A Ming-inspired Cabinet (4)

Still designing….

A lot of people tell me, after seeing the work I do, that they could never do that because they “simply don’t have the patience”. Well, I’ve got news for you: I struggle with patience too!

With design in general, given more time to let things percolate, one finds aspects to adjust/change/add/drop, and places to try new ideas to see how they look. What actually gets made is, in many respects, what you choose to settle for. The line where one stops designing and starts making is self-imposed, more or less, is it not? It is a choice – how long do you resist the urge to ‘just start making’, how long to sit at an uncomfortable or even hopeless-seeming place in the thickets of design, wondering what the way forward might be?

To those of a more impatient mindset, who prefer spontaneity to planning (and why is that I wonder?), taking loads to time to wring out a design might be thought of as ‘over-anaylsis’. However, what is ‘too much’ of a thing is only a matter of value judgement, and may be more a case of projecting the unease or aggravation one might feel personally to be struggling with a design over onto someone else. If they’re stuck, surely they feel just as I do? It’s an interesting moment in one’s psyche when those tickling pressures of impatience come to the fore – how do you deal with that?

More often than not, what I have seen people do, is avoid the feeling. They ‘get on with it’, even if there is no actual external pressure forcing them to ‘do’ anything. And yet the pressure is perceived all the same. We’re a culture that likes to distract ourselves rather than contemplate, at least that’s is how it seems. The point at which discomfort is felt is a signal to begin moving the body, to avoid that unpleasant sensation somehow. Do something, anything….

There’s also an opposite issue one sees out there, which are people who will mull a thing to death in an effort, it seems to avoid taking any action. I remember from my days training in martial arts that there were always people in the dōjo who always had another question, another ‘what if?..”. They’d rather intellectualize an issue that is ultimately learned by the body through practice. Practice, practice, and the question will be answered. We think we can intellect our way to the truth, but it often involves our fingers getting dug in I’m afraid.

I guess what I am saying is that this ‘stuck’ situation in design is an opportunity for some ‘yoga of the mind’. In yoga, one moves the body into a position that engenders some discomfort and then one remains in that position. Can you remain calm, can you keep breathing steadily? Can you control that glimmer of panic that might have flashed across your mind for a moment? How much of that can you allow in and how much do you push it away?

I guess I’ve noticed over time that there never has been a project where I have concluded that I was thinking about some issue ‘too much’, that I had somehow ‘over-considered’ matters. On the contrary, I find I run into the opposite reality, that sinking sensation where one realizes that a situation has arisen, a spot of difficulty, which might have been anticipated had I spent a bit more time thinking about it. It is often in the things one glosses mentally over that some of the worst mistakes lay. Assumptions can be a bitch sometimes. And sometimes one can recover from them, other times the mistake is not correctable, and there’s suddenly, funny enough, apparently not enough time or material to deal with it. That’s an even worse mistake, to think there is no time to fix the situation. I reality there IS time, more often than not. And how does the saying go, ‘There is never enough time to do it right the first time, but there is always enough time to do it over’?

If the piece in which you made some overt mistake were a thing you made that crumbled to dust in a few short years – a sandcastle of sorts – then in the not too distant future the evidence will disappear. And maybe you could count on most people not noticing it all, though you are well aware of it. Maybe you wanted to make a mistake, loud and clear, obvious to all, just to show that ‘god’ didn’t do the work. hah!

If you build to last on the other hand, the evidence is going to be there for a very long time, and each time you revisit the piece – if that is something you dare to do and let me tell you most architects don’t – then you are going to see that screw up before you see much of anything else. And what will cross your mind until you have beaten the horse to death: “Why didn’t I take an extra couple of minutes to consider the consequences before I made that cut/drilled the hole/fitted that hinge/removed the wedge/secured the strap?”

Mistakes are great teachers. The lesson I bring forward personally, which seems to be hammered in with almost every project, is to work harder and longer in the design phase to consider the details in greater depth, to sit more in that position of mental restlessness and impatience, just a little while longer….

If you’re building a thing to last, then what does it matter if you spent and extra hour or a day or a week in the planning stages?  It’s but a tiny fraction of the lifespan of the product after all. The wood is precious and must be treated with care and foresight if any possibility of wise use is to be realized.

What I’ve learned to do, when those moments of impatience come along, where I feel a certain sense of stagnation, is to slow down, to step back, to take a breath – not drive harder or rush. It’s not easy to do if you’re like me and like to be physically engaged. In those fleeting moments of stillness the mind likes to wander….


The above were just some random observations I wanted to share. Nothing worth paying attention to, best forgotten. Back to the project at hand. No time to waste and all that :^)

Design of the sideboard has been proceeding fairly well of late. I’m not actually stuck as such. Feeling very good about where the exterior of the cabinet is sitting, and mostly I am chewing over options for how to arrange the interior. And with that there has been some good flow.

One place I have found a well of sorts from which to draw in terms of considering various arrangements of shelves, drawers, and sliding doors is the toko-waki. I suspect a good number of readers out there who have some familiarity with Japanese wooden architecture have come across the term ‘tokonoma‘ before. The tokonoma is a decorative alcove, generally in the most formal room in the house – often where a guest would be welcomed – where certain objects, like a precious stone, a scroll with a poem appropriate to the season, or a flower arrangement, etc., would be on display. Here’s a typical tokonoma:

(photo: https://otherskies.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/%E8%8C%B6%E9%81%93-tea-ceremony/tokonoma/)

See the post in the middle? The raised floor and wall with hanging scroll to the left of the post comprises the tokonoma. Some modern interpretations of tokonoma do not have a raised section of floor, however that is the classic pattern. The raised floor connotes prestige, an ‘offering up’ of something important.

