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Week 3 - Hugh Miller In Search of Lightness

Chris Roberts

A theme present in the philosophy of many of the makers I interviewed in Japan was a search for lightness in their work. Sometimes this was through the material used, sometimes it was due to the construction details employed, and sometimes it was a careful arrangement of form that achieved the desired effect.

Lightness has an important role for makers in Japan. It is, in part, a show of respect for the value of the material - making things as light as possible leads to a more efficient, economical use of timber. It also speaks to the sensibility in Japan of having a light touch on ones environment. This can be seen in the formality and respectfulness shown in many social interactions, but is also evident in the making. A common thread was that the craftsmanship should add to a clients home in a harmonious way, rather than stand out from it. The search for lightness, in this context, is the search for a harmonious complementary addition to a space.

A fantastic example of this concept of lightness is embodied in a chair by master furniture maker, Daimon Takeshi. The piece, called ‘Wood Spring Chair’, was designed in 2002, and beautifully combines lightness of weight, lightness of touch, and master craftsmanship within a single design.

Lightness in Material Choice
The chair is made of two types of wood. The frame is Maple, a strong and hard timber with tight grain and blond colouring. The tightness of grain is important here as the components within this chair are delicately proportioned, so a less dense timber could crack around the joints. The seat is made of Kiri (桐) otherwise known as Paulownia, a very light, fine-grained, timber. Making this part of the seat from Maple would have doubled the physical weight of the chair.

Kiri is an interesting choice as it has a special place in Japanese society. It is the symbol of the office of the Prime minister, and a dresser made of the timber is a traditional gift at Japanese weddings. The choice of Kiri could also be a show of deference to Japan’s heritage. Within the context of a contemporary chair, itself a relatively recent addition to the Japanese home, the choice of Kiri is respectful to Japan's woodworking traditions.

Lightness in Construction Details
The master stroke of this chair is the way that the natural flexibility of the timber is used to strengthen the joints. The rails between the legs are constructed of impossibly slim 30mm sections of Maple, insufficient if used as a single piece. But here, saw cuts have been made which allow small lathes of timber to be bent away from the main stock. This makes the timber act like a piece two or three times as thick, in a similar way to how the webbing in a steel I-beam prevents it from bending.

The separated lathes are then jointed independently, reducing the pressure on the mortise within each leg. A circular hole drilled at the terminal of each cut prevents the rails from splitting along their length under the tension.   

A variant of this style of joint is used to create the backrest, where saw kurfs are used to make a kind of finger joint. The back legs are bent at the top during the glue-up stage which angles the backrest to a comfortable sitting position. This bend also puts the back legs in tension, and so reduces flex when the chair is in use.

Lightness in Form
The choice of materials and masterful detailing make this chair very light. It weighs maybe one third or one half of a traditional timber chair. However, it is also the form of this chair that lightens it’s appearance.

Reducing the backrest to a slim bar allows the spaces between the timber to take precedence. These gaps and spaces are continued into and through the joints, as can be seen in the side rails and at the top of the back legs. The careful notching and carving in the seat panel, make this a reductive element rather than the slab of wood it can so easily become. The small radius at the base of each leg is the final move, appearing to float the chair just above the surface of the floor. It almost appears as if the timber elements in the chair frame the air that surrounds them.

Daimon’s Wood Spring Chair, as a case study, might appear an odd choice for a blog about Japan. It is a far cry from traditional Japanese woodwork, and might appeal more to European tastes than those in its home country. However, I think it perfectly embodies the combination of careful material selection, master craftsmanship, and lightness of touch that weaves through so much of the making in Japan. It is also, in my view, a piece of world-class design that deserves international recognition.