Interview Masayo Kudo

MAJA HOTEL KYOTO and CAFE AALTO KYOTO are decorated in a variety of Finnish styles. One of the most important components is the furniture. The furniture was developed by the production designer Harri Koskinen with the Iwate based company Monolabon Co., Ltd. This is the company that has launched a craft brand “iwatemo.” We asked the representative director of Monolabon, Ms. Masayo Kudo, about this furniture, how it came about, and her thoughts towards Monozukuri manufacturing.

  • Interview with:Masayo Kudo
  • Interview by:Yoshitaka Ikeda

First of all, please tell us about your newly launched craft brand “iwatemo”.

Iwate is a region where craftsmanship has been flourishing for a long time, being represented by crafts such as Nambu Tekki ironware. The craftsmen in the region have developed excellent skills with such a regional history as a strong base. However, most of them work within small workshop environment with limitations. These limitations include a product development that would differentiate their products from domestic competitors and the expansion of their sales channels.

Bringing three craft workshops together, Monolabon launched the craft brand “iwatemo” through a collaboration with two designers from Finland. We recognized that there were many similarities between Finland and Iwate in terms of climate and people’s temperament. We tried to understand the Iwate’s Monozukuri further from a Scandinavian perspective and developed 24 items in three lines of ironware, wooden chairs, and porcelain, with designs that “fuse traditional craftmanship with modern sensibilities.” The theme of “iwatemo” is “HOME”. The brand has been well-received in both Japan and overseas markets as a craft brand that proposes a new way of enriching our life.

Mr. Harri Koskinen, the producer of MAJA HOTEL KYOTO, is a member of the “iwatemo” team. Please tell us about the encounter between “iwatemo” and Mr. Harri Koskinen and how you have been working together.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, we received an offer from a person who had a base in Finland to “provide some support”. This offer eventually resulted in a relationship that led me visit Finland. It was about this time that I met Mr. Kari Korkman, the general director of the Helsinki Design Week. We discussed and agreed about the significance of craftsmanship in local areas in general. In 2016, the Iwate Industrial Research Institute held a seminar to introduce Finnish designs to the public in Iwate and invited Kari san as a speaker. However, he was unable to attend himself and so he introduced us to two special designers. Those special designers were Mr. Harri Koskinen and Mr. Ville Kokkonen. The Iwate Industrial Research Institute has provided an ongoing technical support towards our project ever since.

After the seminar, I showed Harri and Ville some Monozukuri workshops in Iwate, and it was they who suggested “to start a project on the theme of HOME.” It was their suggestion actually, that led my colleagues and I to establish Monolabon. Our company comprises of craftsmen, an entrepreneur, an interpreter, a graphic designer, a writer, as well as other members in order to promote the Japanese craftsmanship from Iwate to the world. The new craft brand “iwatemo” was launched and developed products of ironware, wooden chairs, and porcelain. Harri and Ville have visited Iwate many times. We have exchanged opinions in a frank manner and held a number of online meetings, fostering a close relationship and partnership unrestrained by language and cultural barrier.

The two products, KI-0202HK (chair – HK) and KI-0201HK (stool – HK), have been acquired by MAJA HOTEL KYOTO and CAFE AALTO KYOTO. I am sure you had a lot of difficulties in developing and creating these products.

The first step was for Harri and Ville to visit the workshop and to learn about the production of Iwaizumi Junboku Furniture, since the production environment of each workshop is different from one another. The furniture maker produced prototypes and sent these to Harri and Ville. Harri and Ville paid visits to Iwate to discuss details about the prototypes. This exchange was repeated a few times. Although the maker was confident that they could produce the chair and stools to their designs, Junboku Furniture had a hard time with the new type of design. The maker usually dealt with Japanese furniture. Still, the joint of the seat and the backrest of the chair was made possible by the experiences of the maker.

We had originally planned to use wood from Iwate. But we settled on imported white ash from the perspective of a stable supply and the beautiful white grain. It is finished with oil, retaining the wood’s natural appearance. For the black version, we experimented with several paint materials and painting methods a few times to achieve a matte black colour.

Your “iwatemo” project was recently awarded a “Good Design Award.”

It was a great encouragement for us to be recognized in our efforts to bring collective small workshops together and to promote their products to the world as an “Overseas Collaborative Craftsmanship Project.” Both Ville and Harri were also pleased. I would like to continue to take on various challenges through “iwatemo” while further developing our partnership with them.

Finally, please tell us about Monolabon’s passion for Monozukuri craftsmanship.

There are many fascinating crafts in the local areas of Japan, with excellent skilled craftsmen. However, many of their workshops are quite small in scale, which limits their potential, and with typical issues that small businesses suffer from, such as financial problems and a lack of successors. It is difficult for them to continue their practice at times. Some actually go out of business. It is our hope to present Monozukuri in a fresh light and to enable a system that further highlights the excellence of their skills and techniques. At the same time, we hope to contribute in some ways towards the sustainable future of Monozukuri craftsmanship.

Incorporating design perspectives that are different from those of Japan brings added value to the products which enables them to appeal to people both in Japan and overseas. Creating an opportunity, where the products reach out to the people of the world, would eventually motivate our craftsmen while increasing profitability. Although the project is still quite new, we have high hopes that our efforts will generate an interest and show the potential of small local craft workshops to younger generations..

When you sit on the chairs of the MAJA HOTEL KYOTO and CAFE AALTO KYOTO, why not you let your thoughts dwell on the skills of the Monozukuri craftsmen and the sensibility of the Finnish designers.

The craftsmen have refined their skills over a long period of time. Ms. Masayo Kudo brought together the skills of craftsmanship to set up the brand, “iwatemo”, and promote the refined crafts to not only across Japan but also the wider world. For further information, please visit the “iwatemo” website, Facebook, and Instagram.