To the right of the post in the above example is the ‘flanking toko‘ section, or toko-waki. I place a hyphen in that word only as an aid to pronunciation. The tokowaki depicted comprises a cabinet with sliding doors placed at floor level, or jibukuro 地袋, a single shelf, tana 棚, with everted flange, and above is a cabinet with sliding doors attached to the ceiling, tenbukuro天袋.

Both tokonoma and tokowaki, along with the dividing post, toko-bashira, can be highly varied in form and arrangement. This is one of the signature aspects of Japanese traditional art: within what might seem like constraints governing the function and general size of a thing, there is tremendous variation. Latticework patterns for shōji are incredibly varied, ceiling treatments really diverse, and the same goes for the alcove.

Most Japanese books covering interior carpentry and finishing will show a heap of variations on the tokowaki–  here’s a pic from one book showing 70 variations:

And the above are just some of the variations which have individual formal names. There are many many others -kind of infinite really.

One arrangement that is not included in the above list, for example, is the simplest, in which the tokowaki contains nothing but a raised floor section:

One could view the above arrangement, in fact, as one in which the tokowaki is rather vestigial. The small raised platform to the side of the tokonoma is called a biwadana or biwadoko. It’s kind of a minimalist way of doing things. The wooden floor of the biwadana would be used for displaying a statue or sculpture, etc..

The book Shinpan Washitsu Zosaku Shusei (by Yamagata) contains about 92 examples of tokonomatokowaki arrangements. As I mentioned, it is a vast well from which to draw, design-wise.

Of course, one can only draw so much from this area, in direct terms. With a sideboard, I’m not looking to incorporate a tree trunk with bark on it, or a plastered rear wall into the cabinet. It is the variety of ways in which shelves and storage cabinets can be configured that turns my crank and gives a lot to consider.

In a tokowaki, just as it is permissible to have no shelves or cabinets at all, it is likewise possible to have nothing but shelves or nothing but cabinets. Looking at it that way, one can see that the purpose of shelves is both storage and display, while with cabinets the items stored are concealed from view – and from dust for that matter.

Some people want a sideboard as a place to display their fine household China, while others want a sideboard primarily as a storage device. I’m sure there are people in the middle of those two poles, who want a bit of both. My wife and I are in that camp, primarily interested in storage but open to the idea of having a shelf or two which could be used to display something, even if it is purely for our own enjoyment. My client seems similarly disposed, so in considering ideas from the world of tokowaki designs, I have been concentrating more upon the ones featuring cabinets, looking more for storage than spaces for display.

There are types of tansu which incorporate both storage and display functions, among the more contemporary pieces (I mean post-1900) are the mizuya, and the staircase form tansu or kaidan dansu. In the kaidan dansu the stepped upper surface serves a similar function to the staggered shelves in the tokowaki.

I built a kaidan dansu several years back in bubinga, in which I used a logarithmic progression for the lengths of the steps:

In all the various patterns for shelving and cupboards one sees for tokowaki, there is one in which there are shelves going up like steps, called the ashiba-dana pattern. If you refer to the picture above with the drawing of 70 tokowaki patterns, it is on the far right, middle of the row.

I was curious to see if this stepping idea motif somehow be incorporated with the sideboard, in terms of finding a good way to deal with the middle section of the cabinet. This is what I came up with:

I chose to use hinged doors rather than sliding doors for this section, and the lowest stepped area contains a pair of drawers. I must say I quite like the look-  it seems to have grown on my rather quickly and while it may see some further tweaks, it is looking likely to stay.

The skinny right-hand cabinet in the ‘staircase’ is perfect for storing wine glasses and/or bottles of wine/sake, etc..

In the foregoing drawing you’ll also notice a revision to the upper sliding doors, which now feature a front latticework in the matsukawa-bishi 松皮菱 pattern. The term refers the bordered shape between the grill bars (kumiko), a shape which is thought to resemble a chunk of broken-off pine bark.

Here’s the pattern by itself for clarity:

That pattern is found widely in Japanese art, from textiles, to sword guards, to roof ridge tile decorations, to ceramics. It seems to have become a popular pattern among some western quilters.

Here’s a closer view of the upper sliding doors with the matsukawa-bishi latticework:

I’m pleased with that look as well and it is a detail that will likely stay. There are several variations on the pattern, and I will probably explore those a bit. The upper sliding door frames retain their beaded inner arris, however the corners now meet straight on the miter line rather than on a curve as with the previous version.

The middle sliding doors have been removed, permanently I mean.

The outside of the cabinet remains as before, and I’m thinking that the design is close to final there.

All for this round. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. Next up in this thread: post 5

5 thoughts on “A Ming-inspired Cabinet (4)

  1. I am reminded of the quote: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.
    It's good to have a detailed appreciation of the design and challenges, because new variables will appear inevitably and, as you say, “there will be enough time to do it over” then…
    Really enjoying this new series.

  2. Chris,

    Thank you for continuing to share in such inspiring detail, it is always fun to come along for the journey. Very encouraging opening thoughts as well, always refreshed by your perspective.


  3. Jonathan,

    I appreciate your comment. I almost deleted the first section of the blog, not wanting to sound too, oh, I don't know, like a windbag or artsy-fartsy, but I left it in there. Good to know that you enjoyed that section.


  4. It's been an interesting year, culminating finally to a new home, with space (and time, I hope) for woodworking again. If anything worthwhile comes from my hands, I'll share on the forum 🙂
    Always reading your posts with great interest, though, and great appreciation!

Anything to add?