“Because I’m damned,” laughed Yuki Watanabe, president of Conde House, when asked why his furniture company, which is the biggest and most revered on Japan’s northern island, hasn’t yet caught on in America. Thirty-two years ago, Watanabe, now a large and commanding presence both physically and within the company, was the young salesman who first brought Conde House to America in 1984 by opening a showroom in San Francisco. But the pieces of high-end furniture, which take about three weeks to make by hand and cost a premium to ship across the Pacific, came at just the wrong time. The economic recession brought on by the 1979 energy crisis was stifling spending on luxury goods, and just one year after Conde House opened their showroom, Ikea opened its first store in America. Nordic design style, which shares a similar, clean aesthetic with Japanese design, was now available in a cheap DIY kit. Conde House had no market.
As America’s economy rebounded, its taste for modern interior design grew. The Eames Lounge Chair, for example, which was entered into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection in 1960, became a ubiquitous symbol of sophistication and resonated with a whole new audience by the mid-‘90s. However, since 1984, the Japanese yen has doubled in value against the American dollar. Good for Japan, bad for Watanabe’s exports. So without much choice, Watanabe now finds himself selling furniture to the rest of the world at an inflated price.
Connected to Conde House’s showroom is its factory, contained within a large, single room. A few feet into the room, Watanabe stopped and watched, as if for the first time, a computer-aided rounder racing along a piece of wood. It shaped the wood smaller with every lap, forming the rough shapes of arms and legs that would be finished by hand only a few feet away. Sawdust catching on his dark suit, he spoke of expansion.
In just the last decade, Conde House has partnered with six overseas agents to stock their furniture; four of these partnerships came in 2015. And earlier this year, Mr. Watanabe celebrated the opening of a showroom at the San Francisco Design Center. He wants to see the style of Asahikawa, a small, remote district in rural Japan, in every major city of the world.
For the past 14 years, Conde House has planted a tree for every one they have taken from the forest. A total of 40,000 trees have been planted.
Outside of the sporadic gray tufts of steel skylines — Sapporo, Niseko, Otaru — Hokkaido is primarily rural farmland and forest. Asahikawa is its hardwood heart. A huge concentration of Japanese ash and oak feed the region’s furniture makers and paper mills, forming the foundation of a boomtown that never busted. During World War II, a nearby army base required wood and wooden products for the war effort, supporting a cross section of streets packed with furniture houses, all a stone’s throw from one another. There are now 35 furniture makers in the area, ranging from one-man operations all the way up to Conde House, which employs 300 factory workers. Keeping all of this going is a commitment to sustainability that permeates every choice made during the design process.