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Wood Craftsmanship: A Comparison of Design Influences in Japan and the UK

12th November 2016

This PDF contains the slides from my lecture, delivered at Osaka Institute of Technology, on 18th November 2016. The full text of the lecture is below.



My name is Hugh Miller, and I am a furniture designer and maker from Liverpool in the UK.

I would like to begin by saying thank you to Professor Miyagishi for inviting me to visit Osaka Institute of Technology this week. It is a huge honour for me to be here, and speak to you today

I came to Japan for the first time for 2 months last year as a Winston Churchill Research Fellow I was researching what makes Japanese wood craftsmanship so special and unique. And I wanted to look at examples in Japan that designers and makers in the UK could learn from.

I wrote to Professor Miyagishi last year because I was interested in how the architecture school at O.I.T. combines design and making with traditional skills and contemporary ideas. I think you are studying at a very special school, and it was a privilege to come here last year and learn about the curriculum here.

This lecture is about what I found most interesting about design and craftsmanship in Japan, and how it compares to the UK. I do not know if everything I will say today is correct. I expect that I have made some mistakes. And I understand that there are risks of misunderstandings when I talk to you as people who know your own culture in a way that I never will So I humbly say that I would be very happy if you could tell me which parts are correct and which parts are wrong at the end of this talk. I would also be very happy to answer any questions that you would like to ask.



My journey in design and woodwork is a little bit unusual. I trained as an architect in the UK, and I loved my architectural education.

I was 24 years old when I started my design studio, and it was 1 week after completing my Masters in Architecture. I am now 31, and my design studio is 7 years old.

I am self taught in furniture making and woodwork, and I have been making wood furniture from the age of 15.

This is my design studio in Liverpool. Professor Miyagishi and some of his colleagues and students visited earlier this year.



I think about my furniture like small pieces of architecture, designed with the rigour of the ‘architectural method’. I want the concept of the design to be seen in the smallest details.

I often use architectural techniques to display my work. This photo is like a set of elevations of the chair – back elevation, side elevation, front elevation.



I occasionally do some architecture projects. This is Constellations Bar, which was a collaboration between me and my brother, Howard Miller, who is an architects. Howard and I share the office in my studio, and our next collaboration is a bedroom at the Ice Hotel in Sweden. We are making the room entirely out of ice.



The 2 months I was researching in Japan last year was the most special and important time in my life. It was a formative experience for me and my work.I am excited to tell you about what I learned, and I hope you can tell me what I missed.



I was lucky to meet some of the best designers and woodworkers in the world. These are some of the people I met. I spent time in Hokkaido, Honshu and Kyushu, and I interviewed makers, designers, craftsmen, architects and academics.



This lead me to writing a book about my experience in Japan. I wrote about how Japanese society helps to enrich craftsmanship. I wrote about the tools and techniques of Japanese woodwork and I wrote about the principles of design and making that I encountered.

Some of the thing I will talk about today are things that you will already know. I think you will understand them far better than I do. I hope to share with you how these things compare with design, woodwork and craftsmanship in the UK.

Some things are similar, and some things are different. I wonder if you will agree with my conclusion.



The veneration of the practitioner over the object:

One of the reasons I am so fascinated with Japanese culture is the way that society honours its craftsmen and skills. This is why I was very happy to meet Katsushiro Soho. He is 85, and still works 10 hours a day on the floor of his studio in Tochigi.



Katsushiro Soho is a Living National Treasures in bamboo arts. This idea of venerating the person over the objects they make is very unusual to a western person.

In the UK, we have a similar system of protecting important cultural things from our history. However, it is buildings and physical things that are protected. In Japan it is the skills that are protected.



An example of this difference from the UK is this man – Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Mackintosh was an architect from the Arts and Crafts movement, and is best know for Glasgow School of Art in Scotland.

Mackintosh is very important in the history of architecture in the UK. But when he was alive he was paid so poorly for his architecture that he closed his practice and became a watercolour painter.



This is the library in the Glasgow School of Art, and it is one of the best and most important interiors of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Unfortunately, there was a fire there 2 years ago, and this space was destroyed.

Before the fire, this building was very carefully maintained so that it remained the same as when it first opened 100 years ago. The original furniture and glass was kept safe behind barriers and students could use only small parts of the building.

