Coming to fame in the 1950s, Ikko Tanaka earliest works came at a time where contemporary Japanese designers were trying to balance respect for the past with the imperatives of a commercially driven industrial society. Mr. Tanaka succeeded in marrying past and present in graphic compositions that were strong and clean, colorful and playful and unerringly precise. He borrowed the simple shapes and patterns of ancient arts and incorporated them into designs that were definitely of his time and place. Tanaka fused Japanese tradition and the International Style architecture, contributing a modern sensibility to Japanese poster and publication design.
His best-known poster, conceived in 1981 for the dance troupe Nihon Buyo Performance and reused for various purposes, features an abstract version of a geisha. Rather than a classic realistic rendering, Mr. Tanaka created the head and shoulders out of stark geometric forms on a grid: squares and rectangles make up the hair and face. It is typical of Japanese decorative simplicity but surprisingly novel in its reductive angularity. Mr. Tanaka's palette, a vibrant combination of pastels and primaries, was also a synthesis of old and new.