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Exhibitors Spurn Luxury Label at Upbeat Tokyo Interior Design Event

With Japan emerging from its economic hibernation, there was an air of optimism at IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living Tokyo. Few exhibitors, though, dared embrace the luxury label, lest wary buyers saw them as beyond their budget.

Photo: Sleek, slender and unadorned was the order of the day at the IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living event.
Sleek, slender and unadorned was the order of the day at the IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living event.
Photo: Sleek, slender and unadorned was the order of the day at the IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living event.
Sleek, slender and unadorned was the order of the day at the IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living event.

One question was uppermost in the minds of many attending the autumn edition of IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living Tokyo – were the recent signs of an upturn in Japan's economy convincing enough to boost the prospects of the country's luxury sector? As Japan's premier event in the high-end furniture and interior-goods sector, the show could clearly lay claim to being a bellwether for the country's prosperity. As a corollary to this, the obvious supplementary question was – how is any such upturn influencing the preferences and buying patterns of Japan's more well-heeled citizens? As ever, the answer to neither of these questions was in any way clear cut.

While there was a refreshingly positive buzz at the event, underpinned by a fair degree of optimism, the overall sentiment was still restrained and more than a little cautious. While many exhibitors were clearly keen to get down to business, they were equally concerned about not over-committing themselves.

It's fair to say that such sentiments also characterised the prevailing tastes of many attendees. Typically, it was the sleek, slender and unadorned that found favour, a relatively forward-looking but restrained aesthetic. Overall, there was an emphasis on authenticity and reliability, with ostentation still pretty much off the agenda.

These preferences were made manifest through the widespread use of wood and other natural materials, most notably rattan. They were also apparent among the more popular imported items, including Onever's contemporary re-imagining of classic Chinese furniture. Among the items on offer from the China-based designer brand was a range of porcelain and cherry wood tables and chairs, with prices starting at about the US$4,000 mark.

Wu Ha, Onever's Chief Executive and Lead Designer, believes that Chinese design is now where its Japanese counterpart was back in the 1980s, with many in the industry looking to transcend traditional styles and create something more global and contemporary. Despite such superficial similarities, he maintains there are, however, a number of fundamental differences.

Expanding upon his analysis, he said: "The people are different and so their way of thinking is quite distinct. While the Japanese tend to be very detail-focused, the Chinese look at the broader picture."

Wu's designs rely heavily on geometric shapes and smooth lines, while also being notably bulkier than what might be considered the Japanese norm. Dismissing such concerns, he maintains they reflect a "confident use of space", a design trait that perhaps harks back to his previous career as an architect.

Expanding upon his approach, he said: "I design items with a sense of the space they are likely to inhabit. It's a similar approach to that of classic Chinese painters, whose works typically made ready use of white space – or what we refer to as 'air'. My furniture is designed to fit into just such an environment, with plenty of air around it."

Elegant and striking, many of Wu's pieces could be deemed a little too intense for residential use, with offices or hotels seeming more appropriate. In the case of the latter, this would be a good fit with the event's over-arching motif – The Hotel – which, itself, is a nod to the hospitality boom anticipated as Tokyo readies itself to host the 2020 Olympics.

While Onever's presence is a sure sign that Chinese designs are belatedly starting to make inroads in Japan, they still have a very long way to go before they could hope to displace Scandinavian style as the nation's favourite imported look. In line with this, the event was once more home to an extensive Finnish pavilion.

As per usual, a substantial contingent from this North European nation was looking to capitalise on Japan's unlikely love affair with all things Finn. Bizarrely, much of this admiration seems to stem from the popularity of the Moomins, a family of fictional hippopotamuses created by a Finnish illustrator, and Kamome Shokudo, a 2006 Japanese comedy that romanticised life in Helsinki, the Finnish capital.

Photo: Sought out: Authentic, natural materials.
Sought out: Authentic, natural materials.
Photo: Sought out: Authentic, natural materials.
Sought out: Authentic, natural materials.
Photo: Matching cherry wood tables and chairs from Onever.
Matching cherry wood tables and chairs from Onever.
Photo: Matching cherry wood tables and chairs from Onever.
Matching cherry wood tables and chairs from Onever.