I think this demonstrates an important difference between the UK and Japan. Although we protect the original buildings and artefacts of our history, we do not protect out ability to create those things. The skills of making. In Japan, it seems that it is the skills and knowledge which are used to create this history that are protected.



One of the reasons I chose Katsushiro and Mackintosh to demonstrate this comparison is that they are both influenced in their designs by the same thing – nature.

Mackintosh used his water colour paintings as the inspiration for a lot of his glass, wood and metal details. Here is his most famous painting, ‘Fritillaria’. Makintosh’s study of flowers lead him to create his most famous glass design, the ‘Glasgow Rose’.



And this pieces by Katsushiro uses twisted bamboo pieces, inspired by the rain falling outside his house in Tochigi.



This idea of protecting the skills rather than the original materials is also evident in shrine constructions.

The Ise shrine is rebuild every 20 years. This is very important for passing on skills, because it allows 3 generations of carpenters to work on the building at the same time. Miyadaiku supervise the project, trained carpenters do the work, and apprentices learn skills.



In the UK, there is a much stronger focus on repair and preservation of the original building.

This is York Minster, one of the UK’s most important cathedrals. There was a fire here in 1984, and parts of the building were badly damaged.



Here is a photo from inside the damaged cathedral.



The building was rebuilt in a very specific way. Only the parts of the building that were very badly damaged were repaired. This image shows the patches of new stone in between the original stone.

These repairs help to preserve the original materials of the building. But I do not think this is good in the long term. It does not allow the skills and knowledge to be practiced and passed on to younger people, because only the smallest amount of work is done.

This is the reason why their are so few stone masons and wood carvers in the UK.



This type of repair also happens in Japan, but I think it happens in a different way.

This house Gion District, Kyoto, has a window held up on wood posts. The wood will decay over time, and will need to be replaced. The joint that you can see at the bottom of this post (the photo on the right) allows a new piece to slide in diagonally.

This type of maintenance allows designers to use delicate wood details which can be maintained for centuries.



Tending the Flame of Tradition:

‘Tradition is tending the flame, it is not worshipping the ashes’ – This is a quote by Gustav Mahler who was a composer from Austria.

I think this quote describes the way that this joint, a chidori, was used by Jun Sato and Kengo Kuma in their ‘Chidori Experiements’.

I expect that you have all seen this joint before. If you have not seen it, it allows 3 pieces if wood to intersect, and it can be built into an infinite 3D grid.



This ancient Japanese joint was used to make this contemporary and beautiful piece of architecture in Nagoya, Prostho museum and research centre.



And the joint was changed and modified in the 2 buildings that followed. Here, the chidori joint is compressed to form a stiff spring that is resistant to earthquakes.

I think these buildings ‘tend the flame of tradition’ by using an ancient Japanese joint in the creation of contemporary Japanese architecture.

When I interviewed Jun Sato about these buildings, I learned that they were built by Miyadaiku. This high level of skill was required because the joints are so complex. The use of Miyadaiku also ‘tends the flame of tradition’ by passing on the skills needed to build these types of constructions.



Although it might look like a very different type of design, I think this example from the UK also ‘tends the flame of tradition’

This is a traditional piece if furniture called a Windsor Chair. It has an unusual support that makes the legs strong. The wood here is bent with steam. This chair has been made in the UK for 300 years.



This idea of bending wood with steam, and using small round poles, called ‘spindles’ to hold the structure together, was used by Katie Walker in her Windsor Rocking Chair.

I think this is a wonderful, contemporary design, which references this strong traditions of chair making in the UK.



In a more unexpected way, this cabinet by Gareth Neal uses the traditional shape of a ‘King George Commode’.

But the shape appears like a ghost in carefully cut slices taken out of solid pieces of Oak.



National Identity:

The UK and Japan are very similar in some ways. They are both islands, they both have large economic markets close by (Europe and China, respectively), and they are both social democracies. But I think there is a difference when it comes to national Identity.

The UK is a ‘melting pot’ of centuries of international immigration and trade. This means that there are many influences in our culture from around the world.

But if the UK can be described as a ‘melting pot’, I think that Japan could be described as a ‘pressure cooker’, where national identity is made more potent and strong with each generation.

The formal policy of ‘Sakoku’ that was law until 1868 is an example of this, but it can be seen today as well.

This is Suda Shuji, who is a furniture maker who works near Sapporo.



