As technology invades every part of our lives these days, it’s difficult to imagine that in some parts of the world large-scale manufacturing is conducted without the aid of robotics, whether laser cutting of timber or fabric or the actual building of products. In Japan, however, there is a small city called Takayama situated in the mountainous terrain of Hida, some two and a half hours from Nagoya, which celebrates the handmade product and the skill of craftspeople. While mechanisation is the norm in the rest of the world, Takayama, renowned for its wonderful timber products, produces by hand. All through the skill of experienced artisans who have learned their trade over the centuries.
The city of Takayama is picturesque, with an old town to rival Gion in Kyoto, and is surrounded by forests of cedar trees that flourish in this area. The landscape is emerald green in spring, summer and autumn and crisp white in winter when the snow falls.
For centuries woodworking has been a part of the cultural fabric of the town. From the forests, timber was used to make traditional tables, chairs and other furniture pieces, but in 2017 there is a change of design direction by the manufacturers, designers and artisans in Takayama to present product that is contemporary and modern.
Visiting showrooms in Takayama to see these new collections of furniture is a wonderful experience. The heritage of the area is apparent, but the aesthetic is modern with clean lines, and the furniture is fit for a chic New York penthouse or relaxed Australian beach house. There are many showrooms in the city and the style of the ranges on display varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but the message is the same – beautifully crafted furniture that meets the desires and needs of today’s busy world.
Within Takayama the major furniture makers employ a large number of the city workers and four of the largest companies are Kitani, Kashiwa, Nissin, and Hida Sangyo, which all present outstanding ranges. Behind the gloss of the showrooms are the manufacturing plants that produce their product and this is achieved in much the same method as in the preceding decades. As expected, timber is revered, lovingly seasoned for years, cured in the open and then kiln dried to achieve the perfect base from which to manufacture a product. Machines are used to help curve, cut, assemble, paint and pack the products, but it is all accomplished by manual labour; the eye and skill of the artisan is essential to ensure that each component of a product is perfect.
As expected, timber is revered, lovingly seasoned for years, cured in the open and then kiln dried to achieve the perfect base from which to manufacture a product. Machines are used to help curve, cut, assemble, paint and pack the products, but it is all accomplished by manual labour; the eye and skill of the artisan is essential to ensure that each component of a product is perfect.
Watching the craftsmen and women at work in the factories is fascinating. It all looks so easy for a worker to bend a ten-centimetre thick piece of timber that will become the backrest of a chair, but knowing that the wood is wet enough or too dry to achieve the correct results takes skill and years of experience. Components are finished by hand, turning, sanding, painting and re-sanding legs, arms and all the pieces in between until they are exact, and all this is measured by eye. The cutting process is precise to ensure there is maximum use of all timber; however, there is no waste, as offcuts are utilised for heating and the drying of the timber.
To say the handmade is celebrated in Takayama is an understatement and through experience and process, the finished products are all perfect in form. Traditional Japanese furniture is beautiful, there is no doubt, but the products that are now coming from the manufacturers of Takayama are definitely of the 21st century. Through inventive and modern design, coupled with outstanding attention to detail, the furniture from this region of Japan is among the world’s best in contemporary design.
The Japanese aesthetic is, of course, evident and this is what gives the Hida furniture makers their edge. Think of their style as smooth and fine with that modern touch, rather like mid-century meets Scandinavia, and then becoming something different and new.
Products from Takayama are available from Apato in Melbourne, which showcases only furniture made in Japan. The store’s curated collections from many brands are unique, sophisticated and in tune with an Australian sensibility. Products will stand the test of time and become new heirlooms to pass to the next generation. The furniture at Apato is made in Japan, but the appeal is universal and with the beautiful products from Takayama the offering is complete.
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