Sourcing Trip to Japan 1 – Right Business Attitude

Fabrics for mounting

My passion with Biden Designs is to discover and develop designs and ideas evolved by artisans who remain loyal to traditional techniques passed from generation to generation.  My sourcing started in Kyoto which was the capital of Japan between the eighth and the nineteenth century.  I strongly believe Japanese craftsmanship complements techniques which are available in the west and provides a treasure trove of inspiration for interior designers and architects.  I had a lot of passion to start a business, however, I can see now that I lacked the right business attitude.

Kyotoites don’t like strangers.  You could even come across a sign “Ichigen-san, Okotowari” meaning “no first-time customer” at some snobbish shops of old establishments.  Everybody must be a first-time customer once.  So, it really means “no customer without an introduction from a regular customer”.  They don’t even talk to you.  Fortunately, I managed to enter the closed circle through my mother’s restaurant business.  I also could speak a very similar dialect in Japanese with them.  It does help them lower their barrier even though I am a woman and have a non-Japanese surname, which is often a hindrance in the male dominant and homogeneous country.  


Mr Imao's workshop



One of the first workshops in the sourcing trip was Mr Imai’s, my supplier for kimono screens which appeared in my first Decorex in 2008.  There is no exact word for his occupation in English; he is a master of mounting items such as screens, scrolls and fusuma sliding doors.  When I visited his workshop which is adjacent to his home, there was a series of kimono screens in his reception room: three pieces of 6ft by 6ft folding screens.  They had a real ‘Wow!’ factor as large scale paintings do.  I fell in love with them. I admit I was naïve when I started in business.  I had too much passion.  He immediately picked up a phone and took me to an antique kimono dealer by car.  He brought out a special collection for Mr Imai, which were partially damaged kimonos suitable for screen mounting.  How could I resist a beautiful 18th century kimono with detailed hand painting of a garden and intricate embroidery?


3 kimono screens


 We came back to his workshop and he showed me how he made folding screens.  Anybody who picks up a large folding screen would be surprised by how light it is. The surface seems solid and many antique Japanese folding screens as seen at  Gregg Baker are in great condition for their age.  However, it is hollowed inside with layers and layers of wafer thin paper to build up strength.  The same technique is used for fusuma sliding doors.  These sliding doors have to be light to operate as well as to be stored away in summer months as they can be replaced with bamboo scrolls to let the breeze through.  Traditional Japanese rooms can have up to three walls of sliding doors: two with fusuma to adjacent rooms or an inner corridor and one with shoji sliding doors, which lets light into the rooms.


Mr Imao at work


Japanese folding screens normally have paintings such as famous battles or a scene from a classical story.  Screens with kimonos are called Kosode Byobu screens and original ones are extremely rare; there are approximately one hundred pieces in the whole world which were commissioned by one person, Shojiro Nomura.  He was an antique dealer and collector of fine fabrics in the early 20th century.  He was an international business man who sold a collection of one hundred twenty pieces of antique fine fabrics to the Metropolitan museum in New York.  You could imagine how beautiful the original Kosode Byobu screens are.  I even bought a reference book issued by the National Museum of History and Folklore to view their whole collection from a second hand bookshop.  I just loved it.  I know, it is not the right attitude as a serious business woman.  

I asked Mr Imai to mount the kimono on silver leaves with black lacquer frame.  Brass lacy metal fixtures added a finishing touch.  It was beautiful and it was a feature piece at my first Decorex in 2008.  I strongly believe it is the best way to display a kimono.   However, it did not bring any business and it is now displayed in my house, which I enjoy. 


Images stylised by Maxine
Images stylised by Maxine


Kuniko Thompson

Kuniko Thompson

Founder of Biden Designs established in 2008. She is passionate about creating beautiful interiors working with designers, architects and Japanese craftsmen.

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