Retooled: Traditional Japanese carpentry tools get new life at GSD

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

The Japanese carpentry tools arrived in Associate Professor Mark Mulligan’s office in plenty of time to begin installation of The Thinking Hand exhibit, but he didn’t unwrap them immediately. Their packaging was an art in itself and demanded appreciation. Like Japan’s world-famous wooden architecture, the tools are part of a thousand-years tradition of monozukuri—making things by hand. And they will have a permanent home in the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Loeb Library, a gift from the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum in Kobe, Japan.

The Takenaka Corporation—a major construction company founded in 1899—established the Carpentry Tools Museum 30 years ago. When company president Toichi Takenaka visited Cambridge three years ago, he established three major collaborations between Takenaka and the GSD. He offered a summer internship for architecture students, currently overseen by Mulligan, who directs the GSD’s Master in Architecture programs (and whose past work at Maki and Associates first introduced him to working with Takenaka Corporation 20 years ago). The company also provided housing and educational activities for GSD students in Toyo Ito’s Tokyo-based studio during the spring 2012 semester. Mr. Takenaka’s third initiative was to offer a gift of 62 traditional woodworking tools from the Museum’s collection, as educational resources for the GSD’s materials collection and fabrication labs.

In Japan, the daiku, or master carpenter, commands a wide array of tools that become extensions of the hand and mind. “These beautiful and very precise tools are part of a living tradition of hand manufacture,” Mulligan explains. “The steel forging process involves multiple stages of heating, folding, and hammering, and the elegant wooden handles are designed according to ergonomic principles.” The tools in the collection would have been used by a daiku during the early 20th century, the “golden age of tool making” in Japan.

According to Ann Whiteside, librarian and assistant dean for information services, there has been a resurgence of collecting in design schools in the last decade. The GSD materials collection was established eight years ago to promote material experimentation in design practice and such explorations frequently find expression through publications, exhibitions, colloquia, and course offerings at the GSD. “But this collection is unique,” says Whiteside. “It will fortify connections between the making that students do and their research and investigation of tools and their uses for fabrication.”

The tools will begin their residence at Harvard in an exhibition co-curated by Mulligan and Professor Yukio Lippit from the History of Art and Architecture (HAA) department. It opens on January 17 in the basement-level gallery of the Center for Government and International Studies South Building (CGIS-South). At the moment, a team of master carpenters is assembling a replica of a famous 18th century Kyoto teahouse in CGIS for the exhibit, assisted by local Japanese-trained craftsman Harrelson Stanley.

When the exhibit closes in late March, the teahouse will continue on an international tour, and the tools will become part of the Loeb Library’s special collections. A dozen modern tools, identical in form and manufacture to those in the archive, will be available to students for use in the fabrication labs (after special training).

Amid the current focus on contemporary industrial process and computer-aided design in the field of architecture and design, the Takenaka tools emphasize a different way of thinking about the relationship of materials, handwork, and design thinking. They establish the natural affinity between the highest standards of Japanese workmanship—and the tools that have been used for centuries to create it—and the values of the GSD. Says Mulligan, “this wonderful tool collection will be part of the mosaic of the GSD’s continuing interest in Japan’s design culture and our ongoing relationship with Japanese designers and architects.”

“The Thinking Hand” exhibition opens on January 17 and will run through the end of March 2014. A public demonstration of traditional Japanese woodworking tools led by Mr. Akinori Abo will be held on Friday, January 17, at 2pm in the basement-level gallery of CGIS-South, 1730 Cambridge Street.

 Read a related story at The Harvard Gazette.