Go with the Flow of Forest Diversity. The Value and Story of the Product Will Follow.
Cat Tree NEKO was launched in December 2017.
With sophisticated design and selected materials, this almost-too-beautiful Cat Tree has attracted both cats and humans, and many people sent enquiries from all over the world.
On December 13, 2018, Hidakuma organized a talk event on “cycle of value in the forest”, in which those who are involved looked back on the project, and shared some of the unheard stories behind it. The discussion included topics such as how a product can smoothly transcend the value forest has to offer.
Some of the project examples were also presented.
Cat Tree in the Making - No Compromises for Cats’ True Comfort and Environement
When developing the Cat Tree, Hidakuma was part of the development team and Hida’s hardwood was used as its material.
Why wood for cat tree materials? What are the challenges Hidakuma faced in its making?
In the first part of this article, the three key persons, Masahiro Ryohara of RINN CEO & Cat Life Director, the cat tree designer Yoh Komiyama, and Kotaro Iwaoka from Hidakuma, who was in charge of NEKO development and production, reflect the project together.
The design of this unprecedented Cat Tree NEKO made its debut by confusing everyone to start with – is it a product or an art work? Many could not even hide their surprise on its price setting of 1 million yen. “Setting such a price was never intentional at all”, Ryohara continues. “The initial order was very simple, as a matter of fact”, added Komiyama who was involved in designing the product.
- Marble should be an essential material of the product
- The following three functions should be met:
・cats fully enjoy the up-down motion
・cats have a private space of his/her own
・cats have means to control body temperature
The price could reach as high as 1 million yen, as long as those conditions were met. This graceful yet bold order was the beginning of the NEKO project.
“I wanted to create a space where my cat feels truly comfortable”. That is how the project started in Ryohara’s mind when he had seen his own cat in his apartment cooling down his body temperature with his stomach pushed against artificial marble. Marble would be ideal material as its weight works as its foundation. Then he went on to design something that would fit in as beautiful a house as Farnsworth House, a masterpiece of Modernism architecture. Komiyama then submitted approximately 20 design proposals, of which Ryohara picked that collaborated both stone and wood materials. The other important factor, in order to promote the product in the global market, was that the design should fit in both Eastern and Western cultural settings. To achieve this, “wood” was an essential material that either culture cannot do without. Coincidentally, this has become Komiyama’s biggest challenge of his profession as a designer, and work of art that he would be most proud of later on.
“I wanted to give a go at the most challenging design to make” Ryohara says, as no compromise was made from the planning stage. It did not take long for the production director Iwaoka to take up the challenge, saying “I’ve never seen anything like this. Let’s do it”. The project team was assembled and went off to Hida on the following week for an intensive two-day trip.
”There is an interesting director in Hidakuma”
Once arrived in HIdakuma, the whole team went to see hardwood trees at the natural seasoning stage at a sawmill. Standing in front of the huge piles of lumbers, Komiyama felt “dawned regretting the decisions of joining the project team”, was his confession later on. The thought of selecting the right wood materials, delivery and all other steps before completion seem like a long process. Overwhelmed was understatement of the team’s shared feelings.
Having said so, what kept the team moving forward was the rumor they had heard – there is an interesting director in Hidakuma”. The team decided to have Hidakuma on board as part of the NEKO development team, in the hope that the production director can liaison the team and craftsmen in order to make this project happen.
There are between 20 and 30 different types of domestic wooden materials in the sawmill, and the volume for each is not so great. It was clear that using only one type of material to make 100 Cat Trees would lead to a shortage of the materials. What came across our mind was if the project had to depend on imported materials?
“What if we reflect the diversity of the trees?” was Iwaoka’s suggestion. The idea was that rather than using one particular tree type, whatever hardwood trees that come available at the time in the forest should be used. Using different mixtures of trees for each product can offer unique added value as an art object. The benefit of this idea was that this project is that there is a minimum burden on distribution. So in the end, all involved in the project agreed unanimously with this idea of material diversity, wishing NEKO being a product of “window to see forest through”.
“Cat First” slogan has made this ultimate luxury of the product possible. For claw sharpener, top quality hemp ropes made in Japan were used, and Kvadrat fabrics with high absorbency were laid on the floor.
Since the release of the product in December 2017, there have been constant enquiries on the product every day for three months. And media interviews and more also followed. Aside from interview requests and enquiries from domestic major newspapers as well as design and architectural magazines, the number of reactions and responses from overseas media was beyond their imagination. The project team, who had been wishing for a global exposure of their product in designing and architectural media, was overjoyed with the response.
