The Making of
BCXSY's Join Room Divider

PHOTOS BY HIROMI YOKOI

On a sunny afternoon during this spring’s Milan furniture fair, blissfully unaware of the encroaching cloud of ash, I made my way through the maze of exhibitions at Spazio Rossani Orlandi, the former factory turned gallery and shop off Corso Magenta. As usual, there was plenty to see: During the fair, the gallery practically splits its seams with new work, giving over corners of the courtyard and even parts of the stairwell as exhibition space for young  talent. In the basement, I encountered a bottleneck. Nearly everyone passing through the room occupied by the Eindhoven-based duo BCXSY was stopping to gape at the young couple’s latest offering: a trio of Japanese screens in hinoki cypress wood, each designed as two geometric shapes intersecting in beautifully woven grids. Called Join, it was, in many fairgoers’ opinion, an example of the best sort of product — one that makes better something you hardly knew needed improvement.

BCXSY’s designers — the Dutch/Israeli Boaz Cohen and Sayaka Yamamoto, a jewelry designer from Tokyo — have been inching their way towards fame since 2007, when on a whim Cohen asked his girlfriend if she’d like to show with him in a small space he’d reserved at Salone Satellite, the young designer’s showcase at Milan’s fairgrounds. The two quickly came up with a name (pronounced BIC-see, it’s an acronym of their initials, invented for its URL-friendliness), a logo (an old-school silhouette portrait depicting his bald head and her hair pulled into a bun), and a collection, which included a set of tiles textured to look like fruits and vegetables, which was their first product to catch our eye.

In the beginning, the Design Academy Eindhoven grads created cut-glass coffee-table aquariums, hand-gilded plastic trinkets, light-up swings — playful one-offs, in other words, that turned the heads of design editors but didn’t seem destined for many homes. In the last year or so, however, their work has taken a turn into a serious exploration of craft and technique. Besides the screens, the two debuted in Milan a series of coiled, beaded vases, created in collaboration with Editions in Craft and the Siyazama Project, a bead craft collective of women from the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa.

For the screens, Cohen and Yamamoto traveled to Japan to work with Mr. Tanaka, a 70-year-old master of tategu, the Japanese art of wood joinery. “We knew we wanted to do a project with the crafts tradition in Japan, but it was hard to find someone,” Cohen says. “People who do that sort of traditional woodwork are either really famous, like national treasures, or impossible to locate.” When they finally found Mr. Tanaka — who has no email, no assistant, and speaks no English — they spent a month with him, taking two weeks to find inspiration for the project and two to actually develop the series. As they were leaving, Mr. Tanaka estimated that it would take him 10 to 14 days to complete each piece; two-and-a-half months later, he was still working nights and weekends and popping energy drinks to finish the third. (The labor, the materials, and the incredibly fine detailing add up to a rather hefty price tag for the limited editions, of which 8 of each variation are available.)

At Rossana Orlandi, Cohen and Yamamoto had on hand a photo album detailing their time with Mr. Tanaka as well as his continuing work once they returned to the Netherlands. Presented here are few of our favorites, along with the story of the screens’ making.

Origin product show

BCXSY presented the three finished screens, made from hinoki cypress wood, in the basement of Rossana Orlandi gallery during this spring’s Milan furniture fair — a rectangle, triangle, and circle. “Traditional tategu screens are typically very complex, with lots of geometric or floral patterns,” says Cohen. “We thought that by making the frame itself the shape we were adding only a small twist on what already exists. Turns out it introduced an enormous challenge to Mr. Tanaka, but he was quite happy with the results.” Photo (c) BCXSY

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Mr. Tanaka works out of a small, garage-like studio underneath his home in Tokyo’s Adichiku prefecture. “This is maybe a half or a third of the workshop,” says Cohen. “It’s a total mess, full of dust. When we first got there, we thought, ‘OK, he hasn’t been down here for 30 years.’ But he knows exactly where everything is. We’d say, ‘Oh, we need this piece’ and he’d go straight to it and come back a second later. It’s like one man’s kingdom.”

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Among the detritus are dozens of woodworking tools, many extremely specialized to facilitate the making of traditional screens. “The tools themselves are a bit of a dying art, just like the technique,” Cohen says. “There is less demand — fewer people who use the tools so fewer people who make them.”

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“At one point, we had an idea for a different design, and we asked Mr. Tanaka if it would be possible. He said the tool he’d need would cost 1,200 euros and take a month and a half to get there. It’s all very specific.”

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The first sketch. “In the beginning of our visit, Mr. Tanaka took us around in his car to visit people he knew or people he had worked with, and to the temples as well, to see woodwork and other crafts. We came up with the idea for the screens about two weeks before we left,” Cohen says. “Mr. Tanaka was really laughing when we showed our sketch to him, which was his polite way of saying we were crazy.”

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A second, more refined sketch in Illustrator. “We were almost ashamed to show it to him because we can’t draw in 3-D. The feet are longer here, and we ignored the precise dimensions and the thicknesses of the wood. It was almost like drawing by hand, but Mr. Tanaka managed to solve everything. Later, he told us that he could see from the drawings what we wanted but he could never have imagined it would end up so nice.”

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Mr. Tanaka uses a Japanese handsaw to slice one of the triangle’s stalks. “Preparing the more traditional patterns is like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle,” Cohen explains. “Craftsmen are beginning to use more modern tools like circle saws because you can make a few pieces at the same time. But because our angles were so complicated, Mr. Tanaka had to do everything by hand.”

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The screens are assembled using a joinery technique similar to mortise and tenon: Notches cut at the end of each stick fit into square holes drilled along the interior of the frame. For BCXSY’s project, each piece was a bit shorter or longer than the others and was therefore numbered to correspond to its specific destination.

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The interior of the frame.

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The grids formed by the overlap of the frames are created separately, notched together like Lincoln Logs.

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Once the grids are fit into the frames, the numbered strips are then hammered into place.

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“Traditionally, this technique was performed without the use of glue,” Cohen says. “That way if something would happen to your screen, you could bring it back to the craftsman who made it, and they could easily swap out the part that was broken. In our case, it wouldn’t have made much sense to have the piece shipped for reparations, so it was necessary to use adhesive in just a few places.”

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A piece in progress. The filigreed panel in the background is an example of one of the more traditional patterns.

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In the fore, the mold Mr. Tanaka created to make the circular frame. “Round is one shape that’s hardly ever been used with this technique,” says Cohen. It would have been impossible to bend the wood, so a mold was created to press 12 layers of thin veneer into single piece.

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“At the end of the project, we asked Mr. Tanaka to sign each of the editions. He was kind of embarrassed but he agreed,” says Cohen. “Normally craftsmen don’t put their signature to their work, but