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Mass-market Japan Opts for Sleek, with Quirks Reserved for the Rich

While simplicity, sleekness and a certain stress-reducing quality are musts for mass-market interior design products in Japan, those keen to target the country's affluent consumers should take a more quirky and distinctive approach.

Photo: Mass-market Moomins: Finnish cartoon characters long-adored by Japanese consumers.
Mass-market Moomins: Finnish cartoon characters long-adored by Japanese consumers.
Photo: Mass-market Moomins: Finnish cartoon characters long-adored by Japanese consumers.
Mass-market Moomins: Finnish cartoon characters long-adored by Japanese consumers.

The 2017 edition of Interior Lifestyle Tokyo (ILT) was all about questions of style and taste, as well as the opportunities and constraints they entail for the commercial sector. Overall, there is a high degree of consensus in Japan as to what should be deemed good taste. Typically, this is reflected in a preference for natural, crafted and organic interior decor items, as well as in things that have a de-stressing or relaxing effect. There are also a number of interesting differences between general good taste and its application at the luxury end of the market.

Beyond this, diversification was also an important theme this year. This saw a number of companies debuting variations on existing lines and looking to expand into new markets, while also trialling novel retail approaches, including selling unlikely pairings of goods alongside one another.

One of the defining characteristics of ILT is its focus on trends. This year, this element of the event was led by a presentation from Messe Frankfurt Ambiente, the Germany-based organiser of the show. While the seminar was billed as detailing what's new for 2017 and beyond, a lot of its content had a certain ring of familiarity.

Overall, the emphasis was on the importance of "structures and textures inspired by nature", "high-quality handwork artistry", and "grounded products that are as unobtrusive as they are durable". Essentially, it seems that what the Japanese consumer wants is well-made items that do not flaunt their quality and come with an air of simplicity, purity and unpretentiousness.

With this in mind, it's not hard to see why Nordic/Scandinavian styles continue to be hugely in demand across Japan. Asked to account for their enduring popularity, Sarah Rosberg, a Swedish designer for Arco Design, an Osaka-based manufacturer and importer, said: "Really, I think it is all about creating a sleek, unfussy, and relaxing atmosphere. The Japanese like that and also like the assurance that anything they buy is well made."

For its part, Arco had on offer a choice of decorative tree-shaped 3D figures, a range created by Lovi, a Finnish design company. Made from high-quality birch wood, the figures are sold in convenient flat-packs for home assembly. Suitable for use as Christmas trees or as more generic decorations, they can be easily disassembled and conveniently stored.

The craft and artisan characteristics of the product ensure that it is unique and has something of a rarity value, aspects that both appeal to the Japanese consumer and limits its market reach. The largest item – a 135cm tree-shaped figure – was on offer for about US$700.

Lovi also makes small figures based on the Moomin, a Finnish cartoon character, which were available for $15. A lovable, woodland-dwelling creature, the Moomin has long been extremely popular in Japan, adding a note of nostalgia to this particular product line.

Elsewhere at the expo, there were many other attempts to tap into this hankering for all things old-fashioned. This extended from a range of linen sheets and retro alarm clocks to a selection of antique-looking animal toys, all made from a kind of brittle plastic.

Staying with the traditional, Shaquda was keen to promote its range of classically-styled body-washing brushes ($120), all made with goat hair rather than the more commonplace horse or pig hair. According to Osahiro Maruyama, Managing Director of the Hiroshima Prefecture-based company, constant innovation is a must for the long-term survival of his business.

Explaining the origins of the company and the challenges it faces, he said: "We are a craft-based maker in a traditional brush-making town. Originally, the town was famous for its writing brushes, but it later expanded into the production of other types of brushes, including items used while washing or applying makeup.

"We rely on craft production and, as the number of craftsmen is finite, even if something succeeds we can't ramp up production too much. At the same time, we face fairly persistent competition. With the Japanese market flooded with cheaper overseas products, we look to protect our workforce by consistently creating innovative new products and pushing into new export markets."

