'It's flat-pack furniture; the Japanese beat us to it by several hundred years. And look, everything works'
In Batley, West Yorkshire, there is a showroom of furniture to make your bank manager's heart sink. By Charlotte Packer
Saturday 19 August 1995
Tansu was the brainchild of Stephen Battye, who owns the Mill. His own Japanese antiques had attracted such interest that he reckoned there must be a UK market for them. So he brought in John Riordan to restore the antiques - many of them bought from Japanese house sales - and set up the showroom.
"When I first saw the furniture," confesses Mr Riordan, "it was all dirty and dusty and I couldn't really see the future in it." He was not alone, for one of his first visitors was far from impressed: "This guy came in, looked around and said, 'I wouldn't give this house-room', and walked out. He's now bought his sixth piece. Like most things, you either love it or loathe it. Most people are amazed by the shop." And so they should be, for nothing on this scale exists anywhere else in Europe.
The attraction of the furniture at Tansu is that, although antique, it looks quite modern. Ikea, Muji and The Holding Company are just a few of the shops now making a tidy profit from selling cardboard drawers and storage boxes: attractive ways of adding space to small rooms. The furniture at Tansu has a similar appeal. Japan is a small and mountainous country and lack of space led to the development of an enormous range of sophisticated storage systems; most are based on a straightforward box design with arrangements of sliding doors, drawers and secret compartments.
Bestsellers at Tansu are the chunky choba dansu, merchants' chests, which were the 17th-century equivalent of the sales rep's company car, used for displaying goods and, with their secret cubby-holes, for storing accounts. The mizuya kitchen cabinets are also popular: in these every utensil had its place down to the last chopstick. They make a good alternative to the traditional pine dresser.
"Most of the furniture that we have is from the Meiji period (1868-1912), but we do have some things dating back to the Edo period (1603-1868)," says Mr Riordan. "There isn't much before that because the Japanese didn't have furniture as such. The ordinary man on the street would probably have had a big trunk on wheels and nothing else."
The first floor is an airy showroom filled with furniture, kimonos, prints, shrines, lacquered dinner services and ceramics. Prices start at about pounds 100 for a small turn-of-the-century make-up box. A pretty little sewing chest, c.1890, is pounds 295, an 1880 medicine chest with masses of useful drawers, pounds 2,250, and an unusual staircase chest with cupboards is pounds 4,250.
Upstairs is like an old attic, filled with items waiting to be restored. The public are welcome to nose around and Mr Riordan is happy to sell unrestored pieces: "Some people love the showroom and others prefer the warehouse effect and want to rummage around - they like to feel they are discovering something." Restoration takes place at the back in a workshop marked out by an arrangement of crates.
The chaos in the far corner is the latest shipment. Enormous chests swathed in cardboard are stacked up, waiting for the restorers. "This one here," says Mr Riordan, slapping two trussed-up blocks, each about 10ft long, "is the one I really want to see." Three assistants appear from their lunch break and start tugging at the packaging. A swift thump here and there and the whole piece - a mizuya - is solid, not a nail in sight. "It's flat-pack furniture, and the Japanese have beaten us to it by several hundred years," says Mr Riordan. "And look, everything works." It is true: the doors slide smoothly on their wooden runners, the drawers sit correctly.
These brilliant pieces of design do not come cheap, but the prices compare well with modern hand-made furniture. Mr Riordan's selling technique is a powerful mixture of charm and shrewdness: "When you mention antiques, you generally preclude about 80 per cent of the population because they're expensive. But we have interest-free credit facilities available with no extra charges. And I'll even refund someone's train fare if they come and buy one of the large chests."
These are words to strike fear into the hearts of bank managers nationwide. Just imagine, a glorious choba dansu for a mere pounds 50 a month. Like all reputable antique dealers, Tansu also runs an exchange scheme: if you want to trade up in value it guarantees to buy back stock, providing it is in good condition, for at least the price you paid.
If you are curious but based in the South, you can now view a selection of Tansu furniture at Proud Galleries in London, but Batley is where the fun is. And if you phone first, Mr Riordan might even pick you up from the station.
Tansu, Skopos Mills, Bradford Road, Batley, West Yorks (01924 422391 for catalogue). Proud Galleries, 5 Buckingham Street, London WC2N 6BS (0171-839 4942)
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