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Passions of Artisans We ask Rin crossing participant manufacturers about their wishes regarding manufacturing.

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#059 Tsuruya Shouten Inc.:Rattan Products (Yamagata)2017/04/27

Adding polish to the charms of rattan products, working with designers to build a new brand (rattan products)


Breaking away from the price-based competition created by the emergence of imports, and pursuing originality with its “ami” range

In the city of Yamagata, about 3 hours from Tokyo on the Yamagata Shinkansen bullet train, the long-established manufacturer, Tsuruya Shouten, has been engaged in the manufacture of rattan products since 1907. In late January, when the last snowfall from a few days previously still lay on the ground, we visited their gallery shop and workshop.

Hand-made crafts have been popular in the mountainous regions of Tohoku, including Yamagata, since ancient times. From when it was first established, Tsuruya Shouten crafted items from the akebia (chocolate vine) and grapevines. In the 1920s, when Japan entered the Showa era, it sought out stronger materials and began using rattan to make things like baby carriages and furniture. At the time, rattan furniture was considered the height of style, and its popularity gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s.

A stool from Tsuruya Shouten’s own “THOGENKYO” range, which it launched while also manufacturing under contract for others. (Designer: Genji Aita)

The THOGENKYO pillow offers excellent ventilation and superior sleeping comfort. It remains one of Tsuruya Shouten’s most popular long-selling products.

‘When rattan products were at the height of their popularity, our artisanal skills were recognized and we mainly worked on sub-contract production for major companies in the same industry. In the 1980s, however, cheap imports from South East Asia flooded the market and prices plummeted. Caught up in that price war, many of those companies went out of business and our sub-contracting work declined drastically. We had plunged into a critical situation, and our only path to survival was to develop our own brand. Under those circumstances, through much trial and error, we came up with the THOGENKYO range,’ recollects Tsuruya Shouten’s owner, Genji Aita.

Genji Aita, who says, ‘I want to actively expand the range of products sold under our own brands.’

In this way, they sought to move away from the sub-contracting business and started to deal directly with wholesalers that had connections to the department stores. In its dealings with these wholesalers, who were one step closer to the end users of their products, that is, the consumers, Tsuruya Shouten began proposing new items and gradually increased its range of new products. Even so, it was difficult to compete in a price war with the constant wave of cheap imports, and in the second half of the 1990s, the company once again found itself in serious trouble.

‘It was no longer possible to distinguish ourselves using the methods we had employed to date. We had a sense of crisis that, instead of just thinking about making things like chairs and baskets, we needed a deeper approach to making things, one that offered a stronger sense of design and originality. I participated in a design development class held by Yamagata Prefecture’s Industrial Skills Center, where I was introduced to Mr. Hiroshi Yoneya, a designer with the architecture and interior design unit, TONERICO.

The “ami” range of modern interiors, which feature the straight lines that Hiroshi Yoneya does so well.

Rattan and metal are combined to create interior décor items that are both strong and stylish.

This encounter heralded the beginning of a new project between Mr. Aita and Mr. Yoneya. Mr. Yoneya, who had studied under Shigeru Uchida, a driving force in Japan’s interior design scene, was an up-and-coming designer who had only recently struck out on his own. This was the first time that Mr. Aita had made anything together with a designer, but he felt strongly the need to embark on the creation of something that went beyond common wisdoms. He decided to put his faith in Mr. Yoneya’s abilities and entrusted the direction of the new project to the designer. He conveyed as much as he could the material properties of rattan work and the skills he possessed, and, after several years of trial and error, the end result was the “ami” range of rattan interior décor items. The straight-line structures of the items in the range were a major departure from the conventional curved lines of rattan furniture.

The design aesthetic of the “ami” range has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Good Design Award.

After its launch, the “ami” range was the talk of the interior design scene, receiving the Good Design Award and the grand prize for the Yamagata Prefecture Excellent Design Awards for a bathroom basket in 2006. It won the Good Design Award again in 2012 for a chair. In 2009, the company’s head office workshop was moved, and a gallery shop was opened to promote the concept and value of the brand.

For the new company building, with its new gallery shop, Mr. Yoneya re-designed the company’s logo to give it a more modern look.


To convey to younger generations the appeal of products made in Japan with an artisan’s sensibilities

The “ami” range, which turned the conventional image of “rattan furniture” on its head and burst into the world as “rattan interior décor,” became the headline brand for rattan and led to the improvement of the material’s image. It also became a means of advertising to design firms and other potential customers. Nevertheless, there were still many challenges when it came to thinking about the future of rattan products.