While ILT featured many businesses similar to Shaquda – small, hardworking companies, obliged to diversify to turn a profit – many of the market leaders in the interior-design sector were notably absent from the event this year. The truth is that many of the big names no longer see any need to attend trade shows, believing their reputations are well-established and with links to their customer base already firmly in place. There were, however, one of two exceptions, most notably Zojirushi, an Osaka-based market leader in the manufacture of vacuum flasks and consumer-electronics items.

Explaining why his company had bucked the trend, Department Sub-manager Takayuki Sato said: "We came here to promote our drink bottles and vacuum flasks. Flasks are a slowly growing market as people like to have their own drinks and want to keep them warm or cool depending on the season. It fits better into the office lifestyle and is seen a preferable to relying on vending machines.

Photo: The stylish atrium of this year’s ILT event.
The stylish atrium of this year's ILT event.
Photo: The stylish atrium of this year’s ILT event.
The stylish atrium of this year's ILT event.
Photo: Shaquda’s goat-hair body brushes.
Shaquda's goat-hair body brushes.
Photo: Shaquda’s goat-hair body brushes.
Shaquda's goat-hair body brushes.

"We also never want to appear complacent and there are still a number of shops and department stores that don't stock our products. There are also a lot of flashy products on the market, many of which can easily attract attention, while the main selling points of our plainer-looking products are superior functionality and technical quality.

"Our competition is high on looks, but not so high on usability. Sometimes, though, looks win out. As a result, we have to constantly support our product line. We believe our product is technology rather than fashion."

A similar challenge was facing Saitama-based Trinity Inc. The owner of the Nuans brand, the company claims to be the world's fourth-largest supplier of accessories for Apple smartphones and tablets.

This year, the company was in Tokyo to promote its Base desk and a number of related accessories, all said to enhance any user's "digital lifestyle". According to Yoshiki Hirakawa, a Sales Executive with the company, the range will be launched in September and will include Colony, a multi-device charging station, various storage devices and several cable holders.

Explaining the thinking behind the Base range, Hirakawa said: "It's really all about functionality, a defiantly minimalist functionality that is in keeping with the decluttering that characterises many digital devices. While every product in the range has its own merits, bringing them all together under the same branding has enhanced their collective impact.

"It's all designed to enhance the user's work life. Instead of taking the historical view of the desk as something rooted in the age of paper and pen, we have re-imagined it for the digital age."

While the sleekness, simplicity, and stress-reducing qualities embodied in the Base range were shared by many other products on offer at this year's event, they were not quite universal. Indeed, in the case of a number high-end brands, the richer and quirkier design elements were favoured.

This was clearly apparent in the range available from Toyo Kitchen, a Tokyo-based high-end kitchen company with a sideline in imported interior-design brands. This year, foremost in its range was a selection of luxurious furniture and lighting items from Mooi, a Dutch design label.

According to Tatsuya Kinoshita, a Sales Manager with the company, many high-end customers have a distinct penchant for distinctive and expensive-looking goods, partly as a way of distinguishing themselves from middle-market consumers. This year, Toyo's 'distinctive and expensive-looking' approach favoured a modernist Gothic look, complete with dense, upholstered, dark furniture and lighting fixtures on large metallic frameworks.

Acknowledging a distinct financial and cultural divide, Kinoshita said: "To a certain extent, there is a clear class difference in taste. To that end, our down-market brands tend to be simpler, brighter and more colourful."

Photo: Quirky and distinctive: Mooi’s full-sized horse lighting installation.
Quirky and distinctive: Mooi's full-sized horse lighting installation.
Photo: Quirky and distinctive: Mooi’s full-sized horse lighting installation.
Quirky and distinctive: Mooi's full-sized horse lighting installation.

Interior Lifestyle Tokyo was held from 14-16 June at Tokyo Big Sight. In total, 787 companies participated – 645 from Japan and 142 from overseas. The overall number of visitors to the event was 27,573.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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