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A chair inspired by unique Japanese aesthetics that remains a source of national pride in the 21st century

Makoto Shimazaki (Professor Emeritus, Musashino Art University)

Determination and dedication to perfection of foldable chairs

Takeshi Nii is a father of a masterpiece foldable chair prized around the world. He dedicated his life to tireless efforts to devise, design, and create the ultimate foldable chair.

In November 1989, I planned and organized an exhibition of folding furniture as a special side event to the International Furniture Fair Tokyo.
Our team collected about 270 foldable chairs available on the market from 15 countries thanks to kind support from local representatives of JETRO*1 with a world-wide network. Some more chairs owned by collectors in Japan were added for the display.
We dedicated a part of the venue for 21 chairs from the Nychair series devised by Takeshi Nii, including his handmade wooden small foldable chair from 1956.
Mr. Nii kept on standing at the right corner of the space dedicated for his chairs for five days throughout the exhibition. To me, he definitely appeared to emanate a certain aura of dedication and determination to perfection of foldable chairs.
Those 21 chairs on display were later donated as his gesture of goodwill to Musashino Art University Museum & Library. They are displayed on and off the campus for study purposes as a Nychair collection along with a collection of modern chairs*2.

The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) conducts overseas market research, organizes international trade fairs, facilitates imports, and provides other trading support.

*2 Collection of modern chairs
Since opened in 1967, Musashino Art University Museum & Library has been collecting modern chairs as a key part of their collection, which is one of the largest in Japan.

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Folding furniture exhibition in 1989

Dedication to chair making by pushing the limits

Mr. Nii and I have closely worked together, for instance, to name Nychair and develop Nychair X 80. In his last years, he entrusted me with design management and supervision. Reflecting on what I have seen and heard, I myself am surprised with a number of details I still haven't forgotten.
Shortly before Mr. Nii passed away, I jokingly asked him what could be the reason behind the enduring popularity of Nychair X since 1970. In response, he muttered: "It’s durable and cheap". To date, I clearly remember my startled gaze I cast on his profile for his nonchalant remark.

I want to create "a chair as familiar as bicycles".
I want to make "a chair loved by everyone, like Japanese curry rice".

Since the turn of the 21st century, he would occasionally repeat those phrases. At every opportunity, I would ask what he meant by a chair as familiar as bicycles and as popular as Japanese curry. I synthesized fragments from our numerous small talks, which eventually boiled into six principles.

These principles commonly sought to push the limits. These were desires and goals rolled into one, which embodied Mr. Nii's mindset and continuous efforts to search for conditions needed to deliver a chair:

less parts
a simpler design
greater durability
less packaging costs
less transportation costs
a lower price

I showed these six aspirations and asked if he would add anything. After a moment's thought, he replied "perhaps greater sitting comfort".

A director's chair that drove Nii's lifelong pursuit

Mr. Nii's pursuit for less packaging and transportation costs had been driven by a certain event that led him to dedicate his life to foldable chairs.
Arai's family business is the manufacture and sale of judo and kendo equipment. However, after the war, Judo and Kendo were banned under the direction of GHQ (General Headquarters, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers). In 1947, he attended a woodworking course at a vocational guidance center in Tokushima Prefecture, where he learned the skills of a furniture craftsman.
Around 1955, Mr. Arai visited the "Reference Good Design Exhibition" held by Tokushima Prefecture to promote local industry, and was moved by the Danish "AX Chair" on display.

Mr. Nii and his family used to produce and sell training gear and equipment for judo and kendo. Unfortunately, right after World War II, the General Headquarters of Supreme Commander for Allied Powers (GHQ) banned the practice of these martial arts. This prompted Mr. Nii to undergo training in woodworking at a vocational center in Tokushima Prefecture. He eventually gained skills as a furniture upholsterer. Around 1955, the prefectural government of Tokushima hosted an exhibition of inspirational good designs in a bid to spur local industries. There, Mr. Nii was moved by a Danish AX-chair on display.
The AX-chair was designed in 1950 by Peter Hvidt and Orla M. Nielsen from Denmark. Toward the rear side of the bentwood frame, layers of laminate were built up around a solid core in a racket-like structure*3, which was an unprecedented breakthrough. The seat and backrest were covered with quilted leather*4. Mr. Nii felt there was a bit of a stretch with the way the leather was fastened to the wooden frame and decided to devise his own solution.
In addition, he was astounded by how expensive the imported AX-chair was. Mr. Nii was troubled by the fact that additional transportation and storage costs were incurred by numerous materials used for packing the chair.

Later, the softness of the leather seat reminded Mr. Nii of a director's chair at a filming location. Once they become foldable, Mr. Nii reasoned, selling prices of chairs would be brought down close to their outlet prices with minimum packaging and transportation costs. That was the moment he dedicated the rest of his life to foldable chairs.

*3 Racket-like structure
Layers of laminate built up around a solid core could provide a branched frame in one piece without any joints. The structure resembles the way a wooden racket handle is joined to the laminated loop of the racket head.

*4 Quilted leather seat
Aside from the one with quilted leather seat seen by Mr. Nii, the seat and backrest of another type of AX-chair are made of plywood.

