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Iyobe Kogeisha: Mastering the art of furniture craftsmanship

Interview - January 31, 2024

In this insightful interview, Iyobe Kogeisha delves into Japan's leadership in interior design and the distinct qualities that set their furniture apart. They share their unwavering commitment to creating exceptional products based on dedication and sincerity. The discussion also explores their approach to balancing functionality and aesthetics in furniture design and their diverse range of brands.

KISAKU IOBE, PRESIDENT & FOUNDER OF IYOBE CO., LTD.
KISAKU IOBE | PRESIDENT & FOUNDER OF IYOBE CO., LTD.

Over the last 25-30 years, Japan has seen the rise of regions that have replicated the Japanese model of success but have done so at a cheaper cost, pushing Japan out of certain markets. However, Japan is still a leader when it comes to interior design. As a manufacturer of furniture, what are the advantages of Japanese firms when it comes to interior design and products? What for you is the made-in-Japan quality when it comes to this kind of sector?

Since our establishment, the foundation of our business has been embedding a part of ourselves and putting our hearts into every piece of furniture we create. It is not about the price; we firmly believe that our dedication and sincerity in crafting the finest products will naturally result in gaining and satisfying our customers. This is the motto and philosophy that guides our company.

 

Japan is the oldest society in the world with a rapidly shrinking population and this presents two challenges: the first is a labor crisis and secondly, there is also a shrinking domestic market. How has your company been reacting to the challenges seen with this demographic shift?

Currently, the demographic challenges in Japan have not directly impacted our company. Fortunately, we find ourselves in a favorable position, owing to our many years of experience in furniture manufacturing. Our reputation for crafting high-quality furniture continues to draw customers to us. Over the past five to six years, we have maintained a stable supply of skilled human resources. Surprisingly, we have seen an influx of young talents, including recent university graduates with strong technical knowledge in craftsmanship. Their fresh perspectives and enthusiasm are valuable assets to our company. We have even welcomed high school students into our team. Just this morning, I interviewed an 18-year-old who displayed remarkable passion and eagerness to contribute to our mission of creating top-notch furniture. This trend mirrors the national Japanese character of being trustworthy in producing high-quality products and fully dedicated and passionate about what they do.

 

One trend we are seeing is multifunctional furniture, which not only adds convenience to the users but also becomes a part of their daily lives and habits. For example, bed frames have power outlets or USB ports for smartphone chargers. As a manufacturer of furniture, how do you find a balance between functionality and aesthetics for your furniture?

There is no definite answer to that question because numerous furniture manufacturers are producing various types of functional pieces, ranging from simple reclining options to multifunctional furniture. Nitori, for instance, has successfully found its niche in the market by specializing in multifunctional furniture, so it does make sense when you talk about the demand and supply. When customers seek multifunctional furniture, including features like USB ports, there are suppliers readily available to meet those needs.

However, our company does not follow this trend, as we are more inclined toward traditional furniture manufacturing. We also have a client base that appreciates such classic pieces. It is a delicate balance between crafting standard furniture with simple reclining mechanisms and enhancing the comfort and aesthetics of interior spaces. We cater to the functional aspect of the space itself, collaborating with interior and construction companies seeking solutions that meet their design expectations. In the end, it is all about striking the right balance between manufacturing and meeting the ever-evolving demands of the market.

 

You have many different brands, such as Senda, Solitude, Birdie, Shirabe and many more. Is there a particular brand that you are currently focusing on? Which one do you believe has the most potential for future growth?

About 10 years ago, we initiated our branding efforts, consolidating all our brands under the umbrella of the Iyobe brand. Collaborating with prestigious designers, we focused on developing products to enhance our portfolio. Our business primarily follows a B2B model, as we do not directly sell our products to individual consumers. Instead, we engage with construction and manufacturing companies, introducing them to our furniture solutions.

At the same time, our core business remains centered on specialized and custom-made furniture. We have been active in this field since our establishment. From our inception in 1960, we have operated as an OEM company. Although the strategy of diversification, through the incorporation of different brands over the past decade, seemed somewhat new, we still adhere to a B2B approach, following the commissioning principle. Until now, we continue as a pure OEM-based company, creating furniture tailored to meet the demands of our customers, which include design offices and construction companies.



Why do you believe companies should work with you? What is your unique advantage?

Firstly, we have achieved significant technological advancements, particularly in wooden furniture. We take pride in being a locally-based furniture manufacturer, offering branded products made in the Kanto region. What sets us apart is our team of craftsmen, who possess specialized knowledge and extensive expertise in the art of working with wood to craft exceptional furniture. At our company, you will find a friendly, easygoing and dedicated team with great personalities.

 

With sustainability initiatives growing globally, forestry conservation is also promoted in many ways, such as through FSC certification, which helps maintain a healthy management of forests around the world. How do you ensure that the wood you use for your furniture is sustainably sourced?

Transparency in the supply chain is crucial, especially when it comes to determining the environmental impact of materials. As a wooden furniture company, we strictly adhere to FSC standards. One of our fundamental principles aligns with the SDGs – we aim to extend the life cycle of our products. While our initial product prices may be slightly or significantly higher than those from conventional furniture manufacturers, this approach ultimately supports SDG principles by significantly prolonging product life cycles. Our commitment to this goal minimizes the environmental footprint.