Product to Platform - The Potentials NEKO Unveiled
RINN has other products that take part in cats’ living style. “We never had any products that had so much exposure to the media before” Ryohara explains. Now that the company has established its position as a “company that designs products from cats’ perspectives”, they receive offers of collaborating with other companies.
The development team believes that NEKO has a potential to offer as a platform. Marbles and wood colors can be customized; and the product can be designed with lower cost for a bigger market, using the basis of the initial NEKO product.
While no intention to mass produce the product, Ryohara points out a possibility of “expanding the product line without compromising the quality”. Koiyama, the designer, says that he has noticed the fact that the lumber industry has a huge influence on the town’s economy as he jointly developed the product with Hidakuma. “Using wood materials from other regions of Japan to make NEKO might bring a new twist into the development”, he states implying other possibilities.
Re-evaluate the Value of Forest, Where Supply and Demand No Longer Corelates
In the second part of the event, Yoshiteru Takmemoto, CEO of Tobimushi Inc., joined the stage to discuss “the cycle of value in forest” introducing some of the forest projects undertaken in Japan.
Japanese land is 70 % covered by forest, and we could say that the lives here take place between the mountains. In other words, the Japanese lifestyle should respect and more heavily make the most of forest and trees, but the reality is, that is not the case and our lifestyle is not fully taking advantage of what the forest and trees have to offer.
In North America and Scandinavia, where many wood materials are imported from, have vast land that has developed as the result of erosion on glaciers. This means that the land has low nutritious value and less variety in the types of trees to grow on. In addition, with the even and similar nutritious value throughout the area as well as the relatively flat and large area, even with incline, these areas offer a good forest industry basis, which made wood part of the social structure and lifestyle. Japan, on the contrary, has a nutritious value on its land, due to the geological history of plate upheaval. The native trees that grew in Japan varied, which we treat them like miscellaneous, or we even call them “useless” trees. For that reason, there was a movement to plant the same standardized softwood trees such as ceder and Japanese cypress, hoping to meet the sudden demand for architectural wood supply during the movement of modernization and urbanization. However, the supply was not enough, which led Japan to depend on importing lumber from overseas.
Ironically, by the time the domestic trees grow sufficient enough to meet the demand for tree supply, the world has shifted to the age of metals, non ferrous metals, and plastics. What is important for us at this phase of our lives is to re-evaluate what forest and trees have to offer.
Forest Is Not Here to Make Products. The Products Are Here Thanks to Forest.
Tobimushi has been working cooperatively with many regions of Japan to develop various products, in order to “re-cycle the value of forest”. Yukahari from Nishiawakurason village, Okayama is one of these examples. 50x50cm solid wood squares are used as tiles and have come in handy in rental apartment complexes and such, and currently sell well online. Each square has its own appearance, and how you want to make the most of small or thin wood materials is all up to the customers. The unevenness of the wood colors, glow, texture, and its variety has been turned into a strength of this product.
“As a manufacturer, we are aware that our work can put a burden on the environment. And that is why we call ourselves a responsible company” says a representative of Patagonia, a popular outdoor camping gear shop. Patagonia and Tobimushi worked together on developing the Cutlery Set and the Cutting Board. Using the native trees of Hida, we do not limit the materials to certain types of trees, such as cherry or oak. Otherwise it would be costly. So the proposal Tobimushi had made to Patagonia was to use any wood materials that were available at the time of manufacturing. While there are some restrictions on what materials can be used to maintain certain strength on the cutlery set, the cutting board can be chosen from more variety of materials. So the company selects the wood materials for the board that are available in the storage. When looking at which product gives the minimum impact on forest, the decision maker should be the “forest” itself rather than “manufacturers”, and that is the sort of mentality to have when manufacturing. I believe that can set a new trend.
In Okutama, Tokyo, there is a new type of leasing business Moriyuka Rental – floor materials for rent. Rather than selling the wooden board, the company offers the space with a solid wood floor that offers a rich and tender feel.
Another recent design project for a creative space is a renewal for Iju Teju Center (Settlement Center) of Yame city, Fukuoka. With the use of local wood, the local sawmill company and carpenters created a fabulous space. The space gives a good impression on those who are considering a move to the area, while the local staff themselves also have an opportunity to experience the great use of wood in the space. As the town hall is scheduled to be renewed in 3 years, and this period of time may turn out to be a chance for the local citizens to realize how valuable it is to use the local wood, and how it is more than mere “lumber”.
