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Pieces at Tokyo furniture museum all miniature history lessons: curator

by Tomoko Otake

A piece of furniture speaks volumes about history, lifestyles and people’s sense of beauty, according to Masashi Saito, curator of the Furniture Museum in Tokyo’s Harumi district.

To demonstrate his point, he points to two “tansu” clothes chests crafted during the Meiji Period. Both are elaborately decorated and have ornamental handles, locks and hinges. But each piece had a clearly different purpose, according to Saito.

One of the chests, adorned with ornaments of lions and dragons, was probably meant to store a man’s clothes, he said. The other chest, decorated with patterns of pine, bamboo and plum trees — considered symbols of good luck in Japan — was made for a wedding parade.

The latter was likely shown off to the crowd as the bride moved it and other large pieces of furniture to the home of her new husband, he added.

“The chest was made specifically to be shown off to the public and was probably put away in a storage room once it reached the groom’s house,” he said.

The museum was established in 1972 at the initiative of Minoru Ikeda, founder of Tokyo-based furniture manufacturer France Bed Co.

Its collection includes 1,700 items of antique cabinetry, including tansu, “nagamochi” (trunks) and “hitsu” (coffers). About 200 pieces are on permanent display.

The museum also has a collection of foreign furniture, with each piece telling a story about the lifestyles their owners led.

For example, an 18th-century wooden chair made in Britain has only three legs because people’s homes in those days had uneven dirt floors.

“People used three-legged chairs because they are better balanced than four-legged ones,” the curator said.

The museum is currently holding a special exhibition on furniture made of bamboo, rattan and willow — all popular materials because they are light, sturdy and flexible.

They were widely available in Japanese households until the high economic growth period of the 1970s, when they were replaced by furniture using new materials such as plastic and plywood. The special exhibition runs through June 9.

“Japan’s lifestyles changed dramatically after the high economic growth period and again after the asset-inflated bubble economy of the late 1980s,” Saito said. “We want visitors to look back on the way lifestyles have changed and develop a perspective on their future.”