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Design Festa: From Party Origins to Asia’s Biggest Art Event

The story of this ever-evolving creative institution that helps artists showcase their work on a global stage.

By 7 min read

If you’re an artist or art lover in Tokyo there’s one major event on the annual calendar worth making plans around, and that’s Design Festa.

It’s impossible to classify Design Festa beyond explaining that it’s a triannual celebration of creative freedom, expression, and appreciation for art, design, and culture — in all its forms.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it’s become the largest art festival in Asia. But each edition is more than just a display of artwork. The event invites 15,000 artists to its current home at Tokyo Big Sight in Odaiba to showcase their work to adoring and curious crowds from across the globe. As well as the event, Design Festa is also a gallery in Harajuku, where the party continues all year round.

To learn more about one of Asia’s most unique and biggest art institutions, we spoke to long-term Design Festa member and organizer Nigel van der Grijspaarde about its beginnings, legacy, influence, and philosophy.

The Beginning: From Bohemia to Big Sight

Once you become familiar with Design Festa’s origins, you’ll truly be able to appreciate the meticulously organized, impossibly smooth-running art festival machine it is today.

“The event launched in 1994,” explains Nigel “and I joined Volume 3 which was a considerable time ago, I’m guessing it was 1995 or 96.”

As one of the main players from the early days, he’s seen it grow into what is now the biggest art event of its kind in Asia and, as he guesses, potentially in the world.

Visitors at a Design Festa sharing where they came from.

The early days were born from an alignment of creatively conductive elements, spurred on by what Nigel calls “eccentric art lovers, basically.” Tokyo was in the midst of a bohemian scene, but it was still a while before the advent of social media. Design Festa was advertised predominantly through word-of-mouth, underground in concept but not exclusivity, which Nigel believes has worked to its advantage.

“The original staff went across Japan with flyers, sharing news through attending events, meeting artists on the street, flyering, visiting galleries and schools wherever they could think,” he recalls. “Because it was open to everyone there was a chance for anyone to come and join, without dealing with the politics and administration that can come with more typical galleries and art events.”

Its raison d’être being to help the nation’s artistic community unite for one inclusive celebration of creativity in all its forms was nothing like Japan had seen before. “Right from the start I knew it was going to be big,” says Nigel. “I believe 800 people went to the first one, and by the time I joined it was already a big party!”

As the years progressed, the event grew and grew to unprecedented proportions but its grassroots ideologies have meant that it has never felt bloated, or overblown. As an event, Design Festa treads the line between being ambitious but still in touch with its history.

A jewelry maker at a past edition of Design Festa. The event welcomes all types of exhibitors.

“In the early days it was very bohemian,” Nigel explains. “It still is, but it’s a controlled monster now. It needs to be at this size,” he says.

Today, the event runs three times a year, and as of May last year counted record numbers, drawing just a whisker shy of 60,000 visitors all flooding into its home at Tokyo Big Sight to admire the works of 15,000 artists from across the globe.

“We went from a convention hall of a few thousand to the largest exhibition center in Japan — Tokyo Big Sight. There was apprehension, sure, like ‘Can we do this?!’ but when the applications opened there was no doubt. It was practically perfect,” says Nigel.

Design Festa is held at Tokyo Big Sight, Japan’s largest convention and exhibition center.

Design Festa Gallery: Share house turned shared art space

Nestled right in the pastel-colored heart of Harajuku, the Design Festa Gallery is the community’s permanent home. Once you step through the open doors of the almost labyrinthian gallery — a space that was once a massive sharehouse — you’re greeted with a harmoniously diverse tidal wave of art displays.

The west wing entrance of the Design Festa Gallery in Harajuku.

“As soon as you start being judgemental or restrictive you’re cramping the creativity of the artist,” says Nigel. “That’s why we gave up on trying to segment the gallery and the festival into genres.” There’s no rhyme or reason to the displays, which is what makes the sprawling, multi-complex art village so fascinating to explore.

When quizzed about the layout Nigel explains; “Each room is a different size. Every room was someone’s room or apartment. The west gallery is funkier and smaller, the east gallery is blockier so that’s for bigger groups and fashion brands where there’s a collective.”

The lack of structure allows people to feel free to mill about and explore at their own pace and style. Although on the outset the layout may seem nonsensical, it’s all a ploy by the gallery to help encourage interaction.

Anyone can exhibit their work at Design Festa Gallery.

The freestyle design is a catalyst for opening up communication between visitors and the artists who showcase here and are often hanging around the space. “We want interaction, we want visitors and artists to talk to one another,” says Nigel. As well as the gallery space, the Harajuku location also has a restaurant, bar, and an open public space where people can hang out, catch up and make new, like-minded friends.

A mural at the entrance to Sakuratei, the Design Festa Gallery’s okonomiyaki (savory pancake) restaurant.

Design Festa Philosophy: A celebration of art of all kinds, for people of all kinds

Design Festa is technically two entities that exist independently of one another but work together to create a larger cultural behemoth. There’s the Design Festa event which runs three times a year and the Design Festa Gallery which is open all year round. Both of which however are driven by the same folks and are fuelled by the same philosophy, as Nigel explains:

“We don’t regulate, and we don’t judge. Basically, anyone can apply, we’re not going to turn people away.”

Design Festa was founded to be an art incubator. “The original concept was to support art in any form. You know people start out, and they want to exhibit but they feel they’re not good enough or worthy or nobody will appreciate their work. We want to help them clear that hurdle,” he says.

“Design Festa is like a massive rock concert without the music.”

Unlike more typical galleries, Design Festa, in both its incarnations, has no curator yay-ing or nay-ing any artists’ work. “We’re here to help. It’s like getting on stage for the first time, it can be scary, but we’re here to support them. We’re a platform,” he enthuses.

Nigel is a strong believer that “art shouldn’t be judged.”

“Who is anyone to say art is worthwhile or not?” he says.

To showcase work through Design Festa, all an artist has to do is apply for the space, pay the rental fee and — that’s it. Artists also keep 100% of the commissions made from selling their work, too.

With such a broad and open admission policy, you could expect the staff to be overwhelmed with the workload. But Nigel says the best part of the job is getting to watch artists grow. “That’s so cool,” he says.

The Future: What to expect from 2019 onwards

“Essentially, we’ll keep growing, as long as there are people creating,” says Nigel, when asked about Design Festa’s future. When it comes to Design’s Festa’s ambitions “the horizon expands endlessly,” he says.

The organizers are excited about the future but are at the moment keeping a closer eye on the present. The next edition of Design Festa is set to run from May 18-19, and then in August and November.

As well as visual art, the festival allows creatives of all forms to showcase and celebrate their talents. “We have a show stage and catwalk,” explains Nigel “and large cultural performances and comedy.”

Even the culinary offerings are unique. “We encourage each vendor to have an original dish for the event — a ‘Design Festa’ dish,” says Nigel.

So how would the expert sum up Design Festa?

“Its a nexus, a coming together of like-minded people, and the enthusiasm is electric. Everyone is keyed up and thrilled for the upcoming May event,” continues Nigel.

“Design Festa is like a massive rock concert without the music. You all have to come along!”

Design Festa Vol. 49 May Edition

May 18 - May 19, 2019
11 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Tokyo Big Sight West Halls: 3-11-1 Ariake, Koto-ku, Tokyo - Map

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