Human Being Feature

Photography by Amardeep Singh
Essay by Jason Donahoe

May 10 2016

Tokuhiko Kise is not complicated. As the maker behind Japan’s TRUCK Furniture‚ perhaps his strongest quality is that he knows how to make up his mind. There’s a lesson to be learned from this simplicity. We live in a time where we can be anything we want to be and information flows so freely that it seems like everyone is a polymath. Writers are also illustrators are also bloggers are also creative consultants are also jewelry makers are also advertising executives. Tok does one thing. He makes furniture. And he does it well.

There’s nothing open ended about his work. There is no ambiguity‚ no complex meaning behind his style‚ no subversive world view. There is simply making. While this doesn’t make TRUCK Furniture particularly easy to write about‚ there’s something to be said for understanding the near impenetrable creative sensibilities behind such a refined aesthetic.

Located in the heart of Asahi Ward in the Osaka Prefecture of Japan‚ the 18 year old TRUCK operates on a single consistent principle: making furniture that’s built for use. Though the small company only distributes in Japan‚ it has received accolades the world over. Its sunlit showroom is ripe for reblogging and its subtle palette of neutral tones adds a patina to any interior design inspiration board. Its casual trappings evoke a certain nostalgia for a home you never had.

After graduating from trade school‚ Tokuhiko Kise began making furniture in 1992 in Tamatsukuri in Chuo Ward‚ Osaka. For a budding creator‚ Osaka’s working class ethos‚ industrial might and distance from the technological wonderland of Tokyo set it apart from the hyper-forward culture of the country’s more cosmopolitan regions. It is a place of humility and heavy lifting and seems to have helped lay the foundation for TRUCK’s resilient aesthetic.

First operating by himself out of a small workshop‚ Tokuhiko‚ who goes by Tok for short‚ crafted chairs by hand‚ setting them outside the workshop for display. Even from this modest start‚ his work garnered praise. He continued to produce new designs and secured a wholesale commission contract with Umeda Loft‚ a major Japanese department store‚ to make ends meet. After marrying his wife‚ illustrator Hiromi Karatsu‚ the two established TRUCK together in 1997‚ opening the showroom and workshop and living in a loft above the space. In 1999‚ they opened their second store‚ AREA 2.

As the company evolved‚ so did its approach toward materials and process‚ Tok began to incorporate then-unheard-of elements of imperfection into his designs—cracked and knotted wood‚ worn-in fabrics. “Every tree has its own character‚ its own grain‚ knots and coloring‚” they explain in their catalog. “Making furniture that retains these elements really brings out the true essence of the materials.”

It’s a stylistic choice that aligns TRUCK with an almost Wabi-Sabi mid-century modern approach. But Tok emphatically denies stylistic comparisons. He doesn’t name influences. He lays no claim to any movement or era. To him‚ there is no deeper meaning to his work. He makes what he likes and he hopes others like it too. And with standards like his‚ it is no surprise his work has taken off. But while most successful companies grow and push outward‚ TRUCK turns inward.

Almost a decade after the company’s founding‚ while on an annual surf trip to visit family friends in Noosa‚ Australia‚ Tok and Hiromi became transfixed with the idea of a nest—a place where they could slow down their happy‚ but busy‚ lifestyle in preparation for the birth of their daughter‚ Hina. In 2009‚ they moved to Asahi Ward‚ Osaka‚ about 7km away‚ and built themselves that nest.

The company’s self-published book TRUCK Nest documents the exhaustive process of building the new space. They created a workshop‚ a showroom‚ a café called Bird‚ a leather studio Atelier Shirokumasha‚ and a new home for themselves. They pulled floorboards from their old living space to bring to the new one‚ hand-picked fully grown trees that were marked for removal and transferred them to their construction site. Every single element from the architectural schematics to the bread on the sandwiches at Bird was studied‚ revised and perfected. The space has become a self-supporting system for the business. Visitors to the showroom relax at the cafe and discuss possible purchases over a good meal. The showroom and workshop operate in tandem. Tok jumps between each facet of the business every single day.

In building the TRUCK compound‚ the line between Tok’s work life and home life became indistinguishable. He and Hiromi not only built themselves a home‚ but a brand. Within this offhanded normalcy of the business lies its authenticity.

Is there more to TRUCK than a simple “this is what I do”? That may never be known. We shouldn’t think about it too hard. All we can do is enjoy the worn fruits of TRUCK’s labor‚ not just for their immediate beauty‚ their textures and details‚ their worn in corduroys and furrowed leather‚ but for the way they make us feel: at home.

Would you say there is any particular philosophy behind your furniture?

Made for use.

How has your process changed over time?

It has never changed.

We’ve read that each TRUCK piece is a collaborative effort between you and your wife Hiromi. How do you work together?

She isn’t a woodworker‚ but has good taste and the same eye as mine. We talk about what we want. I draw up her ideas and try to make them into real pieces. Also‚ she took the photos and did the styling for our catalog‚ TRUCK WORKS.

Do you see TRUCK’s aesthetic gradually evolving over time‚ or gradually getting closer to an idea of perfection?

Yes‚ I do. I have been working on a new collection for four years and have finished more than fifty pieces.

What are your favorite objects that you didn’t create?

Land Rover Defender 110, Narrow Porsche

The photographs in your books and catalogues were all taken by you and your wife. Why did you decide to do all of the photography work yourselves?

No one could do it better than us. We know what we have and the best way to show it‚ so it’s comfortable and very natural for us. When we style for shooting‚ we use only our own belongings and spaces.

Your work life and your home life are nearly indistinguishable. Do you ever make it a point to spend more time away from your work? Do you have any hobbies outside of furniture making?

I like riding motorcycles‚ motocross‚ surfing‚ swimming‚ watching movies‚ reading books‚ dogs‚ camping… and so on.

I spent 3 weeks in Noosa‚ Australia for surfing—not for thinking about furniture. Staying in that beautiful small town gave me huge inspiration for my life.

TRUCK is very much a family business. Is it important for  you that your children carry it on in the future?

I’ve never thought that I want my daughter to carry it on. I just want her to find something she loves to do for a living. It would be happier for me if it is creative work.

TRUCK’s cozy‚ functional space has become a self supporting system for the business. Visitors to the showroom relax at the cafe and discuss possible purchases over a good meal. The showroom and workshop operate in tandem. Tok jumps between each facet of the business every single day.

A major part of creating the TRUCK compound involved populating the building site with trees. Tok and Hiromi searched far and wide for the perfect foliage. They traveled to distant nurseries‚ salvaged 31 trees from a housing complex set for redevelopment and even found a perfect tree near a bear park in Kumamoto. They waited until March of 2009 and installed the fully grown trees with ropes and cranes‚ three per day‚ until the landscaping was finished.

Do you do a lot of cooking at home?

Not a lot‚ but sometimes.

When is the last time you failed? How did you overcome this?

I left my suitcase in the taxi yesterday morning. I noticed at the cafe when I about to leave and I was able to get the taxi receipt back from the saucer. One hour later‚ I was able to get my bag back. 

If growth isn’t the ultimate goal for TRUCK‚ what is?

To continue making things what we want to make and I would be happy if they make people happy.