Japanese Cabinetry: the Art & Craft of Tansu

by David Jackson and Dane Owen

Published by Gibbs Smith

256 pages, 2002

Making Japanese-Style Lanterns

by Edward R. Turner

Published by Hartley & Marks

126 pages, 2003




Japanese Style

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


Japanese art and design have fascinated Westerners for as long as the world outside Japan has been exposed to it. Clean and simple lines -- Zen lines -- calm our overstimulated sensibilities. Economy of line and materials offers order for cluttered lives.

Arguably, the very best of Western designers have borrowed from Japan. It is, for me, impossible to look at the work of architects Frank Lloyd Wright or Charles Rennie Mackintosh and not see the heavy influence of this ancient aesthetic.

In Japanese Cabinetry: the Art and Craft of Tansu authors David Jackson and Dane Owen have gone to great lengths to create a book worthy of the artform they celebrate. It's difficult to imagine a more final word on tansu and yet, despite the title, Japanese Cabinetry is about much more than the beautiful 17th, 18th and 19th century chests that have been called tansu. As Susan Hanley writes in her foreword:

Jackson and Owen have not only written a superb book on the making of Japanese chests, but they have written a history of this form of storage and set it into the larger historical context. ... The focus on one type of object in everyday life offers Jackson and Owen the opportunity to delve into all related subjects, from how tansu came into being and how they fit into Japanese architecture, to how they were made, who made them, how they were used, and who used them.

And as hyperbolic as Hanley's words may sound, even the most casual reader of Japanese Cabinetry will see that she approaches understatement. If Jackson and Owen have missed some minute aspect of tansu, it probably isn't worth repeating. Both authors are noted experts on their topic and their book looks closely at every aspect of tansu that the Western collector, admirer or restorer of tansu might wish to know, in addition to a wealth of information on how tansu fit -- and fits -- into the fabric of the society that spawned the artform.

In the introduction, Owen and Jackson define tansu:

From trunks with wheels to shipboard safes, from kitchen cupboards to chests for clothing, tansu were the receptacles of an age of economic expansion. In the simplest terms, tansu came about because more of the general populace acquired purchasing power and owned more belongings. Tansu represent an age of unprecedented growth where most Japanese became urban dwellers and participated in a thriving economy.

Japanese Cabinetry is beautifully illustrated. Some historic photos and artwork depict the creation of tansu, while others place it in traditional societal context. Current photos of perfectly restored pieces give us a glimpse of how beautiful tansu can be, including a chapter on "Living with Tansu" that show us gorgeous tansu pieces working well in modern, Western settings. A lovely coffeetable book and a very complete study.

Though quite different in nature, Making Japanese-Style Lamps and Lanterns by Edward R. Turner brings us another look at the same aesthetic, this time with an eye to aiding the reader who might actually take the book into their workshop and do something with it. The subtitle explains the mission of the book completely: 18 Woodworking Projects Including Complete Plans and Step-by-Step Instructions. Making Japanese-Style Lamps and Lanterns is aimed at the home woodworker who wants to create a bit of Japanese style in their own world. In his introduction, Turner writes:

The refinement and beauty of handmade Japanese woodwork are unique to Japan's culture, geography, and history. These lamp and lantern designs for bedside, floor, overhead, freestanding, and outdoors, will give woodworkers an appreciation for the deceptive simplicity of traditional Japanese design, and result in objects that are beautiful and useful.

Appropriately, the 18 projects included in Making Japanese-Style Lamps and Lanterns demand varying amounts of expertise. Some of the projects are very simple and require only the most basic of woodworking -- and general workshop -- skills. A few are more sophisticated and won't tempt any but the serious woodworker. The very advanced woodworker will be enticed to make modifications to the included designs: their own expertise and creativity fueled by the projects the author has developed.

The instructions included are clear and easy-to-follow. Each project chapter begins with a very good color photograph of the finished lamp or lantern along with a short description of the project and a very brief outline of what is involved in making it. Subsequent pages include top and side view elevations which include measurements, a materials breakdown and, in some cases, illustrations of the necessary tools, in addition to a numbered text explanation on how to complete the project, right down to the wiring. Also included is a tools and materials sidebar for each project, outlining what you'll need to make that specific lamp or lantern. In addition, particularly tricky or fiddly bits get their own illustration, visually describing the technique used.

A very good appendix takes the neophyte -- or those needing a refresher course -- through all of the steps involved in working with the various electrical elements that most of the lamps and lanterns require.

The resulting book is nothing short of fabulous: exactly what a how-to book should be. It inspires, instructs then holds your hand through to the finished project. | April 2003


Adrian Marks is a contributing editor to January Magazine.