Famed for the heavy snow that covers its streets, fields and mountains every winter, Minami-Uonuma in Niigata, Japan is also the home of one maverick publisher of art books. Managed by graphic designer Shin Akiyama, born in Niigata in 1963, Edition Nord is a small independent publishing house familiar only to those in the know.
Since its founding in 2009, Edition Nord has collaborated with and published the work of artistic luminaries such as Shinro Ohtake, Tadashi Kawamata, Risaku Suzuki, Masanao Hirayama aka Himaa and Gozo Yoshimasu, attracting attention not only in Japan but overseas as well. In 2016, it was the only Asian nominee at the International Biennial of Graphic Design in Brno, one of Europe’s most acclaimed international design exhibitions.
Given that the aim of this project is to feature and celebrate Japanese craftsmanship, starting out with a look at an art publisher may seem like a somewhat unlikely approach. But the creativity found in this country is about more than just the traditional arts and pop culture.
Travelling extensively outside of Japan has reinforced my conviction that the combination of a universality free from exoticism and the unique characteristics that come from rootedness to a specific place – a duality often present in the work and life of Japan’s creatives – remains insufficiently recognised. A desire to let the world know about the existence of such creators and makers was the spark that inspired me to start Tahito.
Visiting A Studio Enveloped In Snow
One January morning, I boarded the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo Station. Headed for Urasa Station, I noticed the train charging into a long tunnel. And once it emerged on the other side, I was in snow country; passing through this Shimizu Tunnel, which pierces a majestic mountain range, was the very experience that inspired Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata to write the famous opening scene in his novel Snow Country. Through the window, I was looking at a silvery white scene of houses and hills.
Having starting life as the publishing arm of Schtücco, a design office established by Shin Akiyama in Tokyo’s Shinjuku, Edition Nord moved its base to Shin’s home town of Niigata after Schtücco was dissolved.
Now centred around Shin and his wife Ayako, its activities are spread across a studio and the nearby Poncotan gallery and shop, opened by Ayako.
Making for quite a departure from the concrete surrounds of their old Tokyo office, which overlooked the greenery of the Shinjuku Gyoen park, the Akiyamas’ current studio occupies the ground floor of a Japanese-style home that sees a thick layer of snow surround it every winter. As projects come and go, so do students and temporary staff, who converge here from all across Japan to live and work together with the Akiyamas.
Several Mac computers and a stove are laid out on the tatami-mat floor, while the walls are decorated with a small household Shinto altar (kamidana) and exhibition posters. Book samples and proof copies can also be spotted here and there, while the family’s two children appear to have left their mark on the space as well.
Their Juki industrial sewing machine is well-loved and has been in use since the Akiyamas’ Shinjuku days. It’s an essential part of their Chiku Chiku Laboratory, a DIY book-making workshop.
What’s In The ‘Maverick Publisher’ Label?
Even in the contemporary era of the internet, the vast majority of Japan’s creators and studios choose to base themselves in major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. Publishers operating out of so-called depopulated areas are extremely rare.
However, that’s not the main reason why Edition Nord deserves the label ‘maverick’. It comes from the fact that their products have a peculiar, unique style.
I still can’t forget the impact of my first encounter with one of Shin Akiyama’s art books. In 2008, as a student of graphic design, I visited the annual Tokyo International Book Fair to catch the Japan Book Design Awards exhibition. What opened my eyes was the official catalogue for ‘Architecture of Terunobu Fujimori and Rojo’, an exhibition held at the 10th Venice Biennale.
This catalogue was a beautifully encased piece of work, which consisted of several booklets and included architectural samples – all slightly different – of burned cedar, a traditional material used for building exteriors in Japan.
While printed in considerable numbers – several thousands, to be sure – every copy of this catalogue felt unique, and one could truly sense the human touch behind it. Unlike the rudimentary aesthetic of handmade fanzines, the moulding is a marriage of high-level book-making technology and powerful typography, revealing a stunning level of refinement, thereby stretching the limits of what was thought possible in the context of publications reproduced in large quantities.
An Eloquent Meeting of Handicrafts and Machinery
Edition Nord publications are born at the crossroads of so-called cottage industry (small-scale, manual manufacturing at home) and mechanical production which allows for mass reproduction.
In their studio, one notices products with colour pages laser-printed on site, bound with the industrial sewing machine, decorated with stitched cloth tags and finished with ready-made binders that have been modified by hand. Armed with a keen vision of graphic design, the company unites the worlds of handicrafts and cutting-edge book-making tech, redefining what was thought possible in the field of art books.
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Their books embody a love and curiosity of artisanship and materials, a sense of structure that brings to mind an architectural sensibility, and a beauty of the form realised not only with the latest in printing and book-making technology, but also through diligent cooperation.
A rigid minimalism far removed from ethnically inspired typography, combined with a soft appearance that brings to mind the clouds in the sky – from a Japanese perspective, Edition Nord’s style appears alien enough to make one doubt its origins, while nonetheless expressing a vague, ambiguous sense of ‘Japaneseness’.
Life In A Minimal Idyll
Visiting Shin Akiyama’s home in Niigata certainly feels like a significant step towards revealing the secrets of Edition Nord’s art books.
Summer in Niigata is hot, while winter sees bitterly cold temperatures. Snow covers the ground as far as the eye can see, turning the landscape into a monochrome scene and absorbing all sound. A silence falls over the land.
This minimal and idyllic but primal snow country, where mountains tower high above the terrain, can be thought of as the source of Shin’s creative energy, forming the foundation of his design philosophy.
Having spent his childhood here enamoured with music and records, he went on to study architecture at renowned universities in the Tohoku region and Tokyo before becoming a graphic designer. It’s as if Shin’s life and achievements all come together in the singular products bearing the Edition Nord name.
Educating a new generation of creatives in primal surrounds, Edition Nord is constantly on the move – visiting printers and attending meetings all across Japan, and promoting its products at book fairs around the world. I’m excited about its prospects, and can’t wait to see what the future holds for this pioneering publisher.
I believe Edition Nord pushes the limits of ‘Japaneseness’, and can be counted on to both expand the potential and further deepen the allure of artisanal Japanese manufacturing.
Photographs and text by Jun Harada
Translated by Ili Saarinen