This time around, an interesting twist on North European style came courtesy of Norwegian Icons, an initiative intended to promote the creative potential of Norway, a Scandinavian nation almost wholly eclipsed on the design front by its high-profile neighbours. With Norwegian designer items now available either via the initiative's online shop or from its downtown Tokyo store, its backers are hopeful that this cruel injustice might, at long last, be redressed.

According to Wakiko Fukuda, the company's Japanese Manager, Norway's once prominent design sector descended into a long period of post-1970s' decline as the country became almost exclusively focused on oil production. Despite this, she is, however, confident that the time is right for it to stage a comeback.

Addressing this historic injustice, she said: "Today, Scandinavian design usually means Danish, Swedish or Finnish, with Norway pretty much excluded. Back in the 1950s and 60s, though, Norway was known for the quality of its design.

"Neglected throughout the oil years, this reputation kind of died away, leaving the furniture industry in a fairly poor state. At the same time, Denmark successfully promoted design as its national business. Now, though, we believe it's time for Norway to regain its rightful role."

Among the items entrusted with restoring Norwegian pride were a variety of hand-woven rugs (small $180, large $380), lamp shades ($450), table lamps (US$530) and several larger furniture items.

Grasping quite why Scandinavian style appeals so strongly to Japanese consumers is pretty much essential for anyone looking to crack the local market. For her part, Fukuda believes it is because many of these North European designs have such a strong resonance with the Japanese mindset.

Expanding upon her view, she said: "Typically, Scandinavians are less extrovert than other Europeans. They also have a strong group work ethic, which sees them collaborating as equals, with no individual being unduly prominent. This is very much the Japanese way, too, and perhaps explains the affinity between the two countries."

One area where there was notably less affinity was the apparent reluctance of many exhibitors to embrace the luxury tag, seemingly something of an oddity given that IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living makes no secret of the fact that it is squarely targeted at the higher end of the Japanese market. Even when prices made ducking the tag somewhat unconvincing, however, many exhibitors – including Onever's Hu – were conspicuously in denial.

Seemingly emphatic as to his company's positioning, he said: "While we're clearly aiming a little higher than the mass market, we are not in the luxury category. We have a wider appeal and want as many people as possible to buy into our proposition."

Fakuda and several other exhibitors shared remarkably similar sentiments, a sign, perhaps, that many are reluctant to be pigeonholed in the luxury sector, a market segment associated with very particular tastes in Japan and one with very narrow parameters. For many, the sweet spot in the Japanese retail sector is to be perceived as upmarket, but not luxurious, ensuring the middle market remains enfranchised.

A prime example of this thinking came from Tsuji Shoten, a Kyoto-based business that has been manufacturing gold- and silver-flecked paper for several hundred years. Typically, its output has been used in tea ceremonies and as a wrapping for chopsticks on ceremonial occasions. It has long-benefitted from being part of a stable – but limited – luxury market, one that is now being eroded as Japanese society evolves.

Outlining the company's plans to reinvent itself, Senior Manager Chiharu Yamagata said: "We need to get away from being part of such a narrow market. With that in mind, we are here to identify potential partners who could help us develop new products and target other sectors."

Along with dodging the luxury label kiss-of-death, many exhibitors were keen to get beyond the problem of selling solely big-ticket items, a stance known to deter potential buyers. In order to counter this, several businesses had made a conscious effort to feature a number of smaller and cheaper items on their stands in the hope that lower-cost purchases could pave the way to bigger sales later.

Clearly buying into this particular philosophy, Onever's stand featured several smaller items designed almost as tasters for its pricier products. These included designer cups, cushions and snack dishes, all priced around the $100 mark.

Explaining how Norwegian Icons tackled the same problem, Fukuda said: "Furniture is expensive, inevitably making it hard to sell. We've found, though, that if we can get the customer to buy our smaller products – what we call our 'wedge' items, such as our smaller rugs – then it starts a relationship and opens the door to future business."

Photo: IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living: Japan’s premier event in the high-end furniture and interior-goods sector.
IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living: Japan's premier event in the high-end furniture and interior-goods sector.
Photo: IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living: Japan’s premier event in the high-end furniture and interior-goods sector.
IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living: Japan's premier event in the high-end furniture and interior-goods sector.

The autumn 2017 edition of IFFT / Interior Lifestyle Living took place from 20-22 November at Tokyo Big Sight and attracted 16,654 visitors.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

 

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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