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Monday May 13, 2013

Tools for living

Graf’s popular Mushroom Chair, made from Shina wood. Graf’s popular Mushroom Chair, made from Shina wood.

IF you’re looking for an archetypal, homegrown Osaka “product”, look no further than Graf, a design collective started by six buddies from the Kansai region.

Pooling their ingenuity and a mishmash of skills, the six – product designer, artist, carpenter, chef, interior designer and furniture craftsman – offer design consultancies (graphic, product and interior), take part in collaborative projects (exhibitions and product design), and design, build and sell furniture.

Set up in 2000, the company wants to “pursue the convergence of ordinary life and art”.

Hip-personified, Graf has been dubbed “one of the country’s hottest designer units for interior furnishings” by influential Japanese design magazine D Design Travel. That is a huge compliment indeed, as it comes from a rival, the highly popular Tokyo-based design company D& Department, which publishes the magazine.

In the art scene, Graf has taken the spotlight via its collaborative projects with illustrious Japanese pop artist Yoshitomo Nara since 2003. Led by Hideki Toyoshima, an artist and one of Graf’s founders, the team conceives and constructs installation art for Nara’s exhibitions that toured from East Asia to Europe and Australia.

Graf HQ is smack in the middle of the trendy Nakanoshima area of Osaka that is lined with museums, art galleries, interior stores and chichi cafes. Converted from a former factory, the five-storey Graf building houses a retail showroom, cafe, exhibition space and office.

The ground floor is allotted to food products, thematic sales and kitchenware. During my visit last year, Graf was plugging the “greening your home” theme so half the space was filled with lush foliage, gardening tools and plant-related paraphernalia. Cottage industry items like homemade jams, pickles, organic rice, tea and spices are sold year round.

A cosy cafe with an open kitchen concept sits on the first floor. The simple menu emphasises wholesome dishes whipped up from locally sourced produce, and artisan coffees. Graf leased a plot of farmland to grow its own organic veggies for the cafe. A long table that seats more than 10, surrounded by an eclectic mix of retro bistro chairs, encourages communal dining. The cafe also doubles up as gallery space for independent artists to display their art, installations or crafts.

Graf’s industrial decor – exposed beams and piping, concrete floors and metal bannister – is a fitting canvas for the company’s furniture, tableware and bric-a-brac on the third floor.

Sporting typical Japanese restraint and mid-century aesthetics, Graf’s range of furniture, dubbed “Narrative”, is designed and made at the company’s factory, a stone’s throw from the showroom. Bestsellers include the Plankton chair with a curved back and steel frame utilising laminate bent wood technique, the elegantly curved Mushroom stools, and the two-seater 3/6 sofa that has layers of plywood glued together to make the frame.

Trope, a range of furniture, accessories and paint; Sunao flatware, a graceful collection of cutlery; and colourful Hum stationery, are designed by Graf in collaboration with other manufacturers. Works by other Osaka-based designers/makers, like the bird-inspired ceramic ware by Birds’ Words Office & Gallery, are also sold at Graf.

Retail aside, Graf runs regular events like woodworking workshops, the Fantastic Market (based on the farmers’ market concept) to bring together farmers and consumers, and “lifestyle-enhancing” workshops.

To plug the idea of incorporating art into daily living, Graf teamed up with avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama to exhibit her works and apply her dot-patterned design on fabric that can be used as drapes, cushion covers or upholstery. (In 2012, fashion brand Louis Vuitton unveiled its Yayoi Kusama collection of clothing, shoes and handbags.)

Over the years, Graf has acknowledged the limitations of offering lifestyle solutions. Now they prioritise “life” as opposed to “style”, and how to live it.

“The word ‘lifestyle’ itself is incongruous and seems to promote consumerism,” says director and Graf founder Shigeki Hattori in an e-mail interview. “Consumers are choosing products based on a lifestyle they aspire to, not what suits their actual lives.

“Graf provides the ‘tools for living’ because tools help humans go forward and enhance their lives,” he adds. “As a result, your experience deepens and wisdom is fostered. A rich life isn’t about the commodities you have but the depth of your intelligence.”

Food for thought, even as you saunter into Graf and lust after that good-looking 3/6 sofa and Sunao cutlery.

Directory

> D&Department Osaka

2-9-14 Minamihorie,

Nishi ward,

Osaka 550-0015

Tel: +81-6-4391 2090

Web: www.d-department.com (Japanese only)

> Graf building

4-1-18 Nakanoshima,

Kita-ku,

Osaka 530-005

Tel: +81-6-6459 2100

Web: graf-d3.com (limited English)

> Truck

6-8-48 Shinmori

Asahi-ku,

Osaka 535-0022

Tel:+81-6-6958 7055

Web: truck-furniture.co.jp

> Zuko Labo

2-59-1 A-4 MinamiShima,

Sakai-ku,

Osaka 590-0904

Tel: +81-72-220 4697

Web: zuko-labo.com (Japanese only)

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