When I went to meet Suda Shuji, I thought his furniture designs had a Japanese appearance. I asked him if he tried to design in a ‘Japanese’ style.

I think his answer describes what I mean by the ‘pressure cooker’ effect. He said that he does not look at Western design magazines or websites because he does not want to be influenced by them. He wants his designs to be influenced by where he grew up, by his family, and by the environment that surrounds him. He said that Western design was not part of his life so it does not have a place in his work.

This was very interesting to me because it would be very unusual for a UK designer to say this.



And an example of the attitude to national identity in the UK is me. This is my collection of furniture, and it is influenced by my study of Japanese craftsmanship. I am also heavily influenced by British and American Arts & Crafts, and by Scandinavian mid-century modernism. I am an example of the ‘melting pot’. Suda Shuji is an example of the ‘pressure cooker’.



But I know that other designers in Japan have a different attitude. One of my favourite furniture makers in Japan is Santaro, who I met last year as part of my study.

Santaro is a chair designer and maker, and you might be able to see that he influenced the chair design in my collection. He is influenced by Scandinavian design. His favourite designer is Hans Wegner, and you can see from these images how his ‘Ray’ chair’ is influenced by Hans Wegner’s masterpiece called ‘The Chair’



However, it is interesting that I can still detect a strong Japanese design language in Santaro’s work.

Maybe this is a better example. It is a gallery bench displayed at Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art in 2015. The individual seats on this collective bench are carved in a Japanese way. Also, the leg construction has a traditional Japanese form of the dovetail joint (ari tsugi)



This leg construction made me think about a bench form the UK, called ‘Tay’, by Scottish furniture designer Angus Ross. This is a beautiful design, and it uses a steam bent pole in a similar way to the Windsor rocking chair we looked at earlier.



The corner details look similar but I think they are doing very different things. The ‘dove tail’ joints on the ‘Tay’ bench are used to honour the skill of the maker. But in Santaro’s bench , the carved seat and the rounded edges are used to honour the user.

This is a big difference between UK and Japanese craftsmen. In the UK, craftsmen show off their skills. In Japan, it seems that the needs of their users are the most important thing.



I am fascinated by Japanese woodworking tools, because they are very different form Western tools. I bought a lot of tools when I was in Japan, and I now use Japanese hand tools to cut all my joints.



In Japan, tools are used on the pull stroke. Saws (nokogiri) and planes (kanna) make cuts as the user pulls the tool towards their body. In the West, tools cut on the push stroke. This makes a huge difference to the anatomy of the tools. Western saws have to resist the buckling forces of cutting on the push stroke with a thick blade and a heavy brass spine along the top edge.

But a Japanese saw blade naturally tensions itself as it is pulled through the cut. It means the blade can be thinner and lighter.



I love this quote by Toshio Odate, who is a highly respected Japanese-American craftsman

‘The pull stroke prevents the blade from bowing, so a thin, brittle steel can be used; because the steel is so thin, the blade cuts a narrow slot, and the saw cuts down the wood fast.

The thin blade enhances accuracy – just as people often react to the sensitivity of a fine pen point by writing smaller, more delicate letters, a fine blade encourages delicate, precise cuts.’

This is true – Japanese saws have made my joint cutting much better and more enjoyable.

I was also interested to learn that the pull stroke is used with planes (kanna). The pull stroke allows more control and the wood body of the plane allows the user to feel what is happening through their hands.

This is very different from the metal body of a western push plane.

I was also fascinated to learn this knife technique. The knife is held still against the knee, and the bamboo is pulled past the knife allowing more delicate pieces to be cut .



One of the most interesting things I leaned in Japan was how water is used as a tool. In Western woodworking water is seen as very dangerous. This is because it makes the wood expand and change shape.

These ki-oki buckets, made by Nakagawa Shuji in his studio near Lake Biwa, can not be made without the amazing effects of water.



The bucket is made using cedar and bamboo nails, and the sides are glued together using a metal band. But now the base has to be inserted into the bucket, and the bucket must not leak.



The base is cut so that it is precisely the correct size to fit in a groove on the inside of the bucket. But it is impossible to get the base into this groove because it is too big.

So a hammer is used to compress the edge of the bucket. This prcoess of hammering makes the base small enough to fit into the groove. The bucket is put in warm water, and this makes the copmressed fibres of wood expand back to their original size, and the base becomes tight in the groove.

