“The planning of a new chair can take much longer than the actual construction,” Shinji said as he laid out his sketches. “No other kind of furniture has a purer function.”
Around the table stood three rows of sixteen year-olds dressed like old men in once-white shirts with the school crest on the pocket, ill-fitted black trousers with frayed hems, and green sandals. They jostled and pushed and muttered insults at one another.
“These are all designs for the same folding chair,” he told them. “It took me a long time to figure out the geometry. How do you think it works?”
Mr Mansho, their myopic, thick wristed teacher, put up his hands to calm them.
“As you can see, it’s adjustable,” Shinji said. “Well?”
“Oya!” someone yelled. The mass of boys convulsed. “O-ya, O-ya!” they chanted, and one of the boys was rudely ejected from the fray.
“Idiots,” the boy said, straightening his collar.
“Yes?” Shinji said.
“Gravity,” said Oya.
The boys roared with delight and derision. And Oya was reeled by his collar back into the melée.
“He’s right,” said Shinji. “We use gravity to defeat itself. The very weight that needs to be suspended creates the necessary stability…”
Shinji’s appearance in wood-working class was the culmination of a long and tentative courting. For the past six months, he and Mansho, his closest neighbour, had shared the Sunday morning shift at the neighbourhood council’s weekly recycling triage. Shinji’s wife had always done this, but when she returned to Osaka he had no choice but to go himself. Mansho was a widower, and at first Shinji was tense, on the alert for anything that sounded like commiseration. But Mansho had never spoken about anything apart from the weather, propane gas, the excellence of Oita saké, where to find free manure, and, at some point each Sunday morning, Shinji’s chairs.
Shinji had started to relax. It had even happened on several occasions that, in their picnic chairs awaiting more deposits of flattened cardboard and PET bottles, they had shared a laugh.
At some point each Sunday morning there would come the usual question: “How is the new chair coming along?”
Shinji would prevaricate and change the topic, until one Sunday when he surprised himself. “I’ve just finished one,” he said. “Would you like to see it?”
At the agreed time, Mansho appeared at Shinji’s door in a smarter than usual tan polo shirt, carrying the gift of a three-litre bottle of Oita saké. Shinji led him through the garden to the former summer-house that was his workshop.
Shinobu had always insisted they refer to it as his studio, using the English word. Shinji never used the word now. More than ever, he felt it important to abolish any thoughts of career – another English word she had cherished. He’d met people who talked about career choices and he invariably disliked them. He was a carpenter. He made chairs. The business cards that she had printed up would remain wrapped in plastic in the telephone table in the hall.
The newest chair was there in a pool of light, the mix of oils giving it a deep healthy lustre. Mansho sucked his teeth in admiration. “This is fine work,” he said, and the way he pronounced fine – it did not just mean passable. “Done with a spear plane?”
“All traditional tools.”
“You make the wood lighter,” he said. “It looks like something that could wither and die. May I sit?”
The request came as a surprise. Shinji had always had to invite people to sit, and even then they did so uncomfortably, as if worried the chair might break.
“Please,” he said.
Later they drank saké in the formal room at the front of the house. After a lull in conversation, Mansho sucked his teeth, always prelude to some sort of comment or question. “Maeda-san, would you consider coming to visit the high-school?” he asked. “To my woodworking class? They’re good boys, they just don’t know that it’s possible to make a living by these skills.”
A living, yes, Shinji thought. He was no longer so sure about a life.
The boys presented him their sketches and their 1/40 scale models. He walked around the tables and was pleasantly surprised. There was a miniature Adirondack in red. There was a little Louis XIV fit for a dollhouse. There was a chair made from popsicle sticks with a sling made from a Magnum ice-cream wrapper.
Mansho winced. “That’s marketing,” he said, “not carpentry.”
At one table Shinji came across something didn’t look like a chair at all. Crafted from dark cedar, it was as if someone had crushed the chair into a ball. He picked it up and held it on his palm: the size and heft of a tennis ball. He peered into its bent and warped geometry. Everything was there – legs, seat, back.
The boy sat curled over on the stool, shoulders hunched, looking away. Same uniform, worn as indifferently as the others. Same hair that looked like it had never been combed.
“Oya, is it?” Shinji said. “Is it a collapsible chair? Collapsible or just collapsed?”
The boy nodded.
“It’s well crafted anyway,” Shinji said, “if a little creative. But if you can’t sit on it, what’s it for?”
The boy spoke with a voice low enough that his classmates could not hear. “Rolling into the corner. To fill up the space.”
Mansho came over. Shinji put the little chair back on the table, where it sat like a giant seed or some kind of beetle, legs curled beneath its carapace. Mansho’s blinked slowly. “Oya-kun, what is this? Speak up. Is it a joke? Is this how you show respect for our guest?”
But Oya remained silent under his teacher’s glare and the sniggering attention of the rest of the class.
