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Subtly Japanese Modernist Aesthetic Dominates Tokyo Furniture Show

Although "sleek" and "modernist" were the watchwords at the recent International Furniture Fair Tokyo/Interior Lifestyle Living expo, few ranges met with success if they failed to incorporate a few nods to traditional Japanese style.

Photo: Thinking inside the box: Molo Design’s stylish paper pavilion.
Thinking inside the box: Molo Design's stylish paper pavilion.
Photo: Thinking inside the box: Molo Design’s stylish paper pavilion.
Thinking inside the box: Molo Design's stylish paper pavilion.

From the off, the latest edition of International Furniture Fair Tokyo (IFFT)/Interior Lifestyle Living set out to impress, with its bold and stylish layout a clear statement of intent. Dispensing with the usual square-grid pattern – typically seeing all the exhibition stands set parallel to the venue's walls – the organisers opted for a spacious diagonal layout, all centered on an elevated viewing platform.

Energising and opening up the overall space, this was a characteristically ambitious gambit on the part of an event that likes to bill itself as "the leading trade fair for the Japanese high-end interior market". It also provided a highly suitable setting for its current roster of exhibitors, many of which were clearly keen to capitalise on the event's sleek, modernist aesthetic, albeit with one or two subtle Japanese touches.

This novel layout also chimed well with a number of the event's more exotic and experimental offerings, notably the large pavilion that came courtesy of Molo Design. A Vancouver-based architectural and interior décor company, Molo had made the 9,400-mile roundtrip to Tokyo to showcase its latest range of honeycomb-styled fluid and flexible fold-away paper partitions, said to be suitable for both home and office use.

Despite this being the company's debut at the event, Stephanie Forsyth, Molo's Head Designer, was quick to acknowledge a debt to its host country, saying: "We've always been inspired by Japan, especially its sensibility that any material, particularly paper, can be used to do so many different things."

According to Forsyth, the company's decision to attend was prompted by a simple to desire to say hello, with a number of staff already in town in order to work on an existing architectural project. Thankfully, such a relatively unfocussed soft-sell approach often goes down well in Japan, whereas more precisely-targetted initiatives tend to be simply rebuffed. The sense of fun that permeated the Molo presentation also helped ensure healthy footfall around its stand.

The company also scored highly when it came to ensuring its presence was almost wholly in keeping with contemporary Japanese sensibilities. While the country is a broad enough church to harbour several competing aesthetics, the current overall preference is for sleek, low-key – but far from dull – modernism, an approach that highlights the beauty of the composite materials, while retaining traces of that uniquely Japanese style.

One company that had clearly seized this particular zeitgeist was Shimamori, a relatively new Japanese ceramic design brand. Visitors to its stand were treated to a preview of its range of irregular angular-shaped dishes, all due in the shops at some point in 2017.

Despite their apparent irregularity, these variously-sized dishes had been designed to fit easily inside one another, a huge asset for many storage space-starved Japanese city dwellers. Ostensibly modernist in style, the dishes had clearly been designed with the peculiarities of Japanese cuisine in mind, most notably the need for a large number of dishes of various capacities at any one time. Explaining her thinking, Masahide Tateishi, the Designer behind the range, said: "I wanted to create a landscape effect for the serving of food." And she may well have succeeded.

Other prime examples of this particular brand of subtly Japanese modernism came amid the array of new chair designs premiered at the event. A number of exhibitors offered a variety of upmarket hardwood, leather-upholstered seating options, with a unit price as high as US$600. Unlike Western furniture, with its tendency to be somewhat task-specific, Japanese furnishings are often designed to suit both the home and office environment.

Such moves to engender crossover appeal were also apparent in a number of other sectors, with some designers going as far as to ensure their products had unisex appeal, even when they were clearly primarily targetted at one specific gender. A case in point was a new luggage range on offer from Milestone Everyday Travel, a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Idea International.

According to Kanea Hishi, Milestone's Sales Division Leader, while the range was designed with women in mind, it could be used by men without any fear of embarrassment. Highlighting its ubiquity, she said: "While the linings have a distinctly feminine appeal, when the cases are closed they could be used by pretty much anyone."

Photo: The low down: Furniture, Japanese-style.
The low down: Furniture, Japanese-style.
Photo: The low down: Furniture, Japanese-style.
The low down: Furniture, Japanese-style.
Photo: Baby toothbrushes from Hecuba.
Baby toothbrushes from Hecuba.
Photo: Baby toothbrushes from Hecuba.
Baby toothbrushes from Hecuba.

