Ordinarily, the last thing you'd want in an art or design gallery is a working ping-pong table — bats and balls, however light, and energetic games of table tennis aren't good companions to fragile, rare or precious art.

But exceptions can be made when the table itself is part of an exhibition which honours the dual achievements of one of Japan's most important designers. He's Katsumi Asaba, a typographer and master calligrapher who also holds the title of sixth degree master in table tennis from the Japan Table Tennis Association.

It means visitors to Ponsonby's Objectspace gallery can view Asaba's typographic posters then play ping-pong on the "Asaba Table" — an interactive sculpture designed by Dean Poole of Auckland creative agency, Alt Group. Objectspace director Kim Paton says it's an incredible tribute from one designer to another.

But there's more to it than simply playing a game. Poole, who's known Asaba for several years, has reinvented the standard ping-pong table in a project he describes as part science experiment and part musical instrument.

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Positioned in the middle of Objectspace, it looks like an ever-so-sleek futuristic ping-pong table but there's a welter of computer components, circuits and compressed air cleverly concealed beneath it.

Stand close to the table and balls magically levitate out of it but it can also return a shot or spit a ball out at random; as soon as a ball connects with the surface of the table, sounds are produced. This reflects how ping-pong got its name, derived from the sounds made by bat and ball.

The table is also a metaphor for collaboration and reflects Asaba's views on design, life and ping-pong. He believes ping-pong says a lot about life and design because it's a two-way communication between sender and receiver, across borders and cultures.
"Ping-pong is like design; you have to hit back what comes at you," he says. "The same is true of the whole of life: hit back what comes at you."

Poole says he'd like the sculpture to be taken on tour: "We'd like to take it to Japan and play ping-pong with designers in Japan."

Seeing the table for the first time, a nattily-dressed Asaba, 78, gave it his approval by immediately picking up a bat and beginning a game with Poole. Speaking through an interpreter, the smiling designer described it as an extremely creative endeavour which he thought worked very well.

And Asaba should know. He's been designing for 60 years, playing ping-pong for 40 years and mastering calligraphy for 20 years; his art and sporting interests have long complemented each other. Playing table tennis competitively around the world, his art direction has altered the visual representation of the sport.

He was responsible for the change in colour of ping-pong tables from dark green to blue and the ball to yellow while many of Asaba's posters record his playing of the sport, sometimes in extreme situations, including a frozen lake in Hokkaido and a floating ping-pong table in the Dead Sea of Israel.

Here as part of the Semi Permanent creative conference, Asaba's exhibition also includes typographic posters that explore different visual languages from around the world. He's long tried to connect contemporary graphic design and ancient writing systems, concentrating on the pictographic Dongba script of the Naxi tribe from Lijiang in the Yunnan province of southwest China. It is the last living pictographic script left on the planet.

Lowdown
What: Asaba
Where & when: Objectspace Gallery, 13 Rose Road, Ponsonby; until Thursday, September 9