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Nordic Flair Woos the Japanese, with the Ostentatious Ostracised

Exhibitors at this year's Interior Lifestyle Tokyo faced a change in consumer preferences, with conspicuous affluence off the agenda and homeowners instead opting for a rather more subtle and surprising approach to household goods.

Photo: Plenty to smile about: turn-out on the up at Interior Lifestyle Tokyo.
Plenty to smile about: turn-out on the up at Interior Lifestyle Tokyo.
Photo: Plenty to smile about: turn-out on the up at Interior Lifestyle Tokyo.
Plenty to smile about: turn-out on the up at Interior Lifestyle Tokyo.

The organisers of Interior Lifestyle Tokyo clearly invest heavily into the event in order to keep things fresh and appealing. Thankfully, it seems to pay off. Aside from their efforts to create an event with an enhanced retail feel, this year's show also seemed to benefit from rising optimism within the sector. Overall, the 2014 incarnation of the expo saw the show looking sleeker and more sophisticated than it has for many years.

The optimism evident at the show was underlined by a raft of economic data released soon afterwards. Against expectations, this saw an upward revision in the growth figures for the January-to-March period, resulting in a raised predicted annualised growth rate of 6.7% (up from the initial figure of 5.9%). This upturn, partly driven by increased business spending, may be partly explained by World Cup enthusiasm. This, of course, provided a timely reminder, of the boost likely to stem from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

No matter what the cause, there was certainly plenty of optimism on show, although it didn't filter out to every corner of the exhibition hall. It could, however, be detected within the Lithuanian pavilion, with several companies from this relatively tiny North European country returning to the show for the third time.

The sentiment among the Lithuanian delegation was that any transitory economic factors in the Japanese market should be ignored, with an abiding belief that – in the long term – economic growth was afoot. The country's companies were also benefitting for an increased penchant for Nordic styles among Japanese consumers.

Although the country is not, itself, strictly Nordic, its designs tend to have a similar "folkish" element. Its economy has also benefitted from a number of truly Nordic companies outsourcing their production to within its borders. This has seen many of the local designers learn a great deal from their crafty neighbours.

In terms of genuine Nordic goods, one of the best-attended stalls was that of Apex Co Ltd, a Japanese importer of such items. Although the Gunma Prefecture-based company was set up a quarter of a century ago, its President, Yoshiko Buell, maintained that demand for Nordic style had only really taken off in recent years.

Addressing this change, she said: "It's gone really well over the last five years, and, particularly, over the last three. I think it's because Nordic items really match the Japanese lifestyle – they don't have so much colour and don't really draw too much attention to themselves."

Going back 20 years or so, the Japanese were often attracted to showy Western items, believing they made a strong and obvious statement about affluence at a time when imports were expensive and denoted high status. Sentiments have now moved on from such nouveau-rich affectation, with subtlety and true sophistication now far more in vogue. As a result, items associated with the previous aesthetic – rococo-decorated ceramic knives for instance – were distinctly out of favour.

This year, Apex was highlighting a number of items aimed at highlighting its range of overseas affiliations. These included a section of devices for opening and aerating wine, kitchen utensils, decorative items and wool products.

Explaining the company's choice of items, Buell said: "People have finally realised that the Nordic look goes really well with a Japanese style house. In the last three years, there have been so many interior magazines writing about this affinity – and all of these articles have been featured."

Photo: Nordic necessities.
Nordic necessities.
Photo: Nordic necessities.
Nordic necessities.
Photo: The look of luxury from WaGlass Ya.
The look of luxury from WaGlass Ya.
Photo: The look of luxury from WaGlass Ya.
The look of luxury from WaGlass Ya.

Another factor driving the popularity of many of Apex's selection was their undoubted "geek appeal". This saw many of them featuring a clever gimmick, an unexpected design or concealed point of interest. This, of course, allows the owner to impress his/her guests.

One of the items on offer, for instance, was a "Wine Breather Carafe" (US$120). With its use not entirely obvious, Buell was only too happy to demonstrate. The carafe features a special cap into which the opened wine bottle is inserted upside down. As the wine pours through, it is suitably aerated. Depending on the wine and the degree of aeration desired, the process can be simply repeated by merely inverting the entire assemblage as often as is required.

According to Buell, Scandinavian design often has such unexpected features, requiring someone to demonstrate them – an attribute that gives them a certain cache. With this in mind, Buell uses television-shopping channels as her primary promotional medium, undoubtedly the ideal route for highlighting such hidden inventiveness.

Several other products on display elsewhere at the show boasted a similar appeal. Of particular note was a range of tin luncheon mats. These were remarkably pliable and could be bent or rolled into a variety of attractive shapes, even being used to form dishes suitable to particular menus or occasions. Typically, these were available for around US$60-$100.

A similarly inventive approach was taken by one Hong Kong start-up – Thermo Square. The company's stand featured a product that had the low-key simplicity of Scandinavian design, while also having its own innovative technical twist – attractive and easily interchangeable polyurethane heating mats. First-time visitor to the show, the company was on the lookout for local agents for its product range.

Up to six of these mats can be joined together in any formation via small connecting pegs. They can then be heated from a single electricity point. The company was, understandably, keen to emphasise the safety-first elements of the product – although electric, the mats are waterproof and shock-proof, making them even suitable for use in bathrooms. In addition, they can withstand considerable pressure, allowing for them to be placed underneath furniture.

According to Andrew Wei, the company's Sales Director, Thermo Square is looking to launch the product both in Hong Kong and Japan this winter, although the final retail price has yet to be decided. He also indicated there had been considerable interest in the product, a view seemingly borne out by the considerable attention the company's stand commanded.

Taking a distinctly less gadget-y approach – perhaps surprisingly – were many of the exhibitors in the Taiwan pavilion. Instead of promoting the hi-tech items the territory has long been synonymous with, the pavilion featured a range of luxury ceramics and other semi-craft items. A number of these items, notably a range of teapot and teacup ensembles, took their inspiration from items in the Taipei National Palace Museum. This was somewhat timely, given that a major exhibition of such items is currently taking place in Tokyo.

Tony Tseng, the Chief Executive of Artilize, a Taiwanese company set up to collaborate with artists, designers and museums, explained the thinking behind the project. He said: "Traditional Chinese culture has been particularly well-preserved in Taiwan. In line with this, the local government considers it very important to use these cultural assets in the creation of new products."

Overall, the feel at the show was that the economic policies of Shinzo Abe [Abenomics], the country's Prime Minister, had had a positive effect on the luxury end of the market. Despite this, growth in the high-end sector was somewhat curtailed by the general public's apparent preference for the subtly understated, a development that has spurred some luxury goods manufacturers to reconsider both their positioning and their target markets.

Miyuki Wa-Glass, a Sales Manager at WaGlass Ya Co Ltd, a luxury glass art maker based in Kyoto, said the domestic luxury market had doubled over the last two years. Despite this, the company, which produces large glass panels with richly-patterned kimonos encased inside (at a cost of around US$10,000), has only grown by exporting to the Gulf States, a region where more extravagant tastes seem to be always in fashion.

While the economic stimulus provided by Abenomics was initially narrow in its impact, there is a sense that it is now broadening out, providing a more general boost to the economy. This was perhaps confirmed by the increased attendance figures at this year's event, which was up from last year's 25,456 to 27,827.

Photo: Interior Lifestyle Tokyo 2014: ‘sleeker and more sophisticated’.
Interior Lifestyle Tokyo 2014: 'sleeker and more sophisticated'.
Photo: Interior Lifestyle Tokyo 2014: ‘sleeker and more sophisticated’.
Interior Lifestyle Tokyo 2014: 'sleeker and more sophisticated'.

Interior Lifestyle Tokyo 2014 took place from the 4-6 June at the Tokyo Big Sight.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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