When Nakagawa Shuji told me about this, I was stunned. I had never seen anything like this before.



In the UK, woodworkers fear the effects of moisture, and often use a process called ‘veneering’ to make pieces that do not expand with changes in moisture and humidity.

‘Veneering’ is a process where very thin pieces of wood are glued to an inert material (usually MDF). This makes the object look like wood, but it will not change shape with changes in humidity.

Veneering can be used to make very detailed images, like this cabinet by Waters and Acland in the UK.

But I don’t like this type of work. The best thing about wood is that it is natural and organic. I think veneering makes the wood look like plastic. It is why I only use solid wood in my work.



The part of my study in Japan that had the biggest influence on me was the principles of design and making that I encountered.

I talked a lot to the people I interviewed about how they design. I expected to hear them talk about well know things like Wabi Sabi and Wa and Ma.

However, these were not talked about as priorities for the makers I interviewed, and so I’m not going to talk about them here. But I do think that the philosophies of making that were talked about are constituent parts of these better known themes.

I want to talk about the 3 most important principles I learned, and how they influenced my own collection of furniture.



An Absence of Noise:

This design principle was described by a maker called Izaki Masaharu, who I stayed with in Gamagori:

‘Too much joinery is too ‘noisy’ – there should be just enough to show the structure. Japanese thinking is like this – ‘just enough’.’

Noise is showing too many joints, being too fussy in the details, and not allowing the natural beauty of the wood to show.

A master of this principle is Suda Kenji, a Living National Treasure in wooden box making. This is his box on the right. He wanted to make the box with a very precise corner, but he thought it was too sharp for his costumers.



He thought about making the corner round, but this was not very good because it was not articulated and precise.

So he created the double corner. This is a where the corner has a square cut out, and so there are two corners. It makes the wood feel soft when it is touched, but it looks very precise and articulated.

Suda sensei inlays this corner in Ebony, which is a very dark wood. This dark colour makes the double corner appear as a single corner, especially compared to the light colour of the sycamore.

This careful detail creates a soft but precise edge, but it avoids adding ‘noise’ to the box. This thoughtful attention to detail is why Suda Kenji is a Living National Treasure.



I decided to use this detail on the corner of my dining chair. But I use the double corner only on the part of the chair that the user’s hand touches when they sit down. This is my way of avoiding the detail becoming too noisy.



I thought you might be interested to see how this design principle has changed my way of designing

This is a desk I made 6 months before my study of Japanese Craftsmanship. You can see that I used to add many extra details and joints. When I look at this piece now, I feel that I was being arrogant, and the piece was not designed to honour the user.



A Search for Lightness:

The next important making principle is a ‘Search for Lightness’. This means lightness in materials, but also a lightness of impact on surrounds.

This chair by Daimon Takeshi, from Asahikawa, is a beautiful example of ‘lightness’.

‘Wood Spring’ chair is made in maple and paulownia. It is very efficient and light. I think it looks like the chair frames the air that surrounds it, but does not take up space itself.

The radius at the bottom of each leg makes the chair float off the ground.

The lightness is achieved by a very skilful woodworking technique. The side rails are cut and bent so that they have the strength of a much larger, heavier piece. This is an extraordinary design, and one of my favourite pieces I saw in Japan. I have shown these photos to many students and furniture makers in the UK.



And I use the principle of ‘searching for lightness’ in my dining table. The legs are cut so that there is a gap, and the edge of the table is tapered. It makes the top appear to float.



I think that a ‘search for lightness’ is a way of showing respect for the material. If a piece is lighter, then it is also made out of less material.

There is a similar idea in the UK with sustainable design. This cabinet, by Sebastian Cox, uses a special type of wood to make the doors. It is called ‘coppiced wood’, which is when the tree is cut down every few years, and many small branches grow from the stump. this process creates lots of small pieces of wood very quickly. It is usually difficult to use these small pieces, but this cabinet has been designed to be made from coppiced wood.



A Contribution to Harmony:

This last principle of design took a long time for me to understand. I heard about it first from a Japanese-born translator I was working with. She said that in Japanese society:

‘If you can do something that makes life easier for someone else, then you are expected to do it.’

