The History of the Step Chest

Greentea Design's Large Elm Burl Step Chest

When they first encountered the step chest, or Kaiden Dansu, in the 19th century it was love at first sight for travelers from the West.  It’s such an iconic piece of Japanese furniture, with an instantly recognizable shape. Their asymmetry; the many drawers and sliding doors; the intricate Japanese joinery techniques that ensure they’re built to last: Step chests strike a perfect balance between art and design, form and function.

how a step chest would've been originally usedImage via Pinterest from Picasaweb

These beautiful solid wood pieces first appeared during the late 1700s custom built by the local carpenter for stores and loft spaces in Japan.   They were built to serve the practical purpose of acting as both staircase and storage. These step chests are constructed in three parts that can be arranged in various configurations.

Haru Step, reconfigured

Historically, building step chests in multiple parts served a couple of key purposes:  it allowed the pieces to be easily transported, carried on shoulder poles, from one place to another (tansu were generally considered fancy storage boxes); but it also allowed the furniture to be reconfigured depending on a space’s needs.

Step chest in three parts Greentea Design’s 3D Step Chest Guide

And the need, from time to time, was to screw the taxman.  Space has always been a hot commodity in Japan.  And as the story goes, these step chests would function as staircases to the upper level of a loft, where you’d find a family’s living space.  The government at the time taxed owners on their livable floor space only, so when the tax inspector came around, the step chests would be reconfigured – poof! The staircase was gone! – and the owner would claim the loft above was soley used for storage – with no permanent access to the space – and therefore untaxable. This worked for a while until, predictably, that loophole was closed.

Big Burl Step Chest functions as a room divider

Greentea Design's CD Step Chest

Today, using traditional building techniques, Greentea Design has a range of step chests that fit beautifully in modern spaces.  With two-sided design, they function as room dividers and offer loads of storage that can be customized to your needs.  These are heirloom quality pieces, the unique focal point of any room, that imbue a space with a little culture and a little history.

One Response to The History of the Step Chest

  1. Cyra says:

    I will be working three months this summer in order to afford one of these beauties….it’s perfect for my purpose, and I can already think of uses for a dozen more, easily, from bedrooms to kitchen to bathroom…. Tansu chests are a wonderful (multipurpose) design element!

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