Helmo studio’s Thomas Couderc designs an aesthetically pleasing book on Japanese manhole covers

Published by Editions FP&CF, Manhoru is a 130-page, black and white exploration into the design of an every object.

Date
18 January 2021
Reading Time
3 minute read

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Every city around the world has some kind of small opening in the ground allowing access to the sewer system below. Often, though, these holes are grey, metallic vaults that serve nothing more than a functional gateway into the underground for further inspection. But as Thomas Couderc found out on his first trip to Japan two years ago, this wasn’t quite the case for the country – a place that pays close attention to the design and artistic execution of these coverings.

This investigation forms the base of a new book titled Manhoru, published by Editions FP&CF, which sees the designer compile a large collection of Japanese manhole covers into one cohesive document. Thomas, a graphic designer who’s one half of studio Helmo, was instantly taken aback by the unique designs that sprung up from city-to-city, as well as between each neighbourhood that he visited on his trip. “I took pictures of them, as many tourists do,” he tells It’s Nice That. Upon returning back to France, Thomas sifted through his findings and processed the photographs and transformed them into black-and-white drawings, deciphering the preliminary design of the cover before being turned into a plaque.

In doing so, Thomas uses a treatment that gives an engraved-like quality, “as if we had inked the plates in black and made a print,” he says, “more or less ‘clean’ depending on the wear of the materials and the age of the plate.” Alongside his archive of photographic imagery from his trip, he also gallivanted through the internet and accumulated a vast collection of around 250 drawings and prints of black plates, selected according to his “very personal criteria” of quality and variety. These previously unpublished works are now given new life in a 130-page pocket book, printed in offset with a jacket in a holographic hot foil stamping in matte black.

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. Shimizu (Shizuoka Prefecture). Kano river, Mount Fuji, near Shimizu. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

The manhole drawings are specifically chosen for their strength in design which, as Thomas says, is a selection based on how they resemble the simplicity of a logo. This means that when they’re brought out of context, they can still stand alone as a distinguished piece of art – “and at the same time possess a form of complexity that will make them non-slip in the rain”. Not only this, but manhole covers are objects that provide as a form of communication, “of superlative territorial stories”. And although the subjects vary between every cover, the underlying themes of landscapes, flora and fauna, firefighters and local legends remain the same throughout each of the manholes.

When not busy on his own creative endeavours, Thomas works alongside Clement Vauchez under guise of Helmo, a Parisian studio that on-boards clients ranging from music, basketball culture, art, contemporary cuisine, charity associations and luxury. A broad ranging portfolio, the team have long held a firm grasp on their distinguished style and ability to tackle any brief – like that of a typeface formulated from a festival’s identity, later transformed into a series of posters. This analytical and experimental approach is customary to the types of projects that Helmo embarks on, so it’s no surprise to hear that Thomas would go out on his own accord to compile a collection of well-designed manhole covers – a once overlooked element from our everyday lives.

In creating Mahoru, the designer builds on his overarching interest in vernacular design. More specifically, that which evokes a sense of connection to history and graphic culture. “And generally speaking, I also like the attention and care given to these mundane every objects,” he says, noting that manhole covers, highway signs and bus stops fit the bill entirely. “In Europe, it is often sadly functional at best. In Japan, it seems they take these design issues very seriously, along with humour. It is very singular and gratifying for us.”

Maxime Milanesi from Editions FP&CF assisted Thomas in selecting around 100 hundred plates for the publication, alongside a succession of drawings that “follow one another by drawing a sort of narrative journey through Japan,” he says. At first pleasing and coherent, the book presents a contrast of styles and eras found amongst this slick array of covers. What they have in common, though, is a “certain complexity and a similar thickness of line,” he concludes, which in turn spins the banality of your typical roadside object into something that’s uniquely graphical.

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. Okayama (Okayama Prefecture). The Momotaro legend, a boy born in a giant peach, who liberated Onigashima island from devils with the help of a dog, a monkey and a pheasant. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. Chikusei (Ibaraki Prefecture). Chikusei and Ibaraki Prefecture are famous for watermelon, pickle and cucumber cultivation. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. Yamaguchi (Yamaguchi Prefecture). Since more than 500 years, about 10 000 lanterns illuminates the city during the Yamaguchi Tanabata Lantern Festival. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. Kashiwa (Chiba Prefecture). Firefighters-frogs. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. SAKAI (Fukui Prefecture). Tojinbo cliffs, near Sakai.(Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. TAIJI (Wakayama Prefecture). Taiji has been a whaler city since Edo era, before whaling prohibition by international commission in1988.(Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2020)

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Mahoru: Thomas Couderc. (Copyright © Thomas Couderc, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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