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Home > Passions of Artisans #010 Ecoasu Co., Ltd.

#010 Ecoasu Co., Ltd.2014/08/28

The astonishingly stylish “wood bag” from the heartland of Yanase cedar

Delivering the natural riches of Umaji Village, Kochi

Wood might not seem to have anything to do with bags or cushions, but one line of products is showing that they can go together splendidly, and gaining attention from fashion magazines in buyers both in Japan and overseas. The village of Umaji, Kochi, with a population of 980 and some of Japan’s finest cedar trees, is home to interior and fashion brand Monacca.

The products are made with Yanase cedar, the official tree of Kochi Prefecture. A premium wood known throughout Japan for its fine pale red tint and beautiful grain with a minimal number of knots, it was used in the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the 16th century) to build great Buddhist halls in Kyoto, and in modern times is sliced thin and used as a luxury material for ceilings and so forth.

Ecoasu Co., Ltd., which makes Monacca, was founded in 2000. A public-private village partnership, it carried out forest conservation and made use of wood from tree thinning in handheld fans, dishes and other wood products.

“People who use Monacca bags love them and become very attached to them. Some people say they find them reassuring to the touch. We want to suggest to people that wood should play an essential role in their lifestyles,” says Yoshiyuki Yamada, assistant manager of the general planning division.

Yoshiyuki Yamada, assistant manager of the general planning division, says, “In 2001 we built a processing plant in the village, and used technology in which thin wood is shaped in molds, first to make dishes and then hand-held fans. However, both of these are inexpensive products with a small profit margin. The dishes had a wonderful wood fragrance, but they didn’t appeal to customers at the time, and we were struggling.”

Using wood to make chic bags that astound people

First, the lumber is soaked in 90 to 95 degree water for about 10 hours, then in water-softened condition, is cut into ultra-thin 0.3mm or 0.5mm slices. The wood is sliced cleanly and smoothly, just like paring vegetables

Ecoasu needed to use their existing materials and technologies to develop a more viable product. When they were mulling it over and considering various angles, they met Takumi Shimamura, a designer also from Kochi Prefecture.

Shimamura was astounded upon seeing an Ecoasu tray in an “antenna shop” in Tokyo, never having seen anything like the technology they use to mold hard wood into gracefully curving shapes. He had long wanted to make products related to his hometown, and as he and the people at Ecoasu saw eye to eye, they decided to team up.

Lacking funds to purchase new molds, they were faced with the limitation of having to work with ones they already had. Nonetheless they managed to produce a range of prototypes, including cushions, bags, chairs, lighting fixtures and calculators.

 

Six slices of wood are stacked by hand, and pressed with a special machine mounted with a mold

 

Wood with beautiful grain is selected for the surface. It takes around 12 minutes to press one unit, so only 20 bags’ worth of material can be made in one day

“The sewing was the most difficult part to get right. The people at the sewing plant, their first reaction was, “What? Wood?!” Also, because it’s a bag we’re making, the stitching has got to be done beautifully. At times it’s difficult to reconcile the quality designers are after with the realities of the technology, but we refused to compromise on any of the details, because we wanted to produce something stylish that people will be drawn to,” says Mr. Yamada

Design combining innovation with Japanese aesthetic is popular overseas

 

The Zabuton cushion for cross-legged sitting comes in five color variations

 

The Kaku Plain standard business bag. Other color variations include the sophisticated Mocha, the popular and edgily colored Tannin, and the luxurious-looking Black

The name Monacca comes from the back-to-back tray-based designs’ resemblance to the Japanese sandwich-cookies called monaka. The first product in the series, the Zabuton cushion, was made like a sandwich, with calcinated cork between two pieces of cedar.

The second product was the Kaku business bag, the most standard item in the Monacca lineup. Large enough to fit B4-size documents, it features a simple a design with canvas cloth in a natural shade that matches the veneer of the wood.

“We use natural materials, and the wood grain pattern of each bag is unique, the sole property of its owner. The way the texture changes and seems to adapt to you with use is another part of the appeal. Another thing is, it’s lighter than it looks.”

In spring 2005, they exhibited at an international trade fair in Milan, Italy. The products earned high praise for their environmental friendliness and hip design evoking traditional Japanese aesthetics. They were covered in a US magazine and are getting attention on the Internet, as well as being sold at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Design Store in New York and gaining new fans.

Sales talks that utilize the Internet show promise

As Monacca products were made with natural materials, production levels were not consistent at first, and the only viable sales routes were direct-to-customer or in Tokyo interior-goods shops. Now, however, technical issues have been sorted out, the number of products has grown, and Ecoasu is stepping up efforts to open up sales channels in Japan and overseas. They have developed bags for women as well, and responded to customer feedback by improving on the products, adding pen compartments to their business bags, adjusting the stitching so the zipper cannot be seen, etc.

 

Ecoasu products are evolving and improving. 1% of revenue is donated to the Millennium Forest Fund for woodland conservation

 

The popular Maruta Black bag for women can be used on both casual and formal occasions

“The fact that we make these products up in the mountains, far from the city, can make sales a challenge. We have high hopes for sales negotiations via Rin Crossing, and are eager to collaborate with other companies. Also, we hope we can talk with buyers about new ways to make use of harvested lumber using our biggest asset, our wood slicing and processing technology.”

Ecoasu Co., Ltd.

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