Growing up in Tokyo, Masamichi Udagawa never intended to pursue industrial design as a career or further his education in Michigan – but he ended up doing both.
“The entrance exam process in Japan is different and it’s difficult. I was originally interested in architectural school, but my score showed that industrial design was more attainable,” Udagawa explains.
While a student in Japan, Udagawa attended a lecture by industrial designer and educator Michael McCoy who, at the time, was an artist-in-residence and co-chair of the graduate design program at Cranbrook Academy of Art with his wife, Katherine McCoy. The couple pioneered semantic approaches to design which greatly intrigued Udagawa.
By the 1980s, product semantics had expanded the vision of industrial design to include ways in which form, fashion, decoration, color and other visual product features could communicate additional meaning to consumers and end-users. This new concept of “product as text” with levels of meaning, inspired a new generation of designers, including Udagawa.
“Industrial design had been about ‘form follows function,’ so I was shocked by their product semantics experiment. I was actually shocked. I had never heard anything like it before and couldn’t stop thinking about it – that’s what eventually led me to Cranbrook.”
After earning a B.E. degree in industrial design from Chiba University in Japan, Udagawa worked in Japan for Yamaha, but eventually applied to Cranbrook’s graduate arts program. He was accepted and graduated with a MFA degree in 1991.
Udagawa had some “funny discoveries” when he first arrived in Michigan. “I never realized how wide and open the sky was since I grew up in Tokyo and had no point of reference. I was impressed by Cranbrook’s campus – it’s so idyllic. But there are no sidewalks in Bloomfield Hills for walking – I was actually stopped by the police for walking in the street,” Udagawa recalls. “I enjoyed going to Birmingham and Royal Oak and to Hamtramck for music and blues bars. I have many good memories from my years at Cranbrook…I come back every five years or so.”
Since leaving Michigan, Udagawa has lived in New York and California and worked for several companies, including Apple as a senior designer. While living in California, he met his future business and domestic partner, Sigi Moeslinger. In 1997, they co-founded their award-winning New York-based company, Antenna Design, with the focus of making the experience of objects and environments more exciting and meaningful.
Over the past 25 years, their public space designs have affected the experiences of millions of people and have included subway cars for New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as ticket vending machines and information and check-in kiosks. Antenna also works with commercial clients, such as Knoll furniture, to identify and design people-focused products and services. Udagawa notes that both transportation and commercial office industries have been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed the way people work and creates new challenges in the design world.
Udagawa and Moeslinger also share their talents as visiting faculty members and critics at Yale University School of Art and School of Visual Arts in New York.
“Cranbrook has had an important influence on my career. Mid-century Modernism came out of Cranbrook and Michigan. In the '40s and '50s, there was a tremendous amount of optimism in the United States. The influence of their approach to new materials, trend, imagining – it was economic and cultural.”
Udagawa adds, “Being optimistic, patient, and persistent are important when making things. In industrial design, many things are out of my hands. Fine artists have higher control in what they create. Whatever we make has a social purpose and many things must align to make a design happen. Optimism is a guiding light.”
Story: Tracy Donohue
Photo: Courtesy of Knoll Inc.