By Regina Connell.
Typically, we think of Japanese companies as either gargantuan industrial corporations or very small enterprises. The giants are the likes of Sony, Uniqlo, Toyota. On the micro side of the ledger, we think of Japanese artisans and craftsmen, laboring in clay, lacquer, metal, and other even more ancient arts, in clusters of small towns, far from the bright lights of Tokyo.
But Conde House is one of those rare in-betweens, a third way, if you will. It’s one of those Japanese brands that few outside of its native country have ever heard of.
And yet, it was founded with a singular vision, iconoclastic in its own way, and seems to be similarly iconoclastic in its approach to connecting with customers old and new.
A manufacturer of furniture, Conde House was founded in 1968 by a maverick named Minoru Nagahara, a man with some very different ideas about how to do business.
Nagahara hailed from Asahikawa, on Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, well-known for its lumber, furniture, brewing industries. A designer and maker, he spent time in Europe studying design, but decided to return to Japan with a vision of keeping manufacturing and craft skills alive in his home region. And over the next 50 years, that’s what he accomplished.
He started out designing and making his own furniture. Then—a testament to an openness not often seen in Japanese business in those days—he began partnering with designers, mostly European ones at first. Then, as Japanese design started to push to the front of the pack, he began collaborating with the likes of legendary Naoto Fukasawa; the famed design firm Nendo; and sculptor Masayuki Nagare, among others.
Its furniture is handcrafted by a team of artisans, many of whom have been at the company for over 20 years. The factory and the office are located together and house the company’s 270 employees. The physical closeness and shared experiences of working together for so long have created a strong sense of family.
The furniture itself bears a warmed up, graceful Scandinavian vibe, and a clear love of material: the buttery soft wood (all local to Hokkaido) courtesy of meticulous hand-finishing.
The love of material isn’t just about aesthetics, though: it’s about reverence for the material itself. This plays out in an annual event in which the entire company comes together to reforest the woods in the Asahika area.
Another way in which Conde House does things differently: its US showroom in San Francisco. Instead of just another bland and lifeless decorator district showroom, Conde House was designed to bring to life the company’s refined artisan ethos, and create space to engage with it. And it is glorious: a space that’s both sparse and warm, distinctly Japanese but also universal. I even found it slightly evocative of the small churches you see in the European countryside with an air of contemplation and awe.
The inspiration for the space came, as it often does, from constraint. Faced with a very long and narrow space, San Francisco architects Frost Tsuji (long-time collaborators with Conde House) saw the similarities between it and the traditional Kyoto machiya, long, narrow buildings (often called “eel houses”) that typically housed storefront/social space, workshop, and living area. The heart of the space is a 30 foot long table, meant for meeting and socializing.
The machiya concept also inspired the idea of putting together programs to share with the public the company’s commitment to artisanship, community, openness and culture. To do so, Conde House—literally—brings to the table Japanese and Japanese-influenced artists, artisans, and thinkers who share their work with the public. Participants have included Matt Dick of Small Trade Company, a celebration of furoshiki and Japanese wrapping by Megumi Inouye, an unlikely and wonderful combination called Cosmos (bringing together sake, traditional Japanese confections, and calligraphy as performance art). Up next: Safe and Sound, an interactive sound piece.
Blending tradition with modernity, tangibility with ideas, and community with culture, Conde House is bringing that concept of a machiya—and maybe even a big sector of the design world—to the future. This is a company worth keeping an eye on.
Conde House USA San Francisco Showroom
2 Henry Adams St.
San Francisco, CA 94103