“Here,” Mansho said, swiveling the boy’s sketchbook and planting a finger on it, “this drawing, and this. How could decent sketches like these turn into that?” Mansho shook his head. “I’m sorry for this, Maeda-sensei.”
“Not at all,” Shinji said. “The crafting is scrupulous.”
“Wasted energy,” Mansho said and continued on his tour of the room. “Dogs and demons,” he muttered. “You all attempt Todaiji Temple but you can’t craft a toothpick.”
At the end of class, the students bowed en masse, then scrambled out, their eagerness to leave belying any interest they had shown.
The Sunday morning after the class, after an initial rush, the recycling triage turned as soporific as always. Shinji and Mansho sat in tremulous shade beside the empty road.
“You have an enthusiastic class,” Shinji said.
“You think so?”
“That boy with the interesting chair.”
“Oya? I apologize for him.”
“Not at all.”
“You get one in every class.”
“It was creative, what he did.”
“What’s that a euphemism for?”
Shinji laughed. “He had an idea. He did justice to it in the execution. You couldn’t fault the workmanship.”
Mansho only grunted.
“At that age, I would never have been able to show something like that,” Shinji said.
“You would never have done it in the first place. Impertinence is what it is.”
Mansho turned in his chair. “Do you really think so?”
“I’d be curious to see what else he does.”
“They’ve finished all their projects already,” Mansho said. “We’ll be on to metal-working next.”
A silver sedan approached from down the valley – day-trippers from Fukuoka judging by the plates, on their way to the tea plantations in the hills.
“What if I asked Oya to make another chair?”
Mansho’s eyes widened behind the thick lenses of his glasses. “You really see something in him? I can’t give him class time.”
“I wouldn’t ask for it.”
Mansho wagged a finger. “If you’re looking for an apprentice, you could do much better than Oya.”
“How can I be a guide when I’m still fumbling in the dark myself?” Shinji said.
“Ha, fumbling. You don’t fumble your way into Paris living rooms and the Japanese Embassy in Washington.”
Shinji watched a hawk-moth go from flower to flower. “I was in Tokyo last month you know. To see a gallery owner. He’d made a couple sales to a corporate client. For their headquarters.”
“I went to the building because I was curious. In the Ginza. Enormous lobby. And there were three of my chairs there. Each of them roped off. With signs on the seats that said Do Not Sit.”
“You don’t seem pleased.”
“Should I be?”
“If you go to Versailles, you’re not allowed to sit.”
“Because it’s all part of history.”
“And in time, yours will be too.”
“Never. And Versailles is dead, by the way. The only place more lifeless in Paris is the Louvre.”
Mansho made a low, throaty growl. “Now you’re just saying things to shock.”
If Mansho did have any doubts about Shinji’s request, he did not reveal them. On Thursday of the following week, he showed up at Shinji’s door.
“I’m sorry for coming at dinnertime,” he said.
“Won’t you come in?”
“Thank-you but I’ve left a stew on the stove.” He held up a brown paper bag. “I believe this is what you asked for?”
“You asked him?”
Inside the bag was a white cardboard box. “You needn’t have delivered this by hand, Mansho-sensei. I could have come down. Do you want to see it?”
Mansho raised both hands. “Knowing Oya, it will put me off my dinner. Just tell me if he makes any progress.”
In the kitchen, Shinji cut the tape along the seam of the box with a paring knife. What he found inside was another maquette, just as strange as the previous one. The seat and the seatback folded like a picnic chair. But the geometry was all akimbo. One of the struts actually penetrated both seat and seatback through two beautifully aligned holes. Though the chair did stand, one leg didn’t even touch the ground. It looked like some cubist rendering of a chair.
Oya’s mobile number was written on the box. When Shinji finally wrote a text message, it was after midnight.
Oya, not even a mouse could sit on this. Do you know the term raison d’etre?
He plugged the phone in to charge on the kitchen counter and headed for bed. It beeped before he left the room.
Do I need one?
You don’t but furniture does.
The next chair that Mansho dropped off, a week later, came in a slim box made for a necktie. It read YSL Paris in gold. When he opened the lid, Shinji thought the chair was still in pieces. But when he went to pick one up, they all came out together. It was a chair that had been flattened and stretched, like a ten-yen coin left on a railroad track. Shinji looked at it from different angles, then crouched low to the level of the table. He had to laugh.
Like the skull.
Very clever. What’s it for?
I mean the chair!
So do I.
Mansho asked about Oya the next Sunday. “Any progress?”
“He has so many ideas.”
Mansho angled his head to face the sun. “You just have to be patient with these boys.” He raised a finger. “And yourself. Realize that teaching and learning have no reliable correlation. And, Oya, he’s carrying some weight.”
“I don’t think there’s any abuse as such. But I’m not sure there’s any support either. He certainly doesn’t get a break at school. There’s such precision to their bullying. Why is it they allow one boy any kind of stupidity, then deny any freedom to someone else?”
Another chair arrived. An inverted cone of legs and struts, at the centre of which a tiny red LED light flickered.
