This book is an intricate visual history of Japan’s boom in commercial design

Professor of Japanese art, history and visual culture Gennifer Weisenfeld sheds light on how the publication documents an important albeit overlooked period of design history.

5 June 2024

A new publication from the San Francisco-based Letterform Archive examines a crucial time in Japanese design history – its commercial boom. It compiles The Complete Commercial Artist (TCCA) compendium – 24 volumes edited and published by a group of Japanese designers – into one large book, and touches on everything from practical poster designs, newspaper and magazine advertisements, and applied lettering design to intricate wrapping paper design from the period. It’s as visually pleasing as it is informative, with displays of burgeoning modernist and avant-garde styles alongside detailed historical analysis.

The book’s introduction is written by Gennifer Weisenfeld, professor of Art and Art History at Duke University. She specialises in Japanese art history, design and visual culture and has written numerous books and published essays on the topic. Gennifer’s first book, Mavo: Japanese Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1905-1931, explores the dynamic world of the avant-garde art group, Mavo. The group, Gennifer explains, was “dedicated to breaking down artificial barriers between art and daily life”, designing their own magazine, as well as working in the commercial sphere.


Letterform Archive/Gennifer Weisenfeld: Pages from the Street Sales Decorations volume of The Complete Commercial Artist. A design by architect Yamaguchi Bunzō appears on the left side of this spread. (Copyright © Letterform Archive, 2024)

It was through Mavo that Gennifer first came across the TCCA. “It was both an important record of original design work by named commercial artists from the period, and an invaluable trade publication for disseminating the most up-to-date design practices to small retail shops that could not afford to employ full-time designers but still sought to invest their advertising and displays with creative aesthetics,” says Gennifer. “Not only did the series show new styles from around the globe to imbue commodities with a fashionable aura, but it also introduced new technologies and materials associated with modern industry to create an exciting spectacle for the consumer.”

Some members of Mavo, like Murayama Tomoyoshi, contributed to TCCA, which led Gennifer to other figures, like Hamada Masuji. “Hamada was as much a theorist and pioneer of design as a practitioner,” says Gennifer. “He was dedicated to establishing commercial art as a legitimate form of artistic work and an important bridge between art and commerce.” Alongside a group of activist designers – the Commercial Artists Association – Hamada was the ‘driving force” behind the compendium, becoming its chief editor for the final nine volumes.


Letterform Archive/Gennifer Weisenfeld: Pages from Various Backgrounds for Show Windows, volume 5 of The Complete Commercial Artist. The artwork on the right is by Mavo artist Murayama Tomoyoshi (Copyright © Letterform Archive, 2024)

So why was the late 1920s and early 1930s such an interesting time of growth for Japanese commercial art? In Gennifer’s eyes, there’s a few good reasons. Technological advancement is one, with inventions like the rotary press, radios, photography and recording equipment imported from Europe and the US to Japan in the early 19th century, creating what Gennifer calls a “modern culture industry”. It was also impacted by a rise in literacy throughout the nation, as expedited by the implementation of a nationwide education system in 1872; as well as new design and craft schools beginning to open, such as the Tokyo Higher School of Arts and Technology which opened in 1922 and many of TCCA compendium creators met at.

This all resulted in a “rapid boom in consumerism”, says Gennifer, creating sustainable jobs for Japanese artists in a commercial setting, and creating some of the first design studios. “Many commercial establishments, from department stores to major manufacturers, were establishing internal design divisions to develop effective visual and verbal strategies to advertise and market their products.”

Despite this rich history and the vast production of Japanese commercial artists of the period, Gennifer says it’s still a time and locale largely overlooked. “There has been a strong aversion to viewing Japanese commercial culture and mass culture as a legitimate form of creative contribution,” says Gennifer. But, she adds, “perhaps more than anywhere in the world at the time, Japanese corporations and their upper management were taking a hands-on role in spearheading advertising design for everyday consumption.” The book is a means of paying homage to this reality, and putting the beauty of such pioneering work front and centre.

GalleryLetterform Archive/Gennifer Weisenfeld: The Complete Commercial Artist: Making Modern Design in Japan, 1928–1930 (Copyright © Letterform Archive, 2024)


Edo-period signboards (kanban) from Advertisements in Japanese Taste, volume 22 of The Complete Commercial Artist.


Pages from Advertisements with Electricity, volume 8 of The Complete Commercial Artist. On the right, an illuminated yellow ring emblazoned with the words “Fountain Pens Tanaka” (mannenpitsu Tanaka) surrounds a pen that writes out the company name in romanised cursive below.


Pages from Various Backgrounds for Show Windows, volume 5 of The Complete Commercial Artist.


Pages from the Applied Lettering Design volume of The Complete Commercial Artist displaying kanji, kana, and romanised letters.


Pages from the Practical Poster Designs volume of The Complete Commercial Artist


Pages from the Practical Poster Designs volume of The Complete Commercial Artist with artwork by Sugiura Hisui (left), Nakada Sadanosuke (top right), and Fujisawa Tatsuo (bottom right).

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Letterform Archive: A spread from Gennifer Weisenfeld’s introduction to The Complete Commercial Artist featuring posters and magazines designed by Sugiura Hisui (Copyright © Letterform Archive, 2024)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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