SL sends me a photo of a gorgeous Japanese tansu that reflects, in a remarkable way, how a piece of furniture can tell the social history of a culture. Tansus, Japanese cabinetry pieces, are portable, lightweight and multi-functional chests, as well as changeable for certain seasons, additional household members, and certain festival days. Zen Buddhism teaches that emptiness is a virtue: therefore, the emptier a room, the more functional it really is. Thus a room with very little in it, just what’s useful and necessary (and beautiful), is a full, valuable room.
We think of furniture as a fixture in a room: I can’t even move my bedroom dresser to vacuum under it, let alone see the top of it for all the family photos and jewelry boxes. Tansus generally are a series of stacked boxes and cubbies just so they can be moved. Tansus reflect very old ways in working with one of the prime elements, wood. Ancient Asian philosophy tells us that five elements determine the relationships between all things: earth, water, fire, wind and wood, with wood at the top of the pentagon. Woodworking traditions of Japan date from the 5th C. Shinto shrines.
The wooden boxes and chests originated in Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) and there’s a good reason for the development of interior storage furniture during this period. Japan was becoming a prosperous country with a growing middle class, and both country houses and city houses were becoming more reflective of the houses of the wealthy elite, houses built in a more permanent style called Shoin architecture.
Most prosperous homes had a special “storage locker” attached to the property just so furniture could be cycled into and out of rooms: these masonry wall structures, called Kura, stored family possessions, which were seasonally retired.
A primary wood used for tansus, Paulownia, is not only light and beautiful, but, as it turns out, is sustainable; the trees are plentiful, even today, and its leaves are animal-edible. The wood doesn’t crack, warp, or split and is fire resistant, and will air-dry (no chemicals needed). Paulownia became the standardized lumber for tansus.
The range of tansu forms is many: SL’s is for clothing; but there’s also kitchen tansus, bedding tansus, and merchant/peddler tansus. My favorite tansu form is the “step” tansu that are graduated like stair steps and may be used to climb to the next level in a house. The name tansu means cabinetry itself, spanning the many forms, to store all manner of treasures from swords, valuable documents, tea utensils, fine kimono, food, tools, and textiles.
One doesn’t need dressers without a fair collection of textiles, and during the Edo Period, under the rule of the Tokugawa family, cotton fields flourished to clothe the urban dwellers of Edo and Kyoto. Urban populations demand specialty crafts, and tansu production soon broke into three separate craft guilds, the cabinetmaker, the hardware blacksmith, and the lacquer finisher.
The cabinetmaker benefited, in the 17th C., from the development of a “one man” ripsaw from which he formed single thin planks from boards; also invented was the pulled plane. As the merchant and craftsman class thrived, the martial samurai class became fragmented. Economic power meant urban buying power: the cotton garments formally only worn by the Samurai class began to be worn by the lower classes, as cotton was easier to maintain than hemp or paper garments. Thus, the merchant and craftsman class needed clothing storage, entering in the age of the tansu.
I have always admired the spare aesthetic of these tansus, which in their simplicity and functionality pre-dates our modern Bauhaus philosophy of less is more. The hardware itself is the masterful embellishment, providing texture and depth. In fact, the hardware monger was greatly respected as an artisan. Also, note that today is a great time to invest in these lovely pieces as for some reason the market is very approachable price wise. Somehow, designers never quite realized how well these pieces fit with our current craze for midcentury modern, especially the tansus in the lightest of woods. You can find a great tansu for under $300.
The golden age of the tansu ended in 1912 with the introduction of compulsory public education. No longer was a young man articled to a craftsman as an apprentice as a matter of course. Western forms of furniture became available and desirable, and Western styles of dressing required different forms of clothing storage. SL’s is a fine pre 1912 example and worth $800-1,000.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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