As the last project to introduce, Hidakuma shared the information on the latest project Large Apartment Complex Satoyama Nagaya, Hoshinogawa. With maximum use of the local wood, the rental apartment complex has been built on the land of school, which was forced to close due to the decreasing number of children in the region. The purpose of this building is to offer temporary accommodation for those who are considering a move to the area during their inspection visit. Many locals hesitate with the idea of renting their house to strangers, as much as they would like to help solve issues of unoccupied and deteriorating houses, and support those who want to move to the town. The town is hoping that the temporary accommodation will help visitors develop good relationships with the locals and even the vegetable gardens they may grow during their stay. The period could be 3 years, or even as long as 5 years. One common theme through the people, region, and forest is to create a design that efficiently achieves the performance at its best.
Takemoto concluded the presentation by wishing that this event would give us a chance to think how we can make the use of wood in our lives, and how we can use the tree that we currently have.
Mass-producing Standardized, Yet Unique Products
At the end of the event, there was a cross talk between all the project members.
The discussion gave the audience a chance to think of the value of the trees and productions, offering different perspectives as those who provide wood, those who need it, and those who make it into products.
Iwaoka: While there are demands for wood materials, there is a gap between them and the forest industry. What are the things that have been done to fill in the gap?
Takemoto: In the forest there is not just one kind of tree. Sometimes there are native trees mixed with others. It would have been easy if we can bring all the trees that have been cut down for use. However, the normal procedure is that we cut down and leave those trees that are bent or different size from the standard. This is because those are cost-inefficient in transport, storage, and process perspectives. This has been a custom as the market demands standardized design, quantity, and quality.
Iwaoka: Yes, but could we say that there should be a demand for those trees that are normally left behind, or those that are bent?
Takemoto: Yes. Cloud funding represents a new infrastructure the society is growing into, i.e., the society where we visualize what we support, and connect those who share the same thoughts. So I believe that, as more people turn a risk into an opportunity or treat it as an value-adding opportunity, there will be a positive flow of opportunity waiting for our project.
Iwaoka: When you look at the standardized production as opposed to diversifying wood materials, what are the things that you find interesting, Mr. Komiyama?
Komiyama: Bear with me side-tracking here. I have been working to mass-produce products for quite some time, which has been a theme of my work. Up until now, the mainstream of production has been to produce large quantities with standardized quality, without any compromise in quality. But my feeling is that this approach has reached its peak. I believe that there will be a demand that “produce in large quantities, but each has its own uniqueness, optimizing its character to the users preference”. A good example that represents the current trend would be ”Yukahari”, a floor joint mat, as it offers small yet your preferred quality and quantity. Tailors in the old days might be the closest to what we are talking about. They offer standardized, yet unique products, and that is what’s valued.
Takemoto: Forests were filled with thin trees about 10 years ago. But now they are growing thick. However, the value of the tree goes up as they get thicker, yet once the diameter of the tree reaches 24-26 cm, the value declines. This is because most of the product line is set for 24-26 cm diameter trees, and those trees in other sizes would be costly to process or dispose. Having said so, thanks to technology, there are so many things we can do even in mass-production systems. I hope that we collaborate with designers and craftsmen to make the best out of trees of any shape.
Iwaoka: As a designer, who has been pursuing the best lifestyle for cats, are there any other possible products that can optimize the character of wood, as a next project to Cat Tree?
Ryohara: One of the products I am working upon request is floors. As I researched and compared what is the best suited floor materials for cats at home, it turned out that softwood trees are the best. The ideal floor for cats would be sand, but the second best would be soft trees, which offer soft landing as cats go up and down. One of the social issues with pets is their aging. We need to think of coating to make it skid-proof, or select the type of trees that best fit as the floor of each house. All these ideas come down to “Cats First”, and this is one of the main ideas I am currently working on as I think of lifestyle with wood materials.
Takemoto: Nowadays, we can trace where the trees came from, and this means that we can use the leftover trees to create cats furniture and space, while the main part of the trees can be used for our furniture and space. In the old days, carpenters used to take advantage of the shape of the trees as they make furniture, and now we can almost do more or less the same by making the most of the tree shapes.
Iwaoka: As I listened to you, I realized how important our role is as a messenger passing on the information on characteristics of each tree to product planners and designers. “Let’s use more trees” is not enough of a message to spread. I expect that trees will be used in other industries than furniture and architecture, once the idea of “uniqueness of trees” and “use of trees as unique as is” has spread out. Also the function as well as the story of the materials could add value to the product.
Takemoto: As a matter of fact, what we are doing is quite risky. I think we are taking a chance that we would not normally take. But instead of taking it just on our own, we find and tell comrades, “would you like to take a leap together by turning a ‘risk’ into a ‘value’?” The key to success here is to find the people who share the same value and work with them together.
Ryohara: We make sure we realize what customers want based on their budget and request by rearranging and editing the contents. During that process, we share facts and professional knowledge so we can make good proposals. That is more reason that we need an evangelist who can pass the characteristics and benefits of using wood materials.
Takemoto: Hidakuma has been a blacksheep in the forest industry, but now sometimes we can get lost where we are at. For that reason, it has been an inspiring and reassuring time to talk with you. Thank you.
Iwaoka: Thank you everyone for coming today.
《Modern Cat Tree NEKO 》
RINN Inc., CEO & Cat Life Director
Founded RINN Inc., in 2013. With the company vision “Cats’ Health Leads to Enrich Our Lives”, RINN plans and sells the products that offer total health support for cats. The products have been made under the supervision of veterinarians, while maintaining the Japanese artisan techniques and designer’s artistic approach. Some of their beautifully designed products received the Red Dot Design Award, a world-renowned design award, and the products are well loved by the cats around the globe. https://rinn.co.jp/
Product Designer / YOH KOMIYAMA DESIGN
A founding member of YKK AP Window Research. After graduating from Tama Art University, Komiyama worked for an architecture company, then a manufacturing company as a product designer. In 2011, he founded YOH KOMIYAMA DESIGN in Tokyo and Shanghai. His renowned design works in Japan include PETLY, automatic pet feeder, and T Air, the first digital product at Tsutaya Bookstore. His work TC&D was displayed at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. Overseas saw his research project presentation of “mold” at Milano Furniture Fair “ventura projects”. Other presentations include INTERNI, ‘FEEDING’ New Ideas for The City, and Specialty Shop “merci” in Paris. Of many awards Kmiyama received, well known prizes include MUJI AWARD GOLD PRIZE, Red Dot Design Award, Design for Asia Award, and GOOD DESIGN AWARD. http://yohkomiyama.com/
CEO at Tobimushi Inc.
Takemoto has worked at an international accounting office, and set up an environmental consulting company. Founded Tobimushi Inc., in 2009, and has been CEO of the company. In the same year, Takemoto founded Nishiawakura, Mori no Gakko (Nishiawagura School of Forest) in Nishiawakura, Okayama. Furthermore he founded Mori to Ichiba Tokyo in collaboration with Team Net, who owns the forest in Okutama-cho, Tokyo, De-Sign, and R Real Estate in 2013. In 2015, Hidakuma Inc., was founded in Hida city, Gifu prefecture along with Gifu city and Loftwork. And 2018 was the year Takemoto founded another company Uchiko Morimachi Inc (Uchiko Mori to Machinami no Sekkeisha)., a company built by restructuring existing local companies in Uchiko-cho, Ehime prefecture. https://www.tobimushi.co.jp/
President and CEO of Hidakuma Inc.
Born in 1984. After graduating from Chiba University, Iwaoka engaged in designing private houses and apartment complexes at an architectural company. Then he went back for a graduate study at Keio University, researching and producing digital design products.
In 2011, Iwaoka started working at Hidakuma, wishing to create a cafe “Fab Cafe” that offers a creative designing environment. By 2012, as the planning and operating director, he successfully opened FabCafe in Shibuya, Tokyo, where digital design products are being created. He also joined in 2015 to start up half-governmental and half private company, Hidakuma Inc., (official name: Hida no Mori de Kuma wa Odoru) in cooperation with Hida city of Gifu prefecture. 2016 saw a FabCafe opened in the same city. He has been taking up new projects based around the forest resources. In April 2018, Iwaoka became vice president and CEO of the company, then in March 2019, he became the president and CEO of the company.
Interested in Developing Products with Hidakuma?
Hidakuma is here to offer you a total support, ranging from connecting you with Hida’s wood craftsmen and professionals to developing and designing products. I hope you join us to create products out of forest that have not yet been seen.