For Iwata Sanbou, what does creating new products through this project mean in terms of your history?
In 2018, we participated in a project of Densan Association (Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries) and had the opportunity to sell sanbou in France, and the response was very positive. Sanbou is a Shingu that is used not only in Shinto rituals, but also seasonal ceremonies, and is deeply rooted in our daily life. It is used as a stand for Kagamimochi (New Year offerings) on New Year’s, in Tengu no Sekku (Boys’ Festival) and Tanabata (Star Festival), and one of the three court ladies of the Hina dolls holds a sanbou. During moon viewing, dango are sometimes placed on top of the sanbou as offerings. The background of the close connection with Japan’s unique seasonal events was also of interest to people overseas. The response was good, but the sizes used and quantities required were different between Japan and other countries, so I decided that I needed to do some serious research into the lifestyle of people in other countries. I wanted to expand the possibilities of how Iwata Sanbou’s technology could be used to create products that could be acquired by people overseas.
After having had a good response in France, did you decide to participate in this project in order to learn more about local needs?
Yes, that’s right. After all, you don’t know what size people want unless you live there. Since I went to France in 2018, I repeated the process several times of bringing products to France and seeing the local response, but even if I only worked with designers in Japan, I would sell a few items on the spot and then return home. So it was very appealing to be able to work with a designer who has a local base, and it gave me the opportunity to participate in this project.
Did you find any new perspectives or discoveries in your collaboration with the designer?
This time, we produced a three-tiered shelf made of hinoki, and all the boards and columns were specified to be 25mm. At first I thought it was a bit thin. The hassokuan usually uses 30mm boards, and ryotei (Japanese-style restaurant) counters use about 45mm boards, so I felt it was an aggressive design. However, when I actually put in in place, I thought that if it were 5mm thicker, it would be too assertive. It was a discovery to eliminate the wasteful and unnecessary, and to make it work by subtracting everything to the very limit.
I was also worried about the price range. I thought that even if the product were attractive, if the price increased due to transportation costs, it would seem overpriced compared to local products. So, I thought, why not try to compete with furniture that will last a lifetime and will never be replaced? This was a perspective I had never had before. The Shingu we work with every day are used in Shinto rituals, so we use nothing but high-quality materials. For this product as well, we were prepared to sell only a few units a year, so we decided to target the luxury class. By delivering the best products in the best condition, we hope that our furniture will be seen as furniture that will last a lifetime.
The shape of the hassokuan and the shelf are similar. Are there any techniques that are unique to Shingu?
Shingu are made in a way that does not go against the laws of heaven, earth, or nature. This three-tiered shelf is also made from a single log, with the top, center, and bottom of the log used for the first, second, and third tiers of three boards, respectively. By doing so, the logs appear to lie flat when viewed from the side. We wanted to show the continuity of the wood grain, so we insisted on using the same single piece of wood for the columns that support the shelves.
Trees grow from the roots to the leaves, from the earth to the sky. In the hassokuan that we make, we look at the wood grain and assemble from the roots to the leaves, just like in nature. By doing so with the shelves as well, we believe that people will feel as if they’re looking at a forest of hinoki trees. We created it with the image that it would be a very nice space to put paintings, flowers, and books on the forest-like shelf. In Japan, people prefer furniture that is rather linear and disciplined, but this shelf purposely has asymmetrical columns. This is because we wanted the four columns to look like two or three depending on the angle of view, so that the viewer can enjoy it from any angle.
Did you have any difficulties in the production process?
When we use single-plank plain-sawn wood we always use warp protection, so I suggested using ebony, but the designer said, “Putting black things in white wood is just noise and a distraction.” “Well, we’re in trouble,” I thought. If it warps, it cannot fulfill the role of a shelf. After struggling to find a way, we decided to use irregularly erected columns to stop warping by using the force of the shelftops pulling against each other.
We also took advantage of the nature of wood. Wooden boards warp toward the bark, which is the surface of the wood, so if three boards are placed in the same direction, they will all warp in the same direction. Therefore, I thought that by reversing the front and back only at the bottom, we could use the repelling force to stop the warping. Originally, we wanted to use the wood face up, so that the grain of the wood would be beautiful. But if we could make it look like a single log when viewed from the side by turning the back of the bottom board up, it would both stop warping and tell a story. With this in mind, I consulted with the designer. I can imagine the log lying on the ground, and I think I was able to create the feeling that the tree is standing up from its roots toward the sky.
How long did it take from the first prototype, and how many craftsmen did it take?
There wasn’t much time, so we had about six months to quickly create it. The designer and I shared our images in the first sample, and I basically made it on my own. Because of its large size, I needed help with processing that I could not do by myself, such as shaving the shelftops.
The processing itself takes about two to three weeks, but I wanted to use completely dried wood, so I ordered wood that had been dried for about 10 years. If the wood is not dried to that degree, it will be affected by the humidity and climate, and it will twist and warp.