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Highly acclaimed as an unprecedented foldable chair

Chairs help people maintain desired postures. They have been created in various shapes as a sitting tool even for Tutankhamun. Mr. Nii would assume that "no matter how lifestyle changes over time, people will probably never cease to sit on chairs".
For a long time, Japanese commoners lived on tatami mats without any need for chairs. Lifestyle and furniture imported to post-war Japan turned chairs into indispensable items for modern Japanese living. In the 1950s and 60s, chairs that can be used on tatami mats and suited for Japanese lifestyle were devised and widely introduced.

Around 1960, Danish furniture notably led by wooden chairs gained tremendous popularity outside Japan. Meanwhile in Japan, furniture stores profited heavily from the sales of boxy wedding furniture, such as wardrobes, Japanese storage cabinets, and chests of drawers. Producers across Japan, including locations like Fuchu in Hiroshima, Okawa in Fukuoka, and Shizuoka, produced such boxy furniture in earnest, while dining furniture consisting of chairs and tables were sidelined.

Near the end of 1960, I accompanied Professor Børge Jensen, my former teacher, on a tour to Tokushima to lecture on furniture making in Denmark. There, I was stunned by a foldable chair made with steel pipes. The chair named Foldable Deluxe / Nychair K2 with quilted vinyl seat and backrest provided sitting comfort and durability at the same time. The unique foldable chair was unprecedented in Japan. In the golden days of boxy furniture, few Japanese stores sold Foldable Deluxe / Nychair K2. Nevertheless, the chair received many awards, and it was highly appreciated by government agencies tasked to promote good designs. Intellectuals, albeit few in number, gave strong approval to the chair.

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Foldable Deluxe / Nychair K2

Adherence to the seven principles to push the limits and tide over the time of turmoil

The economic boom in the run up to Tokyo Olympics 1964 was followed by the time of disturbance and turmoil epitomized by the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution in China. In Japan and beyond, student movements forced the closure of campuses, and hippy culture and antisocial behaviors began to gain acceptance against established institutions, custom, and values.
The world of furniture and interior design was no exception. Boxy furniture and expensive imported furniture became overshadowed by an emerging world of chairs made of cardboards and plastics with original colors and shapes.
Nychair X went on sale in 1970 in line with this trend. The foldable chair made with canvas, steel pipes, and wooden armrests was considered an oddity, and often confused as a kind of household sundries. Not infrequently, stores were hesitant to sell the inexpensive chair with such a narrow profit margin.
Notwithstanding, discerning stores began to sell this model of chair created by Mr. Nii who stuck to the seven principles to push the limits. It gradually garnered attention among customers who recognized the extraordinary value of the design.
Because of its adherence to the seven principles, Nychair X with a narrow margin is known as an unprofitable product during booming economic periods, and it is hailed for its resilience to recessions.

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No. 14 by Thonet

Enduring popularity is a condition for remaining a good chair

What is a truly good chair? I believe enduring popularity that sustains production over years could be an answer.
For instance, more than 200 million units of the No. 14 chair have been produced in every corner of the world for over 150 years after being introduced by the Thonet chair company in 1859. It has established an unshaken position as a long-selling chair.

In 2020, Nychair X marked its 50th anniversary on the market. As another long-selling chair, the chair has been prized and cherished both in Japan and abroad over the last half century.

Nychair X is packed with knowledge, wisdom, ingenuity that Mr. Nii acquired from his family.
For instance, although Mr. Nii did is not much schooled in fine arts or designing, his discerning eyes for authenticity and beauty could have been nurtured naturally under the influence of his grandfather who traded antiques. His father who made a living from production and sales of training gear and equipment of judo and kendo handed down craftsmanship, know-hows for handling details, and tips for enhancing efficiency. They proved vital for the development of Nychair X.
Such legacy is visible from the black cord that forms a ring to put armrests from both sides together to fold Nychair X. This is exactly what is used to tighten kote gaunlets in kendo.
The design principle of “form follows function” is a key part of what is known as the Bauhaus*5 philosophy. This perfectly represents one key aspect of Nychair X.

I believe that Nychair X was inspired by unique Japanese aesthetics. Having stripped of all unnecessary decorations, the chair appeals to discerning people who seek ultimate functionality and comfort. I believe it is an embodiment of our aesthetic tradition of wabi sabi, which remains a source of national pride in the 21st century.

*5 Bauhaus
The German national art school established in Weimar in 1919 left a significant mark on modern architecture and design.

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Makoto Shimazaki,
Professor Emeritus at Musashino Art University

Shimazaki graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts in 1956 and went on to learn furniture design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts as a research fellow. He mingled with Danish designers like Hans J. Wegner, Finn Juhl, Børge Mogensen, and Poul Kjærholm. As a leading expert on Nordic design and an advocate of living design, he engages in interior and product design and organizes numerous exhibitions and seminars on furniture and interior design. His published writings include Ikkyaku no Isu: Sono Haikei [A chair with its background], Kenchiku Shiryo Kenkyusha, and Utsukushi Isu [Beautiful Chairs] Vols.1-3, EI Publishing.

About Nychair X Banner Image 1

Designer and Director

How was Nychair X born?

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Commitment to craftsmanship

Thorough domectic manufacturing with thought put into each part

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History of Nychair X

From the birth of Nychair X in 1970 to the present day

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The chair that could only have been made with a uniquely Japanese sensibility. A piece to be proud of in 21st century

by Makoto Shimazaki (Professor Emeritus, Musashino Art University)