Japanese furniture items, Hibachi and Tansu
In order to understand the context of Korean furniture with Japanese design, one has to go back in history a few centuries. Over three hundred years ago, so called “tansu” (furniture with drawers), were imported from Korea to Japan. They were used for storing clothes. Depending on the quality of craftsmanship they were destined for the leading daimyos and samurai families, depicting their family crest. These items have always been of such high quality that the summer humidity could not penetrate. The Japanese craftsmen developed and adapted these tansu to their own style and customers needs.
The Korean peninsula was invaded several times by the Japanese armed forces in the 20th century as well as in former times. Ideology, as well as crafts and traditions, migrated to Korea alongside the Japanese craftsmen who were brought to the occupied territory. In doing so, a design of furniture, originating in Korea, was brought back from Japan in slightly modified style.


About Japanese Tansu
Tansu, or dansu when part of a compound word, is a term for the antique cabinetry of Japan. Immersed in a rich folk-art tradition they combined the skills of the wood joiner, the iron smith, and the lacquer artist. First appearing during the 17th century, by the early 18th century they played a major role in Japan, adapting to many of the functions of society. They were used as clothing chests (isho-dansu), cupboards, safes, kitchen storage (mizuya-dansu), and as a place to store pharmaceuticals (kusuri-dansu), samurai swords (katana-dansu), tools, books (sho-dansu), documents and ledgers (choba-dansu). 
Unlike the homes of the Western world, the well decorated homes in Japan were relatively bare. Homes were not cluttered with stationary furniture, rather most tansu were stowed away in loft spaces or separate storage buildings called "kura". Some of the larger pieces would remain in the home and at times, in wealthy homes, a more decorative tansu would be displayed in the main room of entertainment.
For the most part the role of the tansu was utilitarian and most also had to be highly mobile. The medicine and other merchandise tansu were often carried on the back of the peddler. The sea chests were moved from sea to shore. The tansu of the homes needed to be moved from storage to home several times a year and for specific occasions. There were even some chests (kaidan-dansu) that served as both a storage space and a staircase in a home or store. The often highly decorated sea chests (funa-dansu) were water tight. It is also said that they were specifically designed to float just below the surface of the water. In case the ship was attacked by pirates, they would throw the chests overboard and retrieve them later.
The Japanese craftsman had these concerns and needs in mind as they built and developed their tansu. The cabinetmaker selected woods for their individual qualities, including their weight, strength, stability, color, and grain. The woods most often used were kiri (paulownia), sugi (cryptomeria), kuri (Japanese chestnut), hinoki (Japanese cypress), ezo matsu (pine), and keyaki (zelkova). 
Other concerns of the cabinetmaker were the changes in humidity during the seasons, and the stresses of earthquakes, cyclones, and typhoons. As a result, the joinery of the wooden buildings and cabinetry in Japan needed to be both strong and flexible. The metal work of the tansu–including the drawer pulls, locks, bolts, hinges, and reinforcements such as the metal corners and T-bars–was integrated into the design. Often the metal work served a functional as well as a decorative purpose, sometimes including elaborate detailed images. Finally the lacquer artist selected a finish for protective functions in addition to enhancing the natural beauty of the wood. These craftsman combined all of these features to create an enduring style of furniture that will hopefully live on for ages to come.

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Roman & Daniela Jost
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This page was last updated March 2018


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