And this? What’s it for?
Burning of course.
After several ignored requests, Oya agreed to meet Shinji at his home above the valley.
Shinji was standing at the window when Oya dropped his bike beside the driveway and walked down towards the house, swinging a Daiei Supermarket plastic bag. He actually clipped one of the camellia bushes with it – a gravid flower dropped whole from the twig.
Shinji led him through the dark house and out to the workshop. It was, Shinji always thought, like stepping from Edo Period Japan straight into modern-day Scandinavia. The cut and shaved pine, the still-redolent slabs drying in one corner. The even, docile light.
Oya took an immediate interest in the chair at the centre of the room.
“Go ahead,” Shinji said. “Sit.”
Oya shot him a glance and turned away, determined to ignore the jibe.
“Is that your latest?” Shinji asked, pointing at the plastic bag.
Oya tossed it to him, then lifted a jar of honeycomb from one of the shelves and peered inside.
Inside the bag was another chair – in fact, two chairs, two Eames LCW’s joined Siamese, four legs on the ground and four in the air. “LCW is one of the great chairs,” Oya said after a long silence. “Those two are perfect. But there’s no room for anyone between them. “
Shinji put the chair down on the bench. “You’re graduating in May,” he said. “What then?”
Oya picked up the spear plane – an almost metre-long spear with a razor edge.
“The man who made that,” Shinji said, “also makes swords. He’s a living national treasure.”
“Swords,” Oya said. “Now that’s useful.”
“A sword is a potent symbol. It has diplomatic power.”
The boy slid the tip of the blade across his cheek. “The value is just somebody’s decision.”
Shinji held up the little chair. “Of what value is this? If nothing else, value equates to use. That’s the humble starting point; it’s arrogance to skip beyond it. Your chairs are all amusing, and well-crafted, Oya, but if you want to pursue carpentry, they have to have a function. Something can be light, but it must have gravity.”
Oya tilted the spear plane back and forth in the light. “The vase in the tokonoma back in your house,” he said. “What’s the function of that?”
“Well, Oya, it holds a flower. Try making and selling a vase that doesn’t. What house in a thousand kilometres doesn’t have a vase in the tokonoma?”
“That’s just habit. Tradition.”
Shinji tried – really tried to put himself in the boy’s place. “I made a crucifix once,” he said. “Madness.”
But Oya would have none of his humour.
“You may say it’s useless, but try convincing a Christian of that. You have to be plausible in the world, Oya. If there is something ineffable in a design, it owes that grace to a function.”
The boy put down the tool and stood looking up at the jars of varnish in a spectrum on the top shelf. Shinji knew he had said enough. They would get along better without words. He picked up a piece of cedar, laid it out on the bench, and took up the spear plane. “You grip it like this,” he said.
Oya worked with him for an hour then said he had to go. He didn’t want to ride down the valley in the dark.
“Come again next week,” Shinji told him. “You’re the one who thought of gravity, remember? You understood that chair of mine. Try thinking of one yourself.”
It was on the Sunday he was expecting Oya. When the boy had still not arrived at eleven o’clock, Shinji put on his gardening jeans and went out to work on dredging the pond. After an hour, he went to the front of the house looking for a spade and found, on the doorstep of the house, a package wrapped in white paper.
So Oya had come after all. He had been too shy to show it to him in person. Which meant something. Inside the box, Shinji suspected he would find, finally, a real piece of furniture. No matter how basic nor crude the design, it would be progress. If he could help this boy understand, then perhaps he was worthy of an apprentice himself.
He peeled away the tape and unfolded the white paper to reveal a blue Adidas shoebox. Inside was a note and a chair bedded rather fancifully in excelsior. It was like the other models in its craftsmanship, but this one actually looked like a chair. The most basic of chairs. As if Oya had decided he would start at the very beginning, creating the simplest chair possible. The shape was so austere, Shinji couldn’t imagine wanting to sit in it. In his zeal, Oya had sacrificed all aesthetics.
“So, Oya, we’re making progress after all.”
Progress, though it was true, the chair had a clear flaw: the legs were angled in towards the centre, creating a support base that was smaller in area than the seat. It would not be stable.
But still, progress.
Shinji unfolded the note.
For your time, thank-you very much. This maquette I have actually built in full-size prototype. Trials have been promising. If you haven’t already understood its function, you will.
Shinji set the little chair on the bench in his workshop. He put on his overalls and began a sketch of something new. As he drew, he rehearsed how he would explain his techniques to his new apprentice, the sagacious words he would use to console the boy when he grew weary of the menial tasks of an apprentice. It was as if Oya were already in the room with him. For the first time in months, Shinji no longer felt alone. He set to work with the spear plane on a roundel of pine and looked up from time to time, taking the angles of Oya’s chair in from different viewpoints. It took a heavy telephone call from Mansho that evening for him to understand, finally, the chair’s intended function.
Barrie Wayne Sherwood
Banner Image: Pixabay.com