No Love For Sugi

Enzo Mari designs a collection using the wood of a pesky Japanese tree.

“I have knowledge of all the materials that have existed in this world since ancient Greece,” Enzo Mari says. The Italian furniture designer is 75 years old, so one is inclined to trust him on this—even if knowledge, in his case, doesn’t imply affection. “I can say I have never loved materials,” he insists. And he’s not just being negative. “This means I can look at a material from an objective point of view.”

It’s a lucky break for Sanzo Okada, president of the Japanese company Hida Sangyo, who met Mari at a 2003 conference at the Oribe Institute of Design. Okada already had the idea to create a new furniture brand with the often overlooked Sugi tree, but he needed a designer ambitious (or foolhardy) enough to work with the overly soft and gnarly wood. “It’s a threat against the ecosystem of Japanese forests today,” Okada says of the tree. In fact, the species is so plentiful that the brand’s introduction in Milan was called “Enzo Mari and ten thousand million Sugi trees,” and killing them is actually a good thing for Japan’s environment.

The company adapted a generations-old “wood-bending” technique and developed a compression-mold system for Sugi wood. Mari designs the molds for Hida, a line that, in his words, has to maintain “the soul of craftsmen.” To cut the costs associated with manufacturing such a line, many of the pieces incorporate other unloved-by-Mari materials, such as steel, glass, and plywood. “For the parts that people directly touch,” he emphasizes, “we use wood.”

Keeping the spirit of the Hida district—the birthplace of a group of craftsmen who were in charge of Kyoto’s and Nara’s historical architecture—is crucial for both Mari and Okada. Even though Mari is Italian, Okada sees great resonance between their two cultures. “He considers the Japanese swords as the culminating example of a sense of beauty,” Okada says by way of explaining why he wanted to ­collaborate with the man who once spent a year designing a single ashtray. For his part, Mari is happy to work with a company that isn’t heading toward “committing suicide,” as he argues the rest of the manufacturing world is.

Though the pieces are minimally designed—the line includes a sawhorse-style table and a seemingly simple curved chair, for example—Mari has faith in their power. “I believe there will be wonderful intellectual distributors in the United States who will lend a helping hand in expanding this product worldwide,” he says. Knowing, however, this conviction isn’t bulletproof, he demurs: “Nine­ty percent of people may not under­stand what I am saying.”

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