Japanese culture developed in splendid isolation for centuries. The furniture used by its people evolved into styles that are at the same time very practical and - to Western eyes at least - exotically beautiful.
The virtual isolation of Japan from the Western world until the middle of the
19th century had two effects. It helped to make the nation's products rare and influential in Europe, and ensured that its traditional crafts, such as
furniture-making, evolved without any outside influence.
In Japan, domestic life took place largely at floor level, and furniture was correspondingly low. Meals were taken at long, oblong tables a few inches off the ground, and people sat on low stools or rice-straw mats.
Most houses were open-plan; sliding doors and folding screens were used to create smaller spaces as required. The screens were decorated with paintings, sometimes with one picture per panel, but more often with a single design stretching across the whole of one side.
Small pieces of domestic furniture included kimono stands and
sword stands. The tobacco jars and pipes of smokers were kept in a small, purpose-built cabinet, while women had mirror stands, with drawers below and a mirror of polished bronze or silver above.
These simple and often outstandingly delicate pieces were traditionally made of native woods such as cypress, chestnut and Japanese pine, and many were cased in black or red lacquer and painted in gold or silver. The best pieces were signed by their makers.
Apart from screens, the largest pieces of Japanese furniture were the cabinets and storage chests known collectively as tansu. Sometimes these sat directly on the floor, and sometimes they were set on low stands. A typical tansu took the form of a set of drawers in a case enclosed by a set of doors.
The most lavish pieces were fitted with engraved exterior hinges and lock-plates and lacquered in gold on a black ground. Simpler versions were made of pine with iron fittings. There were usually four deep drawers for storing the brocades and covers used for bedding. Often there was an additional small compartment at floor level fitted with two small drawers, and the bottom drawer of the tansu was made shorter to accommodate it.
When Japan agreed to trade freely with the West, European buyers sought out
heavily inlaid lacquer work pieces, which were a minority taste in Japan, though designers like Godwin were inspired by the more restrained and simple pieces. At the same time, Japanese furniture design became more Westernized.
Genuine domestic Japanese furniture is rare in Europe. You're unlikely to find any outside specialist dealers in the big cities and the best auction houses, though some pieces may occasionally turn up at a house sale. It's invariably expensive if it's in good condition.
The furniture that does turn up tends to be screens and tansu, rather than specifically Japanese pieces like
sword and kimono
stand. Screens can consist of two to six hinged panels, each made up of a wooden frame
covered on both sides with thick paper. An additional wooden surround, which was sometimes lacquered and given metal mounts, often
provided extra stability. A band of brocade sometimes ran around the inner edge.
The screens were decorated with painting, lacquering and gold and silver leaf. They are fragile things, and you shouldn't consider buying one unless it's in perfect condition and you
have a room large enough to display it without running any risk of bumps from cats, children, vacuum cleaners or anything else.
If you're buying a traditional tansu, check that there are no missing pieces. These are
almost impossible to replace, as you cannot make an exact match. The same is not
necessarily true of the exterior hinges and, to a lesser extent, the metal mounts. The hinges were subject to wear and tear and may have been replaced more than once . This need not adversely affect the value, providing the replacements have been hand-made in the same style as the original.
Always thoroughly check the inside of any piece of storage furniture; inferior woods were often used for the structural pieces that didn't show on the outside, and these may have warped or cracked.
Use a soft, slightly damp cloth to clean lacquer work. On no account use wax-based or modern proprietary cleaners as these will cloud the lacquer and are not easy to remove. Central heating is the enemy of lacquer and parquetry work alike, as dry air makes them both crack and lift. Use a humidifier, or put bowls of water near the radiators in rooms containing valuable pieces of furniture.