon
line. To decipher this information, one must hunker down. An
ominous emptiness looms above the reader's eyes.
Another poser, “Pioneers of Flight,” features eighty famous
pilots and notable aeronautics figures. A narrow vertical grid
creates a checkerboard effect. Miniature portraits are laid out in
diagonal, forming ascending zigzagging rows. But here again, the
fascination one feels when looking at the poster comes from the
scale of negative versus positive space, arranged to generate a
strong graphic updraft that simulates flight.
For Tomoko, scale is not simply a question of contrast a
relationships, but also a concern for detail. Small elements, not
large ones, create a sense of hierarchy; short captions, set in
small type, make a picture seem majestic; a twelve-foot-long
architectural sign, dwarfed by a glass-and-steel tower, lends
magnitude to an entrance; and invisible grid congers authority to
an uncluttered layout. “Tomoko gives as much thought to a personal
letterhead as to a major corporate project,” notes Martin Pedersen.
Tomoko Miho's broad yet thorough vision is an invaluable asset to
the design community. The quality she brings to her discipline
benefits everyone. First, her clients—the list includes Herman
Miller Inc., but also Champion International Corporation; Omniplan
Architects; Mellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc. Architects; the
Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Endowment for the
Arts; the Isamu Noguchi Foundation, Inc.; Neiman Marcus; and Jack
Lenor Larsen Inc., to name a few.
Her work also benefits us, her colleagues. It reminds us that
modernity is not a trend, not a style, not even an attitude. It is
a lifelong pursuit to remain curious, lucid, relevant.
Last, but not least, her work benefits the people who use the
posters, brochures, books, invitations, and architectural signage
she designs. They enter with her into a harmonious relationship
with the information presented to them, its form and its content.
“It is that harmony that creates the ringing clarity of statement
that we sense as an experience,” she writes, “as a meaningful
whole, as a oneness-as good design.”
Copyright 1994 by The American Institute of Graphic
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