In terms of a more general appraisal, Hishi said, despite ongoing concerns over the state of the economy, her company had benefitted from a mini-boom in the domestic tourism sector. This had seen a number of its products – most notably a $50 combined rucksack/handbag and a $120 carpetbag complete with a colourful Liberty print lining – prove particularly successful.

Targetting specific groups while being careful to maintain a cautiously flexible crossover appeal is a clear sign that Japanese manufacturers remain wary. Although there are some indications of a gradual restoration of a more optimistic outlook, demand remains patchy, while competition continues to intensify. As a consequence, companies are perennially obliged to develop new products and to refresh their marketing strategies.

One business to have embraced this approach is Hinoki Soken, a high-end luxury bath manufacturer based in central Japan's Gifu Prefecture. The company's baths retail for about $20,000 and are all fashioned from slow-growing, Japanese cypress wood.

On a previous encounter, several years ago, the company had revealed plans to boost its export sales – no easy matter with such a quintessentially Japanese range of luxury products. This drive for sales beyond Gifu, though, has now seen Hinoki add a number of new items to its core range, including deck chairs, a champagne cooler and even tissue boxes.

Despite the adverse business climate, there is apparently still scope for particularly innovative products to enjoy first-mover benefits, with sales surprisingly robust for genuinely fresh ideas. Hoping to have stumbled on just such a concept, Hecuba had high hopes of its new Hamoic range of baby toothbrushes.

While the novel ring design of one of its $6 toothbrushes certainly struck a chord with a number of attendees, the Ishikawa Prefecture-based company is already far more focussed on exports than on local sales. Explaining its strategy, Yoko Sato, the company's Senior Vice-president, said: "The baby market in Japan is very limited in terms of size, hence our focus on overseas sales. While this is something we would have considered anyway, the current state of the economy has made it an earlier priority."

Back with the aforementioned crossover commitment, however, and many furniture manufacturers were looking to supplement home sales by taking advantage of the growing domestic tourism market. The Area Company, a Japanese high-end furniture designer and retailer, for instance, sees its market as divided into three distinct categories – private homes, hotels, and other businesses. While sales for private home use remain its biggest earner, its fastest-growing market is now the hotel sector.

Due to the cheaper yen fostered by the economic policies of Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister, ever more overseas tourists are now visiting the country. More significant still, though, is the huge surge in the number of cash-strapped Japanese holidaymakers now opting for domestic vacations, a development that has proved a windfall for The Area Company and its distinctly Japanese brand of furniture.

Explaining just how the company has benefitted, Makoto Hasegawa, the Manager of its Tokyo flagship outlet, said: "We produce largely very up-market customised items, which involves working with a lot of craft producers on small production runs. This means we can assist in finding just the right look for our clients, including those in the hotel sector.

"The overall look of our range is sleek and modern, while subtle elements of Japanese style are also incorporated. One notable difference from Western furniture is that our items tend to be lower. That is a distinctly Japanese thing."

The growing significance of hoteliers to the furniture-manufacturing sector has also resulted in the emergence of some unexpected opportunities. For Merry Yard International, a Taiwanese furniture-maker, Japan had previously long been a difficult market for its Lagoon range of faux wicker tables and chairs.

With a unit cost of about $200, its plastic-based furniture had little appeal for Japanese consumers, largely on account of their renowned preference for more authentic materials. Now, though, the company has high hopes that its hard-wearing simulated wicker items will prove ideal for the hotel market, where furniture is traditionally required to be far more robust.

Although its hopes are yet to be fully realized, Veronica Chan, the company's Head of Sales, remained optimistic, saying: "We are here primarily to try to replicate the success we have already had in the US. To date, the response here has been a little disappointing, but we are still looking to explore a number of possibilities. Essentially, we are looking to appoint an agent, someone far more familiar with the market than we are."

Photo: Bold, stylish and new: IFFT/Interior Lifestyle Living’s innovative floor plan.
Bold, stylish and new: IFFT/Interior Lifestyle Living's innovative floor plan.
Photo: Bold, stylish and new: IFFT/Interior Lifestyle Living’s innovative floor plan.
Bold, stylish and new: IFFT/Interior Lifestyle Living's innovative floor plan.

IFFT/Interior Lifestyle Living 2016 was held at Tokyo Big Site from 7-9 November The event featured 450 exhibitors, and attracted 20,217 visitors.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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