Some companies attempt to escape this situation by offering lower per-unit prices in the market. However, cheaper options often last only two to three years, leading to disposal and recycling costs handled by the customer. In Japan, the user, not the company, pays for furniture disposal, adding a personal burden. We understand these industry challenges and are dedicated to extending the life cycle of our products.

Our intention is not to criticize the sector but to shed light on the realities. While some may import cheaper options from overseas, these often result in higher costs due to overseas delivery fees and increased energy consumption. As a local Kanto-based company in Tokyo, we have the advantage of manufacturing and distributing our products in Japan, reducing delivery times and energy consumption.

 

You have established different partnerships with many firms across the world, including Sweden, Belgium, Singapore, Vietnam, and more. Could you tell us the nature of these partnerships and how they came about?

For decades, Sweden has been renowned for its European-style furniture manufacturing. We have cultivated strong relationships with local Swedish furniture manufacturers, facilitating the exchange of valuable information. Additionally, our rapport with the Swedish embassy in Japan has enhanced our business approach, allowing us to establish connections with government entities and local businesses.

While Japan has a historical reputation for authentic tatami floor matting, European furniture-related initiatives and technologies were introduced to Japan at a later stage. To bridge this gap, we visited Sweden to learn unique technologies and long-standing furniture manufacturing techniques. We integrated these methods into our brand, producing similar furniture in Japan to introduce customers to European-style furniture. This was our primary motivation.

My journey in the furniture manufacturing industry began at the age of 15 when I contemplated establishing a company or enterprise. It was difficult because of the little knowledge I had at that time. After several years, the company was trying to introduce many foreign brands and furniture manufacturing techniques here. At the age of 27, I went to a company called Knoll in Pennsylvania, a leading furniture manufacturing company in the USA.  I obtained a license from them and spent a month learning about wood processing techniques. I brought this newfound expertise back to Japan, revitalizing our furniture manufacturing processes.

Over the years, we have cultivated relationships with numerous countries and wooden furniture manufacturing companies, though I cannot name them all. For instance, we engaged in negotiations with the German company Rolf Benz and the German company Musterring. Acquiring licenses for furniture manufacturing has proven challenging, as it demands genuine trust and appreciation. However, when the CEOs and management teams of these companies visited our Japanese factory and witnessed our commitment to wood processing, they recognized our sincerity in obtaining a license. This paved the way for collaborations with various international companies to bring their furniture manufacturing expertise to Japan through a manufacturing license.

 

Are you still looking for more foreign companies or businesses to work with, whether for technological exchange for your own furniture or to acquire these licenses to manufacture?

We remain open to collaborating with individuals or companies that bring strong business initiatives to the table. We believe in fostering long-lasting relationships and friendships, as we anticipate working together for an extended period.

 

One way companies are mitigating the effects of the shrinking domestic market is by exporting their products overseas or even establishing offices in overseas locations. Is that also an area of interest for your firm going forward?

I would love to but we currently face significant obstacles, including language barriers and limited financial resources, which hinder our ability to take action.

 

When we interviewed the president of Karimoku, he mentioned that it was also difficult for them to expand overseas because of the lack of manpower and resources. However, one of the ways they expanded, especially in Southeast Asia, was by finding partners to serve as distributors, sharing technologies, or collaborating. Facing these challenges, are you open to this kind of venture or opportunity?

While we can ship our products overseas, expanding abroad from scratch is challenging, requiring significant investments in branding, marketing, and store openings. If we can identify a suitable partner to help with this endeavor, it is something worth exploring.

 

Is there a customized piece of furniture you have created for a customer that is your personal favorite or you are most proud of?

We offer a wide range of products, making it difficult to single out a specific item. Nevertheless, our company has a rich history of providing furniture solutions to numerous prominent places in Japan. In fact, even the Royal Family utilizes some of our furniture. With our extensive experience as a furniture manufacturer, our products can be found everywhere. We take great pride in our work in the furniture industry and derive immense satisfaction from seeing how our furniture enhances the lives of our users and makes a place come alive.

 

In the future, are there any potential markets to which you would like to introduce your products by exporting them?

It is hard to identify a specific region or region where we would like our furniture to be utilized or shipped. We see potential in nearby countries that understand Japanese-quality furniture, like Southeast Asia or China. Since these areas are familiar with Japanese-quality furniture due to cultural exposure, our products can be sold more easily there. On the other hand, it is less likely for our furniture to penetrate markets in Europe or North America, given the strong presence of long-established furniture manufacturing companies and intense competition. The furniture manufacturing industry is predominantly domestic, with local companies understanding the specific needs of their markets. Similarly, our products primarily target the domestic market.

 

Imagine we come back next year and have this interview again with you for your 60th anniversary as a company: what would you like to tell us?

Next year marks our company's 60th anniversary, as we were established in 1964. Instead of focusing on our annual plan, I am considering organizing a celebratory event, much like what we did for our 50th anniversary. For our 50th anniversary, we participated in a special expo, showcasing our products. Our employees enjoyed a luxurious stay at a hotel, and we hosted an unforgettable party. I plan to do something similar by participating in a specialized expo next year. However, it will not just be a one-day activity, but it will be throughout the whole year.    

Furthermore, I am contemplating treating most, if not all, of our employees to a recreational vacation. While the plans are not finalized yet, we are committed to marking this significant milestone in a special way.


Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Sasha Lauture

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