11 July 2016
Changed Consumer Sentiment Sends Interior Lifestyle Tokyo Upmarket
With Japanese consumers increasingly opting for the sleek, the sophisticated and the uncluttered, this year's Interior Lifestyle Tokyo event saw a distinct change in emphasis as well as a notable upgrade to its overall presentation.
Interior Lifestyle Tokyo, an annual trade event centred on lifestyle-focussed interior design, proved a refreshing affair this year. While the overall message was pretty much business as usual, there was still a degree of optimism to be found, despite an economic situation that most considered confusing at best. In particular, the decision by Shinzō Abe, the country's Prime Minister, to postpone a scheduled rise in consumption tax was widely seen as likely to give a boost to the sector.
For 2016, the visual aspect of the fair had been given something of an upgrade. This was very much in line with moves by a number of Japanese companies to reposition themselves in a notably more upmarket fashion. This has been driven largely by an influx of overseas businesses moving into Japan and looking to compete primarily on price at the lower end of the market.
Returning once more to Tokyo Big Site, the fair was out to impress from the off, courtesy of a colourful and stylish atrium designed by Torafu, an award-winning, Tokyo-based architectural group. This installation made skilful use of ceiling-suspended speech and thought bubbles, all featuring key terms related the sudden joy of encountering something surprisingly impressive – with "wow", "crazy" and "kawaii", [the Japanese word for "cute"] all in evidence. Tacitly acknowledging the ubiquity of e-commerce and digital marketing, each phrase was designed to resemble an online icon.
In terms of the items on show this year, innovation and novelty were clearly the priorities, although not all such products were necessarily high-tech in nature. There was, for instance, a set of low-tech table tennis (US$120) and table football games ($160), both made entirely of durable cardboard, rendering them surprisingly light and portable.
One item that proved particularly popular with attendees was Tsumiki, an innovative new wooden building toy, designed by Kengo Kuma, a renowned Japanese architect. Designed to fit together in a number of different ways – all of them simple and elegant – the toy benefitted from its refreshing combination of eco-friendly appeal, a distinct nostalgia for the playthings of yesteryear and a charming aesthetic. Made entirely from sustainably-sourced Japanese cedar, the piece commanded an accordingly high price tag – seven pieces for $45 or 20 pieces for $120.
Throughout the atrium showcase area and beyond into the show proper, there was an emphasis on subtle and subdued styles, something that seemed to wrong-foot a number of the foreign exhibitors, with many of them clearly unfamiliar with Japan's more sophisticated tastes. In particular, a substantial contingent of Turkish fabric companies – many of them making their debut at the event – failed to chime with the majority of Japanese buyers.
One such company was Vino Kadife, a Bursa-based fabric company producing richly-coloured and embroidered velvets for the home decoration market. Describing the event as something of a learning experience, Aylin Erturk, a Research and Development Manager with the business, said: "If I had previously known what I know now, I would have brought quite different items. The colours that are popular here are similar to those favoured by the European market. They tend to like beige and softer, powder colours."
For her, persistence was also of paramount importance in terms of successfully accessing the Japanese market. She was not alone in this belief, with the Turkish government, which had organised the country's substantial delegation this year, apparently committed to maintaining a regular presence.
Inevitably, price competitive overseas businesses only really begin to make inroads into the Japanese market once they have built up their awareness of local preferences and established a substantial base of contacts. Perhaps frustratingly, though, Japanese tastes are notoriously fluid and change frequently, often in response to external influences.
A prime example of this phenomenon is Maruman, a Japanese fabric manufacturer specialising in yarn-dyed cotton fabrics and the production of intricately-woven Jacquard cloth. As many foreign companies can now supply similar fabrics at a lower cost, Maruman has looked to maintain its profitability through its deeper understanding of the Japanese market. With this in mind, its stall was completely given over to Pols, the new brand it launched last year.
Explaining the company's thinking, Kanako Watanabe, Maruman's Marketing Manager, said: "Pols takes its name from Polaris, the Northern Star – a symbol of perfection. It is quite different from anything we have produced before, and we brought in a number of external designers to work on the project.
"We have been marketing the brand to a number of specially selected shops and artistic outlets. We've also struck a deal with Spiral, one of Tokyo's leading artistic centres. We've moved in this direction as, overall, the economy is still not buoyant, with our sector particularly under pressure."
On its stand, the company had a wide range of stoles and wraps ($200-$250), all of them in a variety of vivid and confident colours likely to appeal to stylish women in the 30-60 years age group. It also had on offer a range of neckties designed with younger men in mind. According to Watanabe, the designs reflect the more colourful tastes of western Japan, but were also aimed at those with more avant-garde preferences, such as art professionals or people in the media and entertainment sectors.
With Maruman not the only company keen to appeal to more sophisticated and upmarket consumers, this year's Interior Lifestyle Tokyo saw a notable shift towards the territory traditionally occupied by Rooms, a rival Tokyo fashion and design trade show with something of a more artistic bent.
Acknowledging this, Watanabe said: "This year, this event is definitely edgier than it has been. It's been good to come here as there have been a lot of other edgy people also in attendance."
While designs in the Pols range are strong on colour, they also favour simplicity, notably eschewing anything that might be considered ornate. This is an approach that is highly popular in Japan, largely explaining the strong demand for the work of Scandinavian designers, many of whom take a broadly similar approach.
Running in parallel with the demand for these cool and streamlined design elements, however, there is also something of an appetite for highly decorative traditional European styles. This is clearly evident in Japan's masking tape culture, a style of home decoration that can easily be altered or dispensed with entirely.
Nitto, one of the domestic leaders in this sector, is now hoping to customise its offerings in order to appeal to overseas consumers. With this in mind, it has launched Haru, its export-focussed brand. While Decolfa, its highly successful domestic brand, favours a pseudo-Victorian look, Haru opts for more of a pop-art aesthetic.
Explaining why the company was now looking to export, Business Development Manager Eiichiro Kawabuchi, said: "The Japanese masking tape market is now approaching saturation point. As a result, there is not much room for growth. We need to adapt our range to appeal to the preferences of overseas consumers if we are going to continue to move forward."
As it can be easily applied and removed, masking tape is entirely in keeping with danshari, one of the more significant Japanese cultural trends of the last few years. In essence, the term refers to decluttering your life by throwing things away and living in a more aesthetically pleasing fashion.
In essence, many of the design elements on show at this year's event, across a wide range of items – including clothing, jewellery and furnishings – were in keeping with this apparent desire for purity and renewal. This could well explain why Interior Lifestyle Tokyo 2016 was sleeker, less cluttered and more aesthetically pleasing than ever before.
Interior Lifestyle Tokyo 2016 was held at the Tokyo Big Sight from 1-3 June.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo