Monday, October 29, 2012

Mizuya (3)

I've been working steadily on the design of a cabinet, a design which draws cues from a Japanese form of kitchen storage furniture often referred to as mizuya. Call it a 'kitchen tansu' if you like, or Japanese hutch. One of things I delight in when designing is the process of discovery as one delves deeper into a given form. One might start with a particular form or pattern, something perhaps developed over hundreds of years - or not - and as one works through different aspects of the piece all sorts of information comes to light that wasn't obvious from the outset.

It is interesting comparing Japanese cabinets with Chinese and Korean ones. I recently obtained a book on Korean Yi Dynasty chests and have had a chance therefore to peruse a bunch more examples from that tradition. That look-see has not done much to change my perception of Korean chests as being more similar to Chinese work than Japanese, and generally a little too busy for my tastes. One thing Korean chests do share with Japanese however is the frequent use of softwood in their construction, which accounts for the majority of pieces seen in the book I obtained. While softwood furniture is by no means unusual in China, by far the majority of the classic Ming pieces are made of some astonishingly hard woods, like Zitan (Red Sanderswood), Huang-hauli (a rosewood) and Wumu (a type of ebony). What you generally see when comparing furniture pieces made with such woods and those made from softer woods, is that the section sizes tend to be significantly smaller in those hard woods. This reflects both the scarcity of the material (particularly evident in those pieces from the late Ming and early Qing periods), and the inherent toughness of such woods relative to, say, pine and Zelkova (a member of the Elm family).

Korean chests generally follow much of the form of Chinese ones, in that they tend to be frame and panel, and the structural elements on the slender size. On Japanese frame and panel pieces the structural members are often a bit chunky. Further, they tend to be rectangular sections, while the Chinese and Korean pieces more often employ square- or round-section stock for the framed posts.

In all three cultural traditions, furniture made by way of carcase-joined planked construction, employing either finger joints or dovetails at the junctions, exist, however in Chinese furniture such construction is generally found only on small document boxes and so forth. Large pieces are invariably frame and panel. In Japan, there are large pieces also made with joined carcase construction - like mizuya.

The above notes are merely some generalized observations, and certainly one could find exceptions to some of the points made above. It is no problem to find pieces made in Japan which look like they are Chinese and which are made in a similar manner, however I have not come across Chinese-made pieces which strongly emulate Japanese aesthetic ideas or proportions. That's not really surprising since much in the way of the Japanese furniture-making tradition, and indeed the Korean one, must have had large influences from China. During periods when Japan was open to China, when Buddhism and temple-building, etc., were brought into Japan, some furniture was also brought back by priests, and pieces were also given to upper class Japanese by Chinese diplomats and traders as gifts. It wasn't long after that and Japanese cabinetmakers were turning out careful reproductions. Here's an example, a storage cabinet accessible from two sides, a treasure from the Shōsō-in repository in Nara Japan:

The wood is 'kurogaki', or Black Persimmon/Japanese Persimmon, diospyros kaki.

Another piece, red lacquered and of keyaki, found in the Shōsō-in repository:

Again, made in Japan, using Japanese constructional practices, in imitation of a Chinese piece, or at least its style. The base of the cabinet is particularly reminiscent of early Chinese Tang-period furniture, as are the locks and hardware.

The same process went on with temple construction, the Japanese initially faithfully following the continental model and later developing their own flavor, so to speak. See post 1 in this thread for examples of later forms of Japanese chests, or tansu.

My point here is not to verge into a 'history of Chinese and Japanese furniture', for which I am woefully uninformed, but to point to some readily observable facts about the interconnection of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese furniture. As I've been designing this hutch for my kitchen, I've drawn some conclusions about the 'whys' of some of the differences pointed out above. Things I had never thought of before or had ever read of in one of the many texts on Chinese and Japanese furniture one can access.

Where I last left off, I had worked out some of the basic proportions of the cabinet, and had at least a vague idea of where I was heading with the structural arrangement of the various framing members:

The narrow sides of the cabinet had a ladder-like arrangement of 'rungs' moving up, spaced evenly. If you look at the second and the fourth rung on the side, you will see that they more or less tie, visually-speaking, to the framing seen on the front - that is, the basic horizontal subdivisions of the front into sub-boxes. You'll note that on the upper of those two divisions, there is a piece of wood which simultaneously forms the upper track for the middle sliding doors and the lower track of the upper sliding doors, that there is a shelf within. That shelf needs to have a framed support on each end, and as the shelf location coincides with one of the side 'rungs', it is relatively straightforward to either make that rung a piece which goes through to the inside to support the shelf, thus dividing the side's long infil panel into sections at that location.

