Any antique-furniture lover who believes in form following function can’t help but appreciate Japanese tansu. Meant to be moved, these ingenious storage devices were stripped to their essentials – no extraneous features, not even legs, to impede their portability. But, while always functional, they still made a statement, says Dane Owen, owner of Shibui, an Asian antiques store in Brooklyn, NY – “a dramatic combination of utility and beauty.” Here’s a tally of the most common tansu types (note: the word “tansu”, which literally means “cabinetry”, becomes “dansu” when linked with another word).
1. Step Chests (Kaidan-Dansu)
This is the one most Westerners think of when they think of tansu: the stair-step chest. A combination of architecture and furniture, it really did function as a staircase, as well as a storage unit. Kaidan-dansu aren’t usually made of the most valuable materials – the one at left is made of sugi (cedar), a relatively cheap wood – but they often command high prices, both because of their uniqueness and relative rarity. Everyone in a family would have a clothing chest, Owen notes, but “How many staircases would a house have?”
2. Clothing Chests (Isho-Dansu)
Clothing chests may be more common than kaidan, but they are still often quite beautiful: colorfully lacquered and adorned with ornate iron hardware, they made popular wedding gifts. They came in two types: single-section, like the one depicted at left, and double-section (one chest stacked on another). The configuration of several full drawers, with a couple of small ones and perhaps a safe, is typical of isho-dansu of the Meiji era (1868-1912), considered the Golden Age of tansu-making.
3. Merchant Chests (Choba-Dansu)
Chests for shopkeepers and businessmen were among the first tansu developed, paralleling the rise of the merchant class in Japan during the Edo period (1615-1868). Although a range of regional styles exists, cho-dansu are characterized by multiple compartments of varying sizes, invariably including one for ledgers – indicated by a pair of square sliding doors, Owen notes. And also – “lots of locks,” like those of forged iron on the chest at left.
4. Pharmacist Chests (Kusuri-Dansu)
A variation on the merchant chest, the Japanese pharmacist or medicine chest is similar to those of European apothecaries, consisting of a symmetrical series of small drawers. The example at left, of lacquered kiri wood, is actually two separate, stackable chests – all the better for easy rearrangement. Dating from the mid-19th century, it has several of its original labels: “bandages”, “pain killer” and “saké money” (whether for the patient or the pharmacist isn’t clear).
5. Kitchen Chests (Mizuya-Dansu)
Kitchen chests, which developed in the later Edo period, were another sign of rising prosperity and the refined cooking and dining practices that accompanied it. Substantial pieces, they have large, roomy interiors and sections covered with wire, like Western pie cupboards. Unlike other tansu, they don’t have much hardware, but they were often decorated with simple, carved designs, as is the one at left. Mizuya-dansu typically have a rich, reddish-brown patina – created by cooking-fire smoke, Owen says.
6. Sea Chests (Funa-Dansu)
For many collectors, sea chests represent the crème de la crème of tansu. They tend to be made of the most expensive materials – keyaki wood (Japanese elm) for the exterior and hand-forged iron hardware – and of the highest craftsmanship, to ensure they’d be watertight. Those made in Sado Island, like the one at left, are among the most valuable, according to Owen. Iron hardware was a status symbol, and the substantial amount of it on the locks and handles on this funa-dansu suggests its owner was socially prominent – or aspiring to be.
7. Wheeled Chests (Kuruma-Dansu)
Wheeled chests were among the earliest form of tansu; references to them date as far back as 1657. Serving a variety of purposes, they’re quite large, and quite rare. The 19th-century kuruma-dansu at left is a merchant’s chest, made of utilitarian sugi (cedar) wood.
8. Tea Chests (Cha-Dansu)
Since tea played such an important role in Japanese life, it’s not surprising that there was a type of tansu dedicated to the leaf and its accessories. A cha-dansu like the early 20th-century one shown at left was for tea utensils, which could be artistically displayed on the staggered shelves.