What’s a Tansu?
In Japan, quality means minimalist. In order to exaggerate and highlight that minimalism, it was considered good taste to have one’s home appear empty. Since everyone needs “stuff”, it had to go somewhere and a whole class of easy to transport storage units emerged. It is called “tansu”. (fyi, the word is both singular and plural). Tansu would be hidden out of site except at certain times – typically ceremonial. The tansu form a kind of furniture by virtue of being designed to be moved around – with carrying rails, slots for carrying bars or wheels.
Tansu were the “upstairs closet” or the “garage”. They were used by households to keep garments and personal belongings they didn’t need now, and by merchants to protect inventory, valuables and records. Of course, the Tansu themselves were kept in storage rooms in the house, in special structures nearby, in special areas of shops and (this may be the earliest origins of the tansu tradition) on some merchant ships to guard the private posessions of the owner or captain.
The original Tansu was a mobile component of home architecture and living systems – at least until roughly the 1920s. Since then, they have gradually come to be appreciated around the world as a category of decorative furniture. Because of the need to last through hard service – moving furniture around always stresses it – Tansu tend to appear unsophisticated to the undiscerning Western eye. Instead of lovely dovetails and tenon joints, they make extensive use pegged lap joints augmented by strategic bits of iron strapping. This strategy allowed the Tansu to flex rather than break, making it an extraordinarily robust system.
Tansu craftsmen (called tansuya) used indigenous Japanese wood almost exclusively. This was possible because by Shinto code, Japan practiced serious, sustainable silvaculture. China, for example, enforced no such protection and it’s forests were gone by the 18th century. For components which required hardwood, such as drawers and exterior doors, Chestnut and Zelkova Elm were the preferred hardwoods. Framing and interior parts were made of softwood with such species as Hinoki Cypress, Paulownia and Cryptomeria the most popular choices. Veneers were looked down upon until fairly recently for practical reasons: wood structures that are flexed regularly tend to cause veneers to peel off.
Finishings are what makes a huge difference in furniture quality and appearance. In the world of Tansu, there are dry finishes and there are lacquered finishes. For the dry finish style, a filling powder like chalk or clay was worked into the wood surface, then polished with a reed scrubber to emphasize the grain. This produces a result somewhat like milk paint except for the burnishing. For the lacquer finish style, there are two main approaches: the first seals the raw wood and enhances the natural grain. This is the least expensive and quickest option. For more expensive Tansu, applying many layers of laquer onto the wood creates a perfect solid high gloss surface which collectors value highly.
Tansu designs group into two main historical periods that reflect changes in Japanese society over the years. The first is the Edo period from1603-1868, also known as the Tokugawa Shogunate. While this was a time of rigid governance and isolationist foreign policies,it was also a time of a very stable social order and and surge in the appreciation of the arts. It impacted Tansu designs in that there was a proliferation of rules controlling both ownership of property and display of wealth. These rules applied to everyone at all levels of the society. They are called sumptuary laws and are designed to ensure that the rich merchant class cannot look more powerful than the nobility. These sorts of laws were common in the West as well. The consequence is that the Tansu from this time vary mostly based on the social class or the occupation of the owner and are quite uniform across all of Japan.
After 1868 the last shogun resigned in favor of Emperor Meiji and thus, imperial rule was restored. The reign of Emperor Meiji is called the Meiji period. He promply put into place significant and long-overdue rules to open the Japanese society and shift towards democratic thought. Japan began to open to western ideas and perspectives, the rigid feudal class structure of the Tokugawa shogunate fell apart on its own.The impact on Tansu designs was that this allowed highly distinctive regional characteristics to emerge.
In addition to being furniture, Tansu is also an excellent metaphor for being self-contained, for being independent of the external world, for taking responsibility for one’s own choices. And THAT is what this website is really about.