The problem I soon ran into however was that there are several places inside the cabinet where I wanted to place shelves, and it seemed like most of those locations did not correspond to the location of the externally-viewed 'rungs'. So, what to do? The 'rungs' are placed to the outside, and in trying to keep to the Japanese aesthetic, were on the thickish side. Then came the bubinga side panel, which rests in a dado in the main posts, and that panel was pushed inward more or less as far as it could go. If I wanted to support the interior shelves at convenient locations, and keep to this aesthetic of the ladder-like rungs, then something had to give. I puzzled out a few different framing approaches, looked at some different arrangements of rungs and kind of got nowhere.

Then I started thinking beyond the aesthetic line I was working my way along and looked at the 'rungs' strictly in structural terms. Did they need to be that big and did there need to be so many of them, especially considering I am framing this piece in rosewood, which is extremely hard and tough? Hmm. In reality, the side framing pieces could be considerably slimmer and would be more than adequate for making a rigid, strong structure. I then thought about the practicality of this aesthetic - was it easy to clean? Not so much, but that admittedly is not a big driver of design here. Does having the panel pushed to the inside improve or worsen the function of the cabinet, which is to store things? Well, it makes the interior space smaller. Does it enhance a sense of horizontal compression? Absolutely.

So, thinking it through and looking at further examples of classic Chinese pieces, I decided to stop walking down that particular track. I think trying to associate the exterior spacing of the rung elements with the inside requirements for shelves is akin to the Japanese roofing solution of decorative and structural eaves, however in this piece I didn't feel an urge to pursue that line of reasoning any further, as the rosewood is precious and I want to minimize its use, not start doubling its use. After mulling it over further, I decided that I was heading over to China, if you know what I mean - I reversed the positions of the 'rungs' and the side panels with one another:

At this point I haven't placed any shelves yet, so I have left the 'rung' spacing as it was. I am now free however to place rungs wherever I like, and they are not required to as closely conform to any sort of preconceived spacing ideal or size as they were when plainly visible on the exterior - now they can go just where the shelves are and be as large or small as they need to be to accomplish that task.

Here's a look at the side and back:

I think the reversal between rungs and side panels has made for a lot sleeker look to the cabinet overall, and shows the bubinga panel off more advantageously. The rear panels will be fully frame-and-panel, completely demountable, and held in place with sliding wooden clips. This is something I did on a bookcase project last year, a technique which I had gleaned from studying Chinese classical furniture examples.

With that portion of the design feeling a whole lot closer to resolution, I turned my attention at last to the various devices which will be used on the front to provide access to storage, or storage directly: drawers, hinged doors, and sliding doors. Some Japanese chests, especially the mizuya and hako-kaidan (stepped chests in the form of a staircase), will have all three devices. Chinese and Korean pieces almost never have sliding doors though. Usually they feature hinged doors, and less often one will see drawers as well. I hadn't really considered the 'why' of this difference, only noticed it upon cursory perusal of furniture pieces from these three traditions. Before I continue, I will say that while I have a better sense of the structural logic and the aesthetic that flows from that in Japanese and Chinese chest framing, I have little idea otherwise why the Japanese may have preferred sliding doors while the Koreans and Chinese did not. It's an interesting question for another time and post - kind of analogous to why the Chinese used chairs and beds while the Japanese remained a floor dwelling culture (until quite recently), as they say. I can think of some reasons for these differences, but by no means have a sense of the whole picture.

As I mentioned above, it is generally the case that Japanese frame and panel chests employ rectangular sections for posts while Chinese and Korean pieces employ either square or round sections for the posts. At first I simply assumed this was purely for some aesthetic reason. Now it has dawned upon me why the rectangular posts might be used in Japanese chests: the sliding doors. Because the sliding doors require a track to carry them, there is a somewhat wide piece of track under and over the doors - the shiki-i and kamo-i. These pieces of track are housed and/or tenoned into the posts - the posts are rectangular to accommodate the track width, plus a little bit for overlap, or nige. The front of the rectangular post presents a slim-ish appearance, as the front is the primary viewing point for the cabinet and it makes more room for the sliding doors in the opening. Because Chinese and Korean chests invariably employ hinged doors, which have no tracks at all, the frame members can be more economically proportioned, and it makes sense that they be square or round in section. So, what do we have here? A theory.

Anyway, I did want at least some sliding doors on this cabinet, however, as a commenter on the previous post in this thread noted, the sliding door arrangement means half the opening is blocked at any time and the interior of the cabinet is dark as a result. I was considering putting glass panels in the largest doors, as one sees on many 20th century Japanese kitchen chests, however I do find glass doors a bit on the, er, non-classical side. Practical, yes. They keep the dust out, yes. But the look was something I was struggling with, somewhat jarring with the rest, and ideally minimized if possible. Minimized, and yet you want light....