But she explained to me that it is not about being a loud servant to other people. It is about anticipating how your actions can contribute to society working well. In craftsmanship, this means that pieces of work should not try to shout for attention. They should contribute to the harmony of a room, along with all the other furniture and objects in the space.

This is Fujinuma Noboru, a Living National Treasure in Bamboo. He hides the most complex details on the underside of his work. This is because he wants his work to contribute to the harmony of a space.



Before I came to Japan, I think I used to shout for attention in the way I designed. This writing desk, although it is quite simple, has large joints along the edge and my makers mark is carved into the side.


But the dining table from my collection, made after I returned from Japan, demonstrates how my designs have changed.

The most complex piece of construction is the dove tail slide that connects the legs to the top, and the textured surface which is hand carved onto the underside of the table.

I hide all these detail on the under side of the table. A ‘Contribution to Harmony’ is not to shout for attention, but to quietly await inspection, and reward the user by revealing hidden details and beauty.



But I am a western designer, and sometimes I can not restrain myself. I think that the nature of designers in the UK is to shout for attention. I think this can still be seen in my designs. This is the seat of my dining chair, which shows the carving detail on the top side. I think this detail shouts for attention.

It is a conflict in my work.



Although there are many differences between design and wood craftsmanship in Western countries and Japan, I would like to make an honourable mention of a woodworker who bridges the gap.

This is an American maker called James Krenov, who is one of my favourites, and who is also very popular with Japanese craftsmen.

Krenov had a huge amount of respect for his material, and was subtle and careful in his details. He always talked about how important it was for a maker to ‘leave their finger prints on the finished piece of furniture’.

‘Fingerprints’ are the signs of care and attention and love that can be seen on handmade work, but they only appear if the maker is truly connected with their material and with their user.



Japanese Contemporary Vernacular:

I think that the things I have been talking about – the veneration of the practitioner and skill over the object, tending the flame of tradition, reducing the noise and searching for lightness – these things help to create a ‘Japanese contemporary vernacular’.

And I think this building is a beautiful example of the Japanese contemporary vernacular. It is an archery hall in Tokyo by FT Architects.

I knew this building was by a Japanese architect before I read anything about it. It was not just because of the Japanese archer in the photo.

Why is this Japanese? I think there are some Japanese design motifs – the low, overhanging eaves; the indirect light, and the use of cedar are typical of Japanese architecture.



But I don’t think these things are why this space is special, or why I could identify that it was Japanese.

I think it displays an ‘absence of noise’, in the quiet, crafted detailing. It demonstrates a ‘search for lightness’ in the delicate structural components. And it gives a ‘contribution to the harmony’ in the way the black and white decoration subtly contrasts with the natural blond woodwork.




The way that Japanese society honours the practitioner more than the objects they make is vital because skills and knowledge don’t survive in objects, they survive in people.

This respect allows skills and knowledge to pass from one generation to the next, and the ‘pressure cooker’ effect makes these vernacular ideas of design and making stronger and more defined.

And I think the result of this is projects like this archery hall, and Diamon’s Wood Spring chair, and Suda Kenji’s boxes. These projects ‘tend the flame of tradition’, rather than ‘worship the ashes’, and contribute to a Japanese contemporary vernacular.



But what about the UK. Is there a British Contemporary Vernacular.

For a long time, I did not think there was a national design identity in the UK. It would be very difficult to distinguish British design from that in America or Australia or Germany.

This is the result of the UK being a ‘melting pot’ of influences from all over the world. Traditional skills are not valued so highly, and so they are diminished with each generation.

Although traditional ideas of design and making are used by designers today, innovation and ‘standing out from the crowd’ are more important. My furniture is a good example of this . It is part traditional English, part Scandinavian modernism, part Japanese design principles.

But recently, I think that the UK may have started to create a vernacular design identity. This is a church in Oxford by Niall McLaughlin Architects,.



This project uses many traditional UK design references, such as the rib vault ceiling, and the brick outer walls. But the details are very innovative. The vaults are made in timber rather than stone. High level openings allow light in to the space, and the external walls are made from bricks which are angled to create a textured surface.

Maybe this is the start of a British Contemporary Vernacular? I don’t know.



I am very interested in what you think about my research. Are there things in Japan that I did not understand correctly? Are there things that you have seen in Western or UK design that tell a different story?

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak hear today, and I hope it was interesting to hear about my experiences.