Kengo Kuma and Associates collaborated with local craftsmen as a revival affect after an earthquake in Japan to design Chidori furniture, taking traditional design concepts and their application to the contemporary way of living. While concrete, glass and other modern materials have taken over the design and contemporary world, Kengo Kuma’s work with wood, inspired from an old Japanese toy to create furniture products as well as architecture comes as a fresh breeze of innovation. As an attempt to rejuvenate traditional techniques, and the art of building solemnly with the hands, this product represents an ideology of conserving heritage and applying it to modern times.
The East Japan Project is a collaborative initiative between designers and traditional craft artisans from eastern Japan, with the purpose to propose ‘The New Lifestyle’ as a concept design post the Tōhoku earthquake. ‘The New Lifestyle’ refers to a way of life that is deeply rooted in the locality, which is another name for the system in which every aspect of a place - climate, culture, and people, is integrated in a natural way. This system is believed to have disappeared in the urbanized society of the 20th century with its pursuit of efficiency and convenience. After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in eastern Japan, the EJP initiative revisited this lost system and reevaluated its implications for a modern society. Their attempt lies in reversing the course of the 20th century and reviving the notion of the place through collaboration with craftsmen. Yanagi Muneyoshi who led the mingei (folk craft) movement of Japan in the late 1920s once called the Tōhoku region ‘the land of handcraft’.
In the framework of the EJP, the products are conceptualized as new types of daily tools with a deep appreciation of local craftsmanship and material and are to be part of a larger product portfolio called ‘location’. The project is intended to raise money from the profit to support the next generation of artisans and to acquire and maintain the skills of traditional crafts, thus creating self-sustainability. As part of this initiative, Kengo Kuma and Associates designed the ‘Chidori’ collection of furniture to offer support to these communities devastated by the earthquake. Chidori hails from the small town of Hida Takayama and is a flexible composition developed from the joint system of old Japanese toys called Chidori. These are made as an assembly of wooden sticks with joints that have a unique shape. They can be extended by merely twisting the sticks, without any nails or metal fittings.
Driven from the traditional system of this Chidori toy, one unit of Chidori Furniture consists of 12 timber sticks with different junction details. Each modular unit of Chidori Furniture can be connected from 6 sides, thus offering numerous combinations. There are 5 components designed for the entire assembly, 3 kinds of sticks with their individual joineries. The vertical and the horizontal sticks have joineries that fit into each other and the connectors are used for pushing and twisting to lock the puzzle-like joint form of the sticks in place. The shelves to be placed over this grid and the extender keys are the other two components. By simply twisting the sticks without the use of any additional fittings myriad possibilities emerge for the components to be formed into anything from a table to a shelf, to even an architectural wall.
The unique junction details of the system require a very high level of craftsmanship, which can be found in the highly skilled carpenters of the Tōhoku region. Their employment in these projects not only revives the craft but also enables self-sustenance and encourages engagement to give back to the society.
Kengo Kuma explains the East Japan project as; “The New Lifestyle is a way of living to reverse this course of the 20th century when the notion of location had been lost. What we present is not at all exclusive or pretentious traditional crafts but are ‘new types of daily tools’. They are the equipment for ourselves to take part in a larger circulatory system called location.”
Kengo Kuma strongly believed in the revival of this old technique as can be evidently seen in the design of the GC Prostho Museum Research Center built in 2010 as well, where the project was developed on the basis of the Chidori system. For the building design, Kuma says, “This architecture shows the possibility of creating a universe by combining small units like toys with your own hands. We worked on the project in the hope that the era of machine-made architecture would be over, and human beings would build them again by themselves.”(The article was first published in Issue#17 of mondo*arc india – an initiative by STIR.)