In 1940, Karimoku was founded in the Japanese prefecture of Aichi as a manufacturer of high-grade wooden furniture – and to this day remains one of the country’s most important such companies. Products are turned out to an exceptionally high technical standard and in line with a strict, resource-saving brief in the firm’s seven workshops. In 2009 and thus almost 70 years after it was first founded, a new business model was launched at the suggestion of Teruhiro Yanagihara, the creative head at Karimoku. And as the name of the new label implies, Karimoku New Standard seeks to set new standards in Japanese furniture design and to carefully and circumspectly move the longstanding corporation into a new era.

So how to transpose the principles of Japanese furniture making, and in part they date back centuries, into the 21st century? First Karimoku New Standard conscientiously ensured that the parent company’s values and basic principles were carefully upheld, and the characteristic aesthetic of Japanese design maintained. The label has already launched three collections made in this spirit. All the products are made of Japanese hardwoods from sustainable forestry – oak, maple and chestnut. The new label relies on Karimoku’s expertise in manufacturing and has the furniture made in the existing workshops, not unusually relying here on complex and typically Japanese wood processing techniques. And for the collections collaborates with established international designers such as Sylvain Willenz or designer duo Scholten & Baijings. Not to mention emerging talents such as Brit Tomás Alonso, ECAL graduate Lucien Gumy or Swedish design collective TAF, who have all created wooden pieces for the label. And in-house designers have also contributed products, such as Yanagihara himself, or Satoshi Seto and Takahiko Fujimori, who form the core of the Karimoku Design Team.

All designs share a common key idea which the company calls the “everyday life concept”. The focus here is on objects for everyday use that can be easily integrated into different living spaces and therefore potentially appeal to a very large target group. Meaning the preference is for furniture that does not opt for short-term effects and fashionable notions, thus outlasting the different phases in life and the related changed expectations as regards furniture. The focus is firmly on long-serving products that are intended to be timeless in terms of quality, functionality and of course aesthetics.

A rich seam of products has arisen on the basis of this brief, including tables, chairs and shelves, not to forget practical home and work accessories such as paperweights, clothes horses and card holders. Not only the choice of material and finishing guarantees the products are “typically Japanese”, but also the involvement of different design styles. Characteristic Japanese furniture typologies are reinterpreted, good examples being the “Torii” chair and the “Torii-S” stool created by the Karimoku design team: The seat surfaces and armrests are bent upwards at the sides emulating the traditional “Shintō” shrines, the symbol par excellence of Japanese design. By contrast, on the “Ren” chair the sitter will behave in a typically Japanese manner, as the anatomical thrust of the seat means that you automatically adopt the upright and elegant posture known as “seiza”, which has a long-standing tradition in Japan.

In the case of other products, the theme of “functionality” is foregrounded; take for example the “Pile” modular shelf created by Teruhiro Yanagihara, where a regular pallet morphs into an attractive item of furniture. Stacked or as a standalone, it can serve as a shelf or side table depending on your needs. And you can choose from various colors. Almost all the products in the line come in different versions, usually a plain white or gray, but also with natural wood or discreet patterns. The products can be combined and used in a variety of ways. Only rarely does the playful and brightly colorful side to Japanese design come to the fore. A real exception here is Sylvain Willenz’s “Homerun” chair, with its comic-like silhouette and striking yellow color.

In 2012, nine prototypes were introduced to round out the existing collections and they will be marketed in Europe at the beginning of 2013. The current “Colour” range by Scholten & Baijings has been expanded to include a dining table and practical containers of different sizes. Sylvain Willenz’s “Tones” stool has three legs, each in a different color, and TAF’s “Soft Triangle” table – they couldn’t decide whether to opt for a circle or a triangle – is available in turquoise. And a new functional item has been added to the collection. Tomás Alonso’s “A Frame Table” is available in two versions and can simply be folded up for easy transportation. This is Alonso’s answer to current living conditions, with limited space and frequent moves the norm.

Karimoku New Standard has without doubt managed to translate the aesthetic of Japanese furniture design into a contemporary language. However, the company has probably not succeeded in establishing this as a USP, as a large number of young Japanese labels are now pursuing a similar approach. It remains to be seen whether the concept will be diluted in the long run by the fact that so many different designers are involved or, on the contrary, takes on an even sharper profile as a consequence. One thing’s for sure: Karimoku New Standard’s furniture is definitely attractive.

Japanese for everyone
by Milenka Thomas
Sep 21, 2012