Japanese craft on a different plane at Joseph Walsh’s studio

Keisuko Kawai came to Co Cork with his furniture-making tools and no English

In Joseph Walsh's spacious, orderly workshop near Kinsale, where his remarkable furniture designs take shape, master craftsman Keisuke Kawai is engrossed in completing a swirling curvilinear dining table for a private client's apartment in Paris, shaving the wood to a smooth, satiny finish. In laminated bleached ash, the table and chairs are just some of many pieces of fine furniture that Kawai has worked on with Walsh since arriving from Japan more than eight years ago.

During that time he has perfected and honed the skills necessary to execute complex and challenging design concepts, the celebrated abstract free forms of the Lilium series and the sculptural two-seater Enignum chair being particularly demanding.

“But I love making and I love timber,” he says simply. “The designs in this workshop are amazing and I learn something every day, even from assistants, because everybody has their own way of making. Japanese furniture is flat and square, and not curved and carved like Joseph’s, whose designs come from nature.”

We never make the same piece again, each one is different, and I can see a person's personality in a piece

One of Walsh’s international team of craftsmen, Kawai arrived at the age of 26 and without a word of English, having started carpentry at 15 and trained at one of Japan’s most unique schools, Shinrin Takumi Juku, near Takayama, with which Walsh has links. Set up by five master craftsmen 40 years ago, its programme includes forestry management, architecture and the manufacture of children’s toys and furniture.

Japanese hand tools

Kawai arrived in Ireland with his Japanese hand tools, including boxes of planes in oak and laminated steel capable of the most refined details.

“Everyone is seduced by Japanese planes because they give you such wonderful finishes,” Walsh says. “We always try to find the best tools for purpose.”

Unlike their western counterparts, Japanese planes use the pull rather than the push stroke, though Kawai had to learn how to use different machine tools, such as table saws and spindles. In the workshop, where mastery in making is combined with innovative techniques, members of the team from different backgrounds collaborate in sharing and building skills and knowledge.

“I am good at using hand tools, but Remi [from France] is good on machine tools,” he says. “Our approaches are different, but the finish is the same quality. I make in a more freehand way, sometimes without a drawing and relying on interpretation, whereas Remi works with a jigsaw from the drawing in a more engineered way.”

One of the most important parts of making is the laminating process, crucial to the finish, shape and sense of fluidity that is very much Walsh’s signature. This involves the painstaking layering and gluing of wood where, depending on construction, widths can vary with the numbers of layers. (One bed demanded 55 layers of wood, and the more layers, the more difficult the wood is to bend.)

“Bending timber, making joints and balancing elements of the design to create stability can be very difficult. It’s very easy to break,” says Kawai. “We never make the same piece again, each one is different, and I can see a person’s personality in a piece, see something that is done too quickly. I make each stage perfect and never go back.”

Leaving Ireland

He is, however, going back to Japan, leaving Ireland this summer with his Irish wife, Lorraine, and their four-month-old baby son, Issei. Kawai plans to open a small workshop there.

“It would be difficult to do that here, and I hope to start with small items – chairs, lampshades – with a view to having an exhibition in Tokyo,” he says.

During his time here, he has trained 10 people from all over the world – Japan, France, Argentina, the UK and the US – and given masterclasses. It's all part of what Walsh describes as an ongoing dialogue, which started in 2003 when the English furniture designer David Colwell introduced him, in Crookhaven, to master craftsman Masashi Kutsuwa. Kutsuwa had worked in Scotland and had returned to Japan to head up the furniture school where Kawai trained and where Kawai's Irish adventure – and those of other Japanese craftsmen who followed in his wake – first began.

“He was not intimidated by the challenge of working a world away from what he knew, and found a way to relate to it,” says Walsh. “He brought this calm and Japanese sense of purpose, a harmony between the demands of the task and the joy of doing it.”