If you haven’t had the chance to check out our current exhibit Japanese Design for the Senses, or if you have and you want to learn more, may we suggest making a night of it? Next week, Morikami will host David Jackson, Japanese furniture craftsmen and expert in tansu, for the first lecture of our 2014-2015 Speaker Series. Jackson has spent years studying, writing about and creating Japanese tansu (or storage chests) and Morikami is proud to bring you his lecture on the history, craftsmanship and influence of Japanese furniture on Friday, November 7. We asked Jackson a few questions to whet your appetite, which you can read below. After you get an overview of the fascinating pieces of functional design, head over here for details and tickets to Jackson’s lecture.
First the basics, what is tansu, and why is it important in the context of historical Japanese furniture design?
Tansu is the collective term for the antique cabinetry of Japan. Cabinetry was generally created for the urban and regional town folk during the Edo and Meiji periods (1603-1868) and (1868-1912), respectively. These periods constituted a time of economic growth, and making more things meant more things needed storage.
When we think of furniture we think of tables, chairs and chests of drawers, but in the context of Japanese culture you are speaking of a “floor-bound” culture during these periods. Tables were low, chairs were absent, and chests of drawers were the primary furnishing in many ways. There were clothing chests, tea utensil chests, cupboards in the kitchen area and, of course, the fascinating stair-cabinet combination known as the step-chest or kaidan dansu, one of which is exhibited in Japanese Design for the Senses.
What would you say are some of the basic concepts or philosophies behind Japanese furniture design? What’s the essence of this style?
In answering I will take as my point of departure what Donald Keene, a writer on Japanese culture, has said about beauty in Japan – that it encompasses several concepts: irregularity, simplicity, suggestion and perish-ability. As objects of craft they encompass, in my opinion, all of these and I hope to elaborate on these in the lecture.
Tansu, in essence, is cabinetry which exhibits a beautiful combination of wooden surfaces and iron hardware – often in asymmetrical designs. Their life within Japan has often resulted in rich patina. As both a buyer and someone involved in their restoration, patina is everything. Patina is history.
You’ve spent years studying, and creating, tansu – what has been the most challenging part of learning this craft?
My background is sculpture, having apprenticed to Martin Puryear, but that apprenticeship introduced me to tansu (and to books in Martin’s library by Kazuko Koizumi and Ty and Kiyoko Heineken). It also immersed me in craft and a concern for making something well. In restoration I strive to give the pieces the respect they deserve. What is challenging is always the balance between too much and too little restoration. You want to be conservative and maintain the objects’ integrity, but I will admit I have made more than one tansu into a TV cabinet or bathroom vanity complete with sink!
For those who might be looking to purchase tansu, or other pieces of Japanese furniture, do you have any basic advice of what to look for?
Original surfaces and patina. Wear and tear are signs of history. Ask questions about restoration practices, has a chest been cleaned, etc. I understand structural repairs, replacing wood if damaged by bugs, etc., but ideally you want to leave surfaces alone.
Lastly, do you have any advice about what people should keep an eye out for in our current exhibit? Any pieces you are particularly interested in, or techniques others might not have picked up on?
As observers in a museum, the audience cannot, of course, slide a door or pull out a drawer, but that is what antique tansu do offer. They can be used again in our lives, and enrich our interiors: a merchant chest can hold CDs; a kitchen cupboard can be used in our kitchens. To look upon the tansu in this exhibition is to hopefully have tansu inspire folks, and remind them of what a rich heritage Japanese cabinetry embodies.