R.A.W: Motoko Ishii

17 Apr 2020 // R.A.W

R.A.W: Motoko Ishii

What does it take to be a successful designer?
What does it take to be a successful female designer?

It is quite surprising to see that even today many interviews happening around and not just in the design industry, feels the need to ask the fundamentally same question with a different undertone to a woman. Maybe, it has been this way since ages. Talking specifically about Lighting Design, google Lighting Designers and you will be surprised to see the Wikipedia ‘List of Lighting Designers’ showing 58 lighting designers in total, out of which women lighting designers mentioned are only 9! Wikipedia sure needs some editing to be done.

When a similar question was asked to Motoko Ishii in an interview, the legendary lighting designer wisely replied, “When I work on a project, I am not conscious of being anything other than a lighting designer. If people see good lighting design, the next project will come, then the next one. The stronger people’s reactions to my designs, the less severe they will be in regard to the question of my gender.”

Motoko Ishii, a leading Japanese lighting designer started her firm Motoko Ishii Lighting Design Inc. in 1968, a time when nobody understood the importance of lighting design in Japan and the culture did not completely accept female designer. It was only after the Tokyo Tower was illuminated in 1989 to mark its 30th anniversary, did people realize the power of light and a lighting designer.

Tokyo Tower in Winter, 1989; Lighting Design: Motoko Ishii
Tokyo Tower in Winter, 1989; Lighting Design: Motoko Ishii

When people look at the tower, they get nostalgic, warm feelings. The tower with wide base resembles a lovely volatile candle. Another project by Ishii, ‘Light & Happiness’ for Light Trend 2015 exhibited 7 different rooms with light installations depicting different meaning of happiness, to make people realize the importance of light and how it affects our mood.

Mental Happiness, Light Trend 2015
Mental Happiness, Light Trend 2015 – Multisensory experience of light, music and fragrance

Simple new views of urban landscape elements are explicated through her designs, whether it is for built monuments or natural ones. Her firm has won numerous awards, including more than 30 awards from the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. She has always been the recipient of domestic awards, such as the Illuminating Engineering Society of Japan’s “Japan Lighting Award” and the “Tokyo Metropolitan Prize of Culture”" from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, to name a few. Ishii, is also one of the designers who has undertaken illumination of the biggest number of large-scale bridges in the world.

Tokyo Gate Bridge, 2012
Tokyo Gate Bridge, 2012; Lighting Design: Motoko Ishii

Ishii was one of the first designers to extensively use colored light in outdoor applications. Some of her largest event designs includes Expo of 1985 in Tsukuba Japan, the light-up festival of Yokohama Japan, and Japan Flora 2000. She has authored several books such as Lighting Horizons, Creation of Lightscape and Light to Infinity.

In her earlier days, Ishii was very impressed to see the Scandinavian lights and lamps which led her to pursue lighting design. She went to Finland to study to study designing lighting equipment and later to Germany to study architectural illumination to widen her horizons. She finally returned to her home country to start her own office. It wasn’t easy to start with, her proposal for illuminating the historic monuments in Japan was not given approval but as an ardent designer she took her own equipment, travelled around the city and at her own expense lit up the monuments; radically bringing new change.

After spending almost 52 years in lighting, ‘Something New’ is still her motto. An incredible and inspirational designer, Ishii defines light as —

Light is vision, understanding, insight and enterprise.
Light is also reflection, originality, joy and sharing.
Light is pleasure, humanity, nurturing and wholeness.


R.A.W Blogger
Dipali Shirsat

Editor’s Update: Motoko Ishii has been named as a Tokyo Honorary Citizen on October 1st 2020. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government commends those who have made a contribution to the rise of social culture by selecting “Honorary Citizens” as objects of respect for the citizens of Tokyo. Details here.

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