Beautiful Furniture from Wood in Western Tokyo's Tama Region

Cabinetmakers, unlike construction companies and furniture manufacturer, use comparatively little wood. Yet the perspective of a cabinetmaker familiar with wood's intrinsic beauty is indispensable. In this issue, we asked Yohei Ito, carpenter and founder of the Hachioji Contemporary Furniture & Craft School, about what makes Tokyo trees so special.

Confronted in Design: Japan as Identity

I attended a college in England that taught contemporary, not traditional furniture design. Rather than technicians, they trained designers and artists. Asked a question about techniques for bending wood, they would say, "Design comes first. Design is for making chairs, not bending wood." Taught like this, I realized every material, construction method, and ornamentation has its reason. Design is simply the accumulation of these "reasons."

Back then, it was rare for a Japanese person to study design in England. Professors and others would ask questions about Japanese culture, but as a young high school graduate, I didn't have the knowledge to give a good answer. For example, when asked about the tea ceremony, I replied that it was not all too familiar to us today—and was embarrassed to be told I should "value my Japanese identity."

One day, while traveling in Switzerland, I found myself gazing at the scenery and being reminded of Japan's. England's long history of logging left a landscape of grasslands and hills; Japan's landscape, however, is defined by the closeness of its mountains and forests.

The Hachioji School: An Answer and Newfound Determination

After six years abroad, I returned to Japan, and soon decided to open a furniture craft school in Hachioji, western Tokyo. Surrounded by the mountains of the Tama region, it is Tokyo's wood production center. Naturally, I was interested in the local cedar—the certified "Tokyo trees," as they are designated by the Tama timber certification council.

Perhaps surprisingly, the most expensive wood is often the red heartwood of Japanese cedar, not ebony and the like. The Japanese cedar, or Cryptomeria japonica, is endemic to Japan. It felt like the answer to my homework from England, to my identity as a Japanese designer.


Initially, I ordered in thinned timber from some nearby Tokyo trees—which was full of knots. Knots are not necessarily bad, but beautiful grain is vital to creating truly one-of-a-kind furniture. I remember being shocked, having imagined a beautiful grain like Yoshino or Akita cedar.

An encounter with Hamanaka Hideharu of the Hamanaka Zaimokuten (Hamanaka Lumberyard) changed my impression. After sharing my honest thoughts, he invited me to his lumberyard in Hinode-machi, western Tokyo, where I found cedar lumber with beautiful, close, straight grain, just as I had imagined. Japanese cedar's appearance, I learned, depends greatly on its growing environment. Thanks to Hamanaka's discerning eye, I recommitted myself to Tokyo tree.

Thickness is the Key to Cedarwood Furniture


Furniture in England is made from the hard, workable wood of hardwood trees such as walnut and oak. The same is true of Japan. Softwoods like cedar are, generally, weaker than hardwoods, and often labeled light and unsuitable for heavy-load furniture such as chairs. But sufficient strength and balance can be achieved by thickening the load-bearing area or lower leg, much like thickening the base of a tree.

Increasing Design Freedom with Self-Made Veneers

Large bends in wood are made by layering and gluing thinly split 1-1.5 mm veneers, clamping to a mold, and bending into shape. I do everything myself, changing the thickness of the veneer at the start and end of the peeling process for more design flexibility. In England, I learnt that an artistic perspective is also essential in interior design. Take dining chairs, for example. When we are not sitting in them, they become objets, creating our living spaces. Self-made veneers allow me to combine both form, as art objet, and function, as furniture. 

Cedar's Virtue is Its Warm Texture


I had a child soon after the school opened, so I made children's chairs. My child had a steel chair but sat in my wooden chair all the time. It must've felt good. Wood has warmth. Cedar is light due to its low density, and excels in insulation and moisture retention as it contains lots of air. I used a coating of kinuka, a rice-derived natural paint; using urethane would have improved waterproofing and damage resistance, but it stifles cedar's natural warmth.

Furniture from High Stumps and Curved Roots


While I intend to keep focusing on the beautiful grain of Tokyo tree's cedar, I'm intrigued by high stumps and curved roots that remain after logging. A tree base should have a complex grain owing to its load, so its harvesting method can reveal various exciting grain patterns. I'm collaborating on this with Hachioji-based forestry and lumber company Mori to Odoru (Dance with the Forest).

Gathering under the One Tree Project

At the One Tree project in England, artists share materials from fallen trees in parks and hold exhibitions of works created from them. Respect for the long lives of trees is the same in both Japan and England.

Of course, a project like this is impossible to manage alone. I hope to work with fellow woodworkers, local foresters, citizens, and the government towards a society more appreciative of wood in our daily lives.

Yohei Ito, Cabinetmaker

Born Tokyo, Japan, 1975. Studied furniture in England at Rycotewood Furniture Centre and the University of Wolverhampton. Returning to Japan, established Ito Furniture Design. After part-time lecturer in product design at Nihon Kogakuin College and Hida International School of Craft & Design, he opened Hachioji Contemporary Furniture & Craft School in 2010, and part-time lecturer at Institute of Technologists (2015-).
*This article was originally published on “TOKYO MOKUNAVI.”

Translation by Alex G. K. Pulsford