‘Although we had launched this new brand, the backbone of our business was still the THOGENKYO range of rattan furniture. Thanks to the impact of mail-order catalogues, this range had started to recover and sales were on the rise. However, the biggest challenge was that the main target of our core products were elderly consumers, so the future was uncertain. Another challenge was the fact that the image of rattan products as cheap imports from Asia had become so firmly entrenched, and we had to find a way of conveying to consumers what was good about products that were handcrafted in Japan by Japanese artisans.’

Mr. Aita felt strongly that the only way for rattan products to survive into the future was for them to develop products that pursued a design aesthetic that would resonate with younger generations. Just as the “ami” range had opened the doors to the interior design world, Tsuruya Shouten had to develop new sales channels that went beyond the conventional markets of mail-order catalogues and department stores.

Rattan, which is a member of the palm family, grows wild in the jungles of tropical rainforest regions and is a very vigorous plant. The stem’s cross-section has countless small holes, and is bent and worked by steaming.

For some products, jigs are hand-made for each individual part. The rattan stem is bent to create the desired shape, which is then fixed in place and dried.

 

The bent parts are heated over a burner flame to further refine the shape, drawing closer to the finished product.

 

Parts are gathered by bending and splitting rattan stems of various thicknesses, which are then woven and coiled to produce the finished product.

The workshop, where five artisans, including Mr. Aita, make a variety of rattan products.

When we were led through to the workshop at the back of the shop, there was a young artisan in the midst of the other, more experienced artisans. ‘Students from the art and design university in Yamagata (Tohoku University of Art and Design) use rattan in their graduation works. This young man came to work for us from that connection. Going forward, I want to keep putting efforts into initiatives that take advantage of the kind of youthful sensibilities he can bring to our work.’ As Mr. Aita says, in the past few years, the company has started to realize new initiatives that target younger generations, such as the joint development of OEM products for lifestyle brands, and the development of new brands in collaboration with young designers.


Challenging new horizons for rattan products that make the most of its natural texture

The first push came from a request for an OEM product from F/style, a lifestyle brand launched by two women who studied design at Tohoku University of Art and Design. These two young women were committed to making items that were authentic and that would fit into the lifestyles of the young generation. Tsuruya Shouten worked with them to jointly develop a range of products that took rattan back to its origins, using the material’s raw texture. Released in 2008, they were a departure from the set standards of rattan products, which it was considered routine to paint. Mr. Aita had long wanted to make the most of the raw texture of rattan, something that had been the norm before the 1960s, and the two women of F/style took that desire and gave it a form that could be expressed with contemporary sensibilities.

Since then, the company has received a constant stream of requests from outside designers, which made Mr. Aita even more determined to build up his own company’s brands. He worked on developing products with outside designers over a period of two years, the result of which was the company’s new brand, Hile, which was launched in the spring of 2016. The concept of the new brand is to combine the raw texture of the natural material with the conventional details of rattan baskets to create a new design aesthetic. Reaction to these new products at trade shows has been very good, and they have been admired as items that would fit in with contemporary lifestyles.

Rattan clothes hangers designed by the company’s young employee are one of the products that makes the most of material’s natural, unadorned surface.

A product from the Hile range, Tsuruya Shouten’s new company brand, which is an extension of the value placed on rattan’s natural texture (Designer: Rina Ono)

Tabisuru Shintora Market, which opened in Shintora-dori in the Toranomon Area, is a new commercial facility that communicates the charms of regions in all corners of Japan, linking them to the revitalization of Japan’s regions. (Official website: https://www.tabisuru-market.jp)

In February 2017, Tsuruya Shouten exhibited its rattan products at Tabisuru Shintora Market, a new famous commercial facility in Tokyo’s Toranomon area. In anticipation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, this facility offers a space where regional municipalities can promote their famous places and tourism destinations, as well as local specialty products. Tsuruya Shouten’s products were exhibited as a specialty product of Yamagata.

The gallery shop, where Tsuruya Shouten’s entire product range are on display in one place, is a refurbished former bank building. The office and workshop are behind the shop (Shop design supervisor: Hiroshi Yoneya of TONERICO)

‘We have participated in Rin crossing since 2014, and while it would be difficult for us to exhibit solo at gift shows and the like, we would love to put our hand up as much as possible for business negotiation events and test marketing opportunities. It’s important for us to communicate our new endeavors at these kinds of launch events so we can be acknowledged by buyers. We are looking forward to further ventures such as setting up an e-commerce site,’ commented Mr. Aita with enthusiasm.

With its Japanese artisanal skills that have been passed down over generations, its way of looking at things to detect style that will fit in with contemporary lifestyles, and its spirit of challenge that places its hopes in the potential of young people, Tsuruya Shouten is a company to be watched as it comes up with new rattan products for future generations.

Tsuruya Shouten Inc.

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