It would be difficult to overstate the significance of Motoko Ishii. ‘Since opening her office in 1968, Ishii has been almost solely responsible for creating the profession of lighting design in Japan,’ designer and author David N Buck once wrote (Responding to Chaos: Tradition,
Technology, Society and Order in Japanese Design).
‘Her influence has been so large that it’s hard to
imagine the profession even existing without her.’
Ishii is also the world’s first female lighting designer.
Not only did she start her business, Motoko Ishii
Lighting Design, in a nascent profession internationally
dominated by men, but it was at a time when Japanese
culture could barely countenance a woman on a
construction site. In her early career on sites, she has
said, she was more likely to be treated as an assistant
than the company owner.
After graduating from the Tokyo University of Fine
Arts in 1962, she left her native country to work in
the design section of Finnish light fixture company
Stockman-Orno in Helsinki. She subsequently worked
with Firma Licht im Raum, a lighting design consultant
in Dusseldorf, Germany, before returning to set up her
Tokyo studio at the age of just 30.
Her talent was rapidly recognised. In 1969, she received
a prize from the Illuminating Engineering Society of
Japan for her Diffusion of Lighting project. It was the
first of many national and international awards over
her career, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Prize of
Culture and more than 30 awards from the Illuminating
Engineering Society of North America (IESNA).
One of the observations made by Buck in his book on
Japanese design is that there is an inherent dichotomy
between the traditional approach to lighting in Japan
– that informed by moonlight, gentle lantern light
and soft shadow – and the modern reality of harsh,
overlit spaces and brash, neon-lit streets. He suggests
that ‘Ishii’s contemporary lighting designs may have
stumbled upon the real message – that what Japan
needs now is not so much darkness and shadows but a
new culture of light’.
‘In the black-out during the war years, with their
constant air raids and drastic shortages of food
and other supplies, the Japanese experienced both
physical and spiritual darkness,’ says Ishii in her article
Moonbeams to Lasers – the Art of Making Light Work
(1987). ‘They saw a symbol of peace in the bright
Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture, a Unesco World Heritage Site,
is the largest and most visited castle in Japan. Ishii’s subtle 1993
moonlit-effect scheme is typical of her approach