I remembered there was a certain type of latticework composed of interlocking circular elements which I had been wanting to have a go at making for some time. That was the solution I was looking for in respect to the large sliding doors I was thinking about for the front of the cabinet. It took me hours to draw these lattices on SketchUp, which I did in a piece-by-piece manner, exactly as they would be constructed. In fact, I ended up drawing them twice over - and in the end I am pleased with the look:

The term for that lattice pattern of overlapping circles is shippō-gumi, which means 'seven jewel assembly'. The doors don't show the glass yet, but I've allowed enough room in the door frame to squeeze 1/8" (3mm) glass in behind the lattice assembly.

Here's a closer look (click on the image to enlarge):

Because the rings are circles, they are tessellating in a way like squares would, and this means they govern the size of the door that surrounds them if you want them to fit in a clean even pattern. Just like tatami mats govern the room size. This became apparent as I played around with the design. In experimenting with different ring and resulting frame sizes I eventually settled upon rings 4.5" in diameter, and this led to a cascade of changes in the cabinet overall, a trickle-down, ripple-out sort of affair. The cabinet has gained, as a result, 2.5" in overall width and another inch in height.

Then there are the drawers. My previous post showed some drawers more or less tossed into place. All I knew was that I wanted a row of drawers at the typical kitchen counter height. I measured some things stored in drawers in our current kitchen to get a sense of the minimum width we might want to have inside a drawer, and as a result settled on three wider drawers, a bit more than 15" wide on the outside, as four drawers in the same space would be a bit too cramped:

Drawer construction and associated internal framing remain to be sorted out.

That leaves the lowermost and uppermost cabinet sections to deal with. The upper section receives a slim pair of bubinga-paneled sliding doors:

Then there is the lowermost section. Things there remain provisional, but as of now I have placed a column of drawers, of graduated heights, tallest at the base, and then to the left side I have placed a pair of hinged doors:

The hinged doors have battens which align with the horizontal dividers on the lower right bank of drawers, battens which allow me to run panels in the same grain direction as the drawer fronts and uppermost sliding doors. Currently, the hinged door frames are about 3/8" too fat. I'm also thinking about whether to mold or curve the drawer fronts. And hardware remains an open question.

So design continues, and I expect it will evolve over the next several posts, probably in smaller leaps and bounds than were shown in today's offering.

Thanks for your visit, and your comments are most welcome, bearing in mind that design remains somewhat in flux at this stage.

I hope that those on the east coast are staying safe and warm during the big storm battering the coast at this time.  On to post 4


  1. Chris,

    It would seem to not be produced without some challenge, the Persimmon storage cabinet that you show, reveals the variation in the attractive qualities of the wood when used carefully with skill. It tends to be a very twisty wood during the air drying process, sometimes to an extreme extent. My experience handling it reveals that it will begin to warp almost immediately when sawn and stickered, unlike a lot of other woods that will also warp, but do so more slowly over an extended period of time, and where some prevention can be taken. The choice of that wood for smaller size members might also have something to do with the difficulty in obtaining straight material. Moderately difficult to work with once it has dried, but lesser so than some of the other woods that you mention.

    The more bland and uninteresting colored Persimmon is much more common than that which has the black coloration. Koreans particularly liked Persimmon for drawer fronts, as the contrast between the black and more neutral color can give a very attractive landscape view like effect. The Black Persimmon must have been a very valued find, and it currently still is in Japan. I think the Black Persimmon may be the same species as the one with the common grayish green colored wood, but for some reason it sometimes gets the black coloration, in which case "Kuro" or black is added to the name.

    Is Zelkova related to Cherry in a botanical reference type way? I believe it is a different order, or exactly what the term is? I saw some English Elm recently that looked exactly like Zelkova, or the Japanese Keyaki, except for some slight color differentiation.

  2. Dennis,

    good to hear from you.

    "Is Zelkova related to Cherry in a botanical reference type way?"

    That was a complete goof-up on my part. I meant to say that Zelkova is in the Elm family, ulmaceae. Elms (ulmus) and zelkova are the two branches of that family. The zelkova leave are slightly different at the base than elm leaves.

    I'll amend the post accordingly. Thanks for mentioning it.

  3. Hi Chris,

    I don't suppose you know of anyone selling kurogaki/black persimmon wood?
    I've got a couple of fairly plain drawer fronts made from it that were salvaged from an all but destroyed tansu, but i saw some rather stunning pen blanks in it a while ago and have been dying to try to find a source for something similar.

    Here's what the particular grain pattern i've been looking for looks like raw
    and under a finish

    I'd say the clearest piece in the first picture is showing a section of end grain, though there's a piece in the left of the shot that appears to show the long grain as well if that's of any help?

    1. It certainly is a beautiful material. I don't know off hand of a source, having never tried to source it previously, but I could take a look-see.

      Thanks for the comment!



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