aesthetic, berkeley, chest, culture, Design, discover, environments, explore, exploring, failure, furniture, Heineken, intent, japanese, learning, lessons, mills, Mizuya, outcome, portable, purpose, spaces, tans'u, Ty, wood
Culture, values, and aesthetics all play a key roll in the design process. The resulting objects then become containers, giving shape to these objectives. My story of the Tans’u expresses all of these ideas in body and theory.
A Tans’u is the Japanese word for portable chest. For over 40 years, this simple style of furniture became an obsession for me. It started in the early 70’s and continues to this day. I loved the aesthetics, and the ability to configure the space within the frame asymmetrically. This was possible because of the construction where the rails and stiles were mortise and tenoned together, giving the structure a mechanical advantage without rigid panels. This construction gave me an opportunity I never had with the more rigid western style of frame and panel cabinetry. I was able to configure the structure by adding members wherever I had the need.
Unfortunately, my first Tans’u was a failure. I couldn’t understand why at first, but something was definitely wrong – it just did not look or feel right. I had modeled the chest after an old Mizuya Tans’u, and the proportions and construction techniques were identical, so why did it look so wrong? I pondered the problem for a few days and without any answers in sight I started to do some research.
My breakthrough came after reading a book by Ty Heineken called Tans’u. I called the author and found he had studied anthropology and was an expert in restoring Japanese artifacts. Ty reminded me that the Tans’u was uniquely designed for a period in Japan when the culture was a floor-sitting society. That meant the furniture was designed to be frontal in orientation and the size and spacing of the doors and drawers was scaled to fit the utensils of the day and at a height to be accessed from the floor. They were also built to a rigid standard so that in times of fires they would be portable and could fit through the village gates.
My failure was in taking the design out of context and expecting it to work in a totally different culture. What differentiates the design in a chair-sitting culture is that the sides and tops will be viewed and accessed from a higher perspective. Thus the object needs to be finished on the top and sides.. Doors and drawers must be proportionate to the objects they will hold and in scale with their intended purpose. When I brought the design of the Tans’u into a modern context, I was able to make beautiful, functional pieces that were still true to the original form.
We then started making Tans’u that fit TV’s and stereo systems. We designed the spaces within at the right heights and were able to leave spaces adjacent in the piece for clothes storage or other uses that a person might benefit from. There seemed to be no end to the ways we could configure a Tans’u in order to solve almost any design issues we came upon.
Over the next ten years, before the Mainland Chinese started to copy our new fusion ideas, we sold hundreds of Tans’u. I did see the writing on the wall when I was first approached by manufactures in China to work with them. For political reasons we chose not to.