Interview with Hiroshi Ishibashi

Today, it is well known that design holds great importance in every aspect of business activity.

Hiroshi Ishibashi has devoted his entire career to recognising and championing the value of design. The legacy he started when working for his family’s company, Bridgestone, culminated in the opening of the Artizon Museum in 2020. In between were around 40 years of hard work in the companies he founded himself as well as with international partners.

Hiroshi Ishibashi will be awarded the 2023 Red Dot: Personality Prize for his engagement of championing design.

For Red Dot, Gordon Bruce, member of the Red Dot jury and former fellow student of Hiroshi Ishibashi, spoke with the honorary title holder about his life and work in the Japanese business and design scene.

Interview with Hiroshi Ishibashi

How, when and why did you first become interested in design, and why automotive design in particular?

My love for cars goes back a long way. Shojiro Ishibashi, my grandfather, was born during the Meiji Era in Japan when the country was rapidly industrialising. At the age of 17, he took over his family’s business and quickly became curious about cars in 1910 after he purchased the first car registered in Kyushu.

Shojiro expanded his company into a tire manufacturing business. In the mid1930s, he introduced a policy to purchase cars that used his products as standard equipment. One of the cars he appreciated was a 1936 Lincoln Zephyr – an elegant saloon-style car with a V12 under the bonnet. I loved riding in that car with him!  I would stand behind the front seats looking far ahead to capture a glimpse of where we were going.

In 1949, my grandfather had an opportunity to invest in automotive manufacturing. Over time, he became the owner and manager of a car company called Prince Motors and the company provided many cars to the royal family during the late 1950s. In 1959, when the former Japanese emperor and empress were married as prince and princess, the car company became known as Prince Motors. In 1969, Prince Motors merged with Nissan. Today, one Prince legend lives on in Nissan’s GT-R, which has become one of the most sought-after Japanese cars in the USA today.

My interest in car design grew throughout this period. My father, Kanichiro Ishibashi, brought me to Prince Motor’s main office where I saw a sleek car painted in a beautiful emerald green colour parked in a dark wooden garage. The car had just arrived from its debut at the Turin motor show. I had a memorable experience witnessing the development of such an exciting design.

When I was about 14, I designed cars with an ink pen on paper. Even after I entered high school in the USA in 1964, I kept drawing and building plastic model cars in my dormitory. I tried to train myself by drawing a Ferrari 330 P2-type racing car which was a challenge.

A turning point came in 1969 when I was in my third year at a liberal arts college in California. I was tired of studying my major, economics. To break my boredom, I took a drawing class at a college next door that had a good art curriculum. One evening, my wife Mayari reviewed my artwork for class.

Mayari must have thought I had artistic talent because she said, “You should go to a professional design and art college.” The only school I knew was the Art Center College of Design. I hastily assembled my portfolio, which included car drawings. I had an interview, and I was accepted. Mayari and I packed all our personal items in a U-Haul van and took off on the California freeways. It was a memorable, fun period for us because our hearts were filled with renewed hope for our future.

Looking back, I now believe it was my father who introduced me to car design. While I was at the liberal arts college, I had difficulties studying English, although I got the highest scores in marketing. Merging two academic pursuits – marketing and later design – laid the foundation for my future.

How did you decide on the name AXIS when you later founded a design centre in Tokyo?

Around 1979, AXIS was chosen when we were branding the context of our creative activities. The building contained design-oriented stores and we wanted to position ourselves at the centre of a new design movement. The name AXIS symbolically embraced all our activities revolving around a tenacious alliance of various design pathways moving forward.

The photograph on the cover of the inaugural issue the AXIS magazine expressed this concept. It portrayed a shining steel shaft rising above a coastal beach while facing the horizon and beyond. It may sound arrogant, but we wanted to suggest that a dawning for our new future was here.

You were involved with the entire development of AXIS, ARTIZON MUSEUM and are involved in the Ishibashi Foundation. Were you involved with hands-on design responsibilities at AXIS, the museum, or the foundation?

Currently, businesses increasingly require a design-oriented vision. The person who makes the ultimate business decision will also affect the organisation’s design performance. In turn, design will also influence the overall business performance. Today, my involvement in AXIS is limited to advising on managerial issues. All operations are directed by the management team. Among them, Mitsuhiro Miyazaki directs design consultancy projects and other design-related operations. I now devote much time to managing the foundation and the museum.

Since I was in a position as president of Nagasaka Corporation, overseeing and directing the architectural design of the Museum Tower Kyobashi it owns, I suggested the schematic layouts for the floors including the ARTIZON MUSEUM. I also created criteria for designing the structure and all the integrated engineering systems.

My top priorities included sustainable energy conservation, earthquake damage and high tide disaster prevention. The final engineering design was carried out by Nikken. Moreover, as president of the Ishibashi Foundation, I was the chief director of the entire development project. I directed both the building and the museum simultaneously, which worked well.

While conceptualising the museum space, I believed the best visiting and viewing experience was most important. The museum had to create a showcase that rejuvenated one of the most important art collections in Japan beyond its established excellent reputation. Building a cohesive experience through design is critical to the success of the new museum and to the patron loyalties that follow.

I would also like to bring to your attention the creation of the Ishibashi Foundation logo. The museum’s parent organisation had been managing the art museum since 1956. Little attention had been given to updating the identification policy. In 2012, we adopted a new mission statement and an identity that functions like a corporate identification system.

I oversaw the foundation’s logo development as AXIS was entrusted to design it. Mr. Miyazaki played the lead role for AXIS’ design team. When I presented the uniquely stylish “if” logo to the board of directors, they asked me who designed it. They were concerned. They thought I had hired an expensive foreign designer. The truth was that the logo was developed on my turf and with the AXIS design team.

One of your traits is to give credit where credit is due. Would you like to talk about any designers or design teams?

I can mention the names of two key figures I worked with for many years. Mr. Miyazaki is one. At the Foundation, Mr. Takashi Tabata has made an enormous contribution as Creative Director. When the idea of building a new museum became a reality, I asked him to join us in 2013. Mr. Tabata has been influential in moving the museum forward because he directs all the design projects – exhibition, promotional, and editorial design – that help establish the new ARTIZON image and brand. Without these two men, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve all that I have with these projects.

In retrospect, I had the opportunity to lead a few big projects in my life. I was always fortunate to find dedicated people who shared the same goals. I collaborated with a diverse group of creative professionals – in-house designers, outside design consultants, business planners, market researchers, art curators and colleagues from other departments. Many different activities and pursuits over the years – creating AXIS, implementing Bridgestone’s corporate identity, building ARTIZON MUSEUM, persuading the management of eloquent design values – were successful because of the devotion of many hard-working people. This is why I wish to dedicate this prize to everyone who has supported me in the past.

Mr. Miyazaki and Mr. Tabata sound like very passionate, gifted individuals. All the people involved in the various layers of design at the museum must also be terrific designers?

Only a few museums in Japan keep designers on their staff. No other art museum hires a director of design. Mr. Tabata works closely with curators and coordinates all day-to-day ongoing design projects. His work includes editorial design for all publications – annual reports, exhibition catalogues, collection catalogues, handouts, billboards, etc. In addition, he directs the design of our original merchandise and all other items that need to be designed.

When we were building the museum, he managed the interior and exterior design. The KYOBASHI Chair, which won the Red Dot: Best of the Best award in 2022, is a part of the museum’s interior designed by the Tonerico group. I have been blessed with a team of talented people who create everything with modern-day Japanese taste. I am proud to say that the results of their collective hard work amaze visitors of all ages. I have always been passionate about the impact of excellent design. My career has been dedicated to pursuing this passion.

ARTIZON MUSEUM offers a well-designed environment where visitors can fully immerse themselves and enjoy timeless masterpieces. With discreet and intelligent technology powered by the ARTIZON Cloud database, ARTIZON MUSEUM offers a one-of-a-kind experience that cannot be found anywhere else in Japan.

What were the biggest challenges you confronted throughout your career around advancing design? 

I needed to cultivate persuasive rhetoric and sophisticated presentation skills to effectively convey my thoughts to a client’s management. Today, it is well known that design holds great importance in every aspect of business activity. Today’s designers still have to be able to present far-reaching ideas with unique solutions. To do so, they must be able to access vast knowledge bases, pick out relevant data, identify and analyse the real problem, and then formulate a strategy that works. Can we train our designers to do that? Can we train designers to become business leaders? These are questions that will always exist.

This article was written by the American guest author Gordon Bruce.