From Playful Origins to Elegant Design: Wataru Kumano and the Stilt Series

From Playful Origins to Elegant Design: Wataru Kumano and the Stilt Series

Anniina Koivu (A.K): Wataru, you spent a week on Fogo Island in the summer of 2018. What did you expect, coming from Tokyo?

Wataru Kumano (W.K): Coming from the opposite side of the world, I was particularly curious to see how Japan and Fogo Island, two islands with the longest possible physical distance between them, might differ – or be similar. I was curious about how different such a remote place could be in terms of its culture, its people, the way of life, work, and the objects they make.

Stilt Series Designer, Wataru Kumano

A.K: What were your impressions?

W.K: At first, I was puzzled. When I stepped off the ferry, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of trees on Fogo Island. My first question to the workshop team was: “where do you get your wood from?”

We discussed yellow birch and other types of wood available in Newfoundland and along Canada’s east coast and those species that are in demand on the international furniture market today.

A.K: What was the first idea you worked on and how did you get started?

W.K: You had shared that black and white film “Children of Fogo” with me, and it left quite an impression. In the film, children were playing along the shorelines of the island, flying kites, and skillfully walking on stilts among the rocks. I liked the idea of such a simple way of lifting a person off the ground – using stilts. Later, I realized that this concept of lifting, of being raised above the ground, also applies to the buildings of the island, which are often elevated on stilts.

A.K: A traditional house on the island is surprisingly compact. It’s designed to be about as high as the reach of a man standing on a ladder. These houses are constructed with timber frames, making them extremely lightweight. They’re so lightweight that they were sometimes moved, launched from one location to another, or even floated on pontoons from one side of a bay to the other.

W.K: After watching the film, I recall seeing the lathing machine in the workshop, and it struck me that the Stilt Chair could be a fantastic addition to the new collection.

A.K: The chair is an assembly of differently sized pins – also called spindles. It’s a versatile and intriguing chair. It’s comfortable, compact in size, and surprisingly lightweight. It fits in seamlessly with the Premises Collection – even though the design originates from another time and place.

 W.K: The Stilt Chair originated from a project I worked on as a student at TAIK [today, Aalto University] in Helsinki. I wanted to base a project on one woodworking technique, and I started with lathing. The lathing machine is somewhat like a copy machine that allows you to produce the same parts repeatedly. It felt natural to design a chair that was based on the idea of repetition of one piece – the spindle.

A.K: The technique was and continues to be very common, even in much more technologically advanced workshops.

W.K: It’s a technique that is quite manual, but still refreshingly straightforward and fast.

A.K: The Stilt Chair does have that timeless look… as if it could have existed on Fogo Island for centuries. Isn’t it unusual that something you initially developed in Finland would find a place on an island off the coast of Newfoundland?

W.K: We often talk about local design, but just because a design is local to one place, doesn’t mean it’s not relevant elsewhere. Local styles are undoubtedly shaped by the people who create them, but they’re equally connected to materials, the environment, or nature. I like to believe that people – and our needs – are more similar than we sometimes think.

A.K: And let’s not forget that the typology of a spindle chair has a long history, ranging from the 18th-century Windsor chair in the UK to the early spindle-back chairs imported by the Dutch to the U.S., Shaker chairs, or variations by designers like Wegner or Tapiovaara in Scandinavia. There’s a rich tradition surrounding this style.

W.K: Yes, the beauty of design lies in its ability to blend cultures.

A.K: It’s fascinating how a piece of furniture can transcend geographical boundaries and find a home in a completely different setting. From Tokyo via Helsinki to Fogo Island.

W.K: I also think the approach to the chair aligns with how people approach things on the island.

I didn't set out to create a lightweight, minimal chair, but the chair is the result of a process. The process was about devising a simple construction and using a reduced number of elements. This meant that also the chair’s size was a result of the process: standard wooden rods come in a specific size that can be lathed into the shape of a stilt. Designing a larger stilt than what the standard wooden rod allows would require extra work and material – you'd have to glue together multiple rods to lathe them down again.

A.K: Not very ecological.

W.K: Precisely. So, the logic of the Stilt Chair is to reduce materials.

A.K: And at the same time, the stilts are made from cut-off rods that the workshop already has in stock.

The Stilt Chair is your first piece in the Premises Collection, accompanied by a series of different-sized tables for dining, coffee, side, or as high versions. What’s your most vivid memory of the island?

W.K: I admire how the islanders are intent on maintaining a balance between heritage and progress.

Especially because the visitors coming to Fogo Island tend to be from urban, even heavily urbanized areas. We as guests are drawn to the natural and quiet experience, folklore, and manual crafts.

A.K: It is a delicate balance. If you give into the expectations of the visitors, Fogo Island would turn into an open-air museum – instead, it is a living, productive place.

W.K: Yes, what I truly appreciate is the island’s determination to keep a foot in the past and at the same time step into a strong, self-reliant future. In that sense, Fogo Island is far from being isolated.

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