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Antique Tansu By Greentea Design

Tansu represent a synergistic combination of three ancient Japanese trades - carpentry, joinery and metalworking.

These artistic antiques have become increasingly popular with Western collectors in recent years, and because of their incredible craftsmanship and simple designs they are also timeless and functional pieces of furniture.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of Tansu then take a look at our Complete Tansu Guide.

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History of Tansu

Tansu has a long history dating back to the Edo period (1603 - 1867), when it was a luxury available only to the richest samurai and noblemen. It didn't became a common staple to the Japanese lifestyle until the introduction of the Meiji period (1867-1912).

Japan had just been opened to the West after more than 250 years of civil war and isolation, and the merchants of the Meiji era helped propel the country into the industrial and economic giant it is today. Even so, Japan was a hierarchical society led by nobles - merchants although rich were not allowed to demonstrate their wealth, lest a passing prince take offense.

This was clearly indicated in sets of rules that addressed just about everything regarding style. A merchant's wife's kimono could only be made from a certain group of fabrics, and only allowing a certain amount of color and pattern. This rule was also made for Tansu, restricting the amount and detail of iron work.

In response merchants had incredible tansu commissioned and they regarded these pieces privately. These fine Tansu would generally also be the containers for their fine silk kimonos and other forbidden luxuries.


Craftsmanship

Typical of Japanese design, the focus was put on craftsmanship and the power of natural materials. Because of the multipurpose nature of Japanese rooms, almost all tansu were modular, allowing for easy transportation. They were built to last centuries and, when not being used, were stored in the stone safe houses that were connected to most homes. Tansu were one of the few items that were intended as a permanent fixture of the home (unlike Shoji which were designed with transience in mind).

The carpenter would hand-build each of the pieces, paying careful attention to the harmony of the wood grain. Tansu were often crafted out of more than one type of wood - a strong yet flexible plain sawed wood for a sturdy frame, and an expressive quarter sawed wood for drawer fronts and sliding door panels.

The joiner would then join the pieces using ancient variations of mortise and tenon, dovetail and finger joints. Unlike modern day cabinetry there was no use of glue, nails, or shoddy construction. This is one of the reasons so many tansu are still available today, and are likely to last centuries more.

The final piece of the puzzle was the iron worker. Hardware had symbolic significance and the styles varied region to region. Some tansu exhibited family crests, some had clean and simple designs, while others were elaborate chests coated in stylized iron. Many of the techniques were learned from Korean metal workers that were prisoners from the war. This was expanded upon by Daikichi and Kihei, who started an elaborate ironwork movement that has touched much of the world.


Types of Tansu

Tansu come in several different styles and sizes. They were mostly owned by successful merchants in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and represented a new era that shot merchants up a notch in class.

Probably the most famous tansu is the kaidan-dansu or step chest. These modular pieces were used to access loft and attic spaces in homes. They would then quickly disperse when the tax inspector visited, leaving the upper level of their homes untaxed.

Mizuya Tansu (Kitchen Chests) became a staple in the home and the foundation of the kitchen. Also stacking pieces, they represented a new epoch in which people could afford to cook full meals and experiment with cuisine, as opposed to single pot cooking. They had large cavernous spaces that would be accessed through sliding doors, as well as several pull out drawers for storage of smaller items.

Isho Tansu (Drawer Chests) were dressers for clothing and kimono storage. These pieces were crafted from Kiri wood and many boasted incredible hardware designs. They were also the most popular wedding gift in Japan at the time.

Choba Tansu (Merchant's Document Chests) were commissioned for merchants to have elaborate hardware in order to impress his clients. They ranged in size from small document chests to large apothecary and inventory chests.

Funa Tansu (Sea Chests) were smaller chests that were built to endure arduous voyages in the captain's cabin of a ship. These pieces were reinforced with thick iron hardware and a false iron front for protection.


Isho Tansu

These Isho Tansu (Drawer Chests) were used to store clothing and kimonos in 20th century Japan. The larger tansu (Isho Kasane Tansu) are composed of two pieces stacked on top of each other. They were created for ease of movement to accommodate the constantly changing functions of a Japanese room.

Their modular quality creates for some very flexible design options today. They can be placed back to back to act as a coffee table with storage on each side, and they can be separated to act as a pair of side tables. Like all tansu, the focus is on craftsmanship and natural materials - here, it is detailed hand-forged hardware atop fine Kiri wood.


The Evolution of Isho Tansu

Isho Tansu came in two distinct forms, the smaller single chest (Isho Yaro Dansu), and the larger stacking chest (Isho Kasane Tansu).

Isho Yaro Dansu (literally man's clothing chest) were generally used to store clothing and kimonos for the man of the house. Isho Kasane Tansu (stacking clothing chest) were the most common wedding gifts in Japan, as they gave separate chests for the bride and groom and represented their bond.

Generally crafted from Kiri wood, the real variation in Isho Tansu comes in the form of layout and hardware. The layout of most Isho Tansu speaks of its age. Earlier Meiji-era tansu had multiple drawers and doors, which then evolved into the classic three full length drawer with bottom 3/4 length drawer and safe. The final stage of evolution which took place in the early 1900s was the four full length drawer layout.

Generally crafted from Kiri wood, the real variation in Isho Tansu comes in the form of layout and hardware. The layout of most Isho Tansu speaks of its age. Earlier Meiji-era tansu had multiple drawers and doors, which then evolved into the classic three full length drawer with bottom 3/4 length drawer and safe. The final stage of evolution which took place in the early 1900s was the four full length drawer layout.

Mizuya Dansu

These Mizuya Dansu (Kitchen Chests) would have been used to store items related to cooking.

About 5.5ft high and ranging from 3 to 9 ft wide, they are composed of two pieces stacked on top of each other. They are characterized by their asymmetrical layouts of sliding doors and pullout drawers, and come in many styles.

Like all tansu, the focus is on craftsmanship and natural materials - incredibly detailed hand-forged iron hardware atop exotic rich-grained woods.

History of Mizuya Tansu

In the late Edo period, Mizuya Tansu (Kitchen Chests) became a staple in the home and the foundation of the kitchen. They represented a new epoch, in which people could afford to cook full meals and experiment with cuisine, as opposed to single pot cooking.

They were constructed of two or more pieces stacked on top of each other, and had large cavernous spaces that would be accessed through sliding doors, as well as several pull-out drawers for smaller storage.


Mini Tansu

This diverse collection of small antique funa-dansu (sea chests) and choba-dansu (ledger cabinets) comes from all sides of Japan.

Like all tansu, the focus is on craftsmanship and natural materials - incredibly detailed hand-forged iron hardware atop exotic rich-grained woods. The amount of hardware on each piece would have been an indication of status, and merchants would display them with pride.

Across the ocean and centuries later, they are ideal in the bedroom or living room as combination side tables / storage chests.

Design

Tansu are a syngergistic combination of three ancient Japanese trades - carpentry, joinery, and metalworking. These artistic antiques have become increasingly popular with Western collectors in recent years, and because of their incredible craftsmanship and simple designs, they are also timeless and functional pieces of furniture.