While organizing my bookshelf, I suddenly came to realize that many of the books I own were actually designed by Nobuhiro Yamaguchi — they became an unintended collection that I was not even aware of. I was purely attracted by the book designs when I purchased them one by one. When organizing them, I found out they all share a similar style, and in turn discovered that they were all designed by the same person.
Yamaguchi’s book design is not characterized by any striking feature; on the very contrary, his styles are not visible for the readers’ eyes to see, but for one to feel in tranquility. The book is full of white space which is not only found between the text and the images, but also can be filling every page on the left like the photography book The Gems of Life by Bohnchang Koo. A design that seems to carry lesser weight turns out to enrich the overall concept, allowing a peace of mind to slowly digest the text and images.
White space always creates a special resonance with Nobuhiro Yamaguchi. At the age of 31, he opened his own design firm in 1979 when letterpress printing still prevailed. He realized he needed to utilize a lot of blank blocks in order to typeset the texts into the right position before printing on white paper. In a sense, the content is only materialized by the presence of “voids”. Adopting a Buddhist saying “interbeing” to describe the relationship between content and void, Yamaguchi believes the two exist interdependently and can complement each other. Because of the empty space, we got to spot the water stain on the envelope from Grandfather’s Envelope, so that we can feel the mellow nature and grandpa’s spirit. Whereas the white space also gave contrast and intensity to the colors and cracks on the soap bars as featured in The Gems of Life.
Outside of his job as a designer, Yamaguchi is also a specialist in origata, a type of traditional etiquette for giving something in Japan. This tradition has a history of more than six hundred years and is now primarily used in gift wrapping or money offerings at wedding or funeral occasions. Depending on the situation, mood or relationship, by changing the way of wrapping, one convey different thoughts or feelings. A sophisticated system of rules has been created for origata wrapping, which governs the order folding steps, the matching of washi (Japanese paper) and what kind of mizuhiki knot to tie. An easy example would be folding the right side first for a joyous occasion, and folding the left side first for a funeral.
In 2001, Nobuhiro Yamaguchi founded a workshop for the study of origata design. On top of researching traditional patterns of the art form and designing new origata envelope wrapping, they also organize classes to teach the history and techniques of origata, in the hope of seeing the students applying origata culture to their everyday lives. Yamaguchi’s immense interest in origata can be traced back to The Art of Wrapping, an antique instructional book on origata called.
Published during the Edo period, the book recorded in every detail about any knowledge related to origata. As someone who was deeply influenced by western culture at the time, Yamaguchi began to grow awareness of the profound depth of Japanese culture. He believes both origata and western packaging are both media of expression. While the west tends to use colorful wrappers to express the joy of the presenter, Japanese origata relies almost entirely on white paper for packaging. He finds origata very meaningful in the way how one’s feelings are taken into the process of the folding. When Japanese people open a gift, they would not rip apart the wrapping, instead, they open it very gently to show a respect for the one who presents the gift. The origata gets unfolded, yet the feeling attached to it is retained. This is one of the reasons why Yamaguchi was drawn to the tradition.
Be it the book designs by Nobuhiro Yamaguchi or the origata culture he keenly promotes, white space carries a significant density and weight.