Furniture in the Japanese Style

Friday 6 July 2018

The developing style of a nation has its roots deeply embedded in centuries of cultural evolution. Not to acknowledge this in some way when considering the style as inspiration for a project is likely to lead to something rather more vernacular and pastiche-like than could otherwise be achieved.

Right up until the late 19th century the different regions in Japan had their own customs, economies, ways of life and aesthetics. The Imperial Restoration in 1868 affected every aspect of life and this was reflected not least in the style of everyday functional objects such as furniture. Identity and destiny were in the hands of highly skilled, innovative craftsmen working to specific requirements to accommodate the needs of a unified population.

To fully understand Japanese furniture design we need to imagine a completely different social, economic and political landscape and try to understand how the craftsmen of the day responded to radical change.

In essence the joints used in Japanese furniture making are not unlike those used in the western world. The intricacies and subtle differences can be explained in the context of the making process and the development of adhesives. Developments in the way wood was prepared allowed the material to be used with minimal waste and permitted new timbers to be introduced to the list of suitable materials for cabinetmaking.

Japanese furniture makers had an eye for export as far back as the 16th century and items produced for this market were altered in recognition of a perceived western style, tansu, chests, for example, being placed on feet or stands.

Understanding principles

When looking for inspiration there can be no greater influence than that of a culture so far removed from our own, but we need to avoid it manifesting itself in our work as mere replication. The answer, I believe, is to begin to understand the principles and the reasoning behind the style before simply recreating stylistic features that are easily recognisable.

I am not sure we should place Japanese furniture design in the exotic category that we would place some of its other art and craft. It is sublimely functional and practical. For me the simplicity of form and raw application of the study of ergonomics are more logical than that of the western world. As the 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho advised: Do not seek to emulate the old masters. Seek what they sought.

Over the next few months Michael Huntley and I will be looking at some of the techniques of Japanese cabinetmaking. While aware that we will only be scratching the surface, we will be coming face to face with techniques against a background of historical information that will enable you to develop a style that is Japanese in appearance and influence.

To show how this can work in practice I have chosen to look at a design for a Japanese pagoda by Maureen Busby. Recipient of gold medals for gardens at Royal Horticultural Society shows at Hampton Court in 2002 and Chelsea in 2004, Maureen was an authority on Japanese garden design. Its principles, techniques and elements were masterfully employed to create work in harmony with its western surroundings.

Garden structure

The method of construction for this Japanese tea garden structure is western. It was not an exercise in Japanese joint techniques. The piece achieves authenticity through the appropriate use of construction methods.

This was made possible largely due to the technical input from Peter, her husband, a structural engineer more at home with the principles of bridge design than those of furniture. His drawings were crucial to the success of the piece working architecturally as a piece of furniture.

The project brought together the talents of designer, architect and craftsmen recognising the role and importance that each would bring to the process. Credit should also go to Paul Robinson and Wayne Winter who were the principle cabinetmakers at my workshop where this piece was made.

The only applied decorations were the 16-petal chrysanthemums on the end of the roof joists. Everything else that points to the style comes from the composition itself. A clever use of texture and space allow shapes and set pieces to be enjoyed from any angle. The window elicits shakkei or borrowed scenery when viewed from inside but also work to frame an object positioned on the floating shelf viewed from the side. Tokonoma is a small raised alcove found in tea houses and Japanese-style rooms, used primarily to display treasured objects, scrolls and flower arrangements.

Roof section

By far the most complicated component was the roof section. The main rafter was notched into the joists that were held in place by planks grooved together. These were slotted into the joists with shingles placed on top and fastened with copper nails. Although supported as it passed through the uprights, the shelf was only visibly anchored at one end, creating the illusion of a floating shelf. This unnatural state is balanced by the solidity of the lower section.

Sadly, Maureen died in 2006 less than a year after this piece was completed but we were fortunate to have worked with her on one other project during this time for an exhibition at the Japanese embassy in London. As we struggle to get to grips with a complex and fascinating style it is helpful to observe the work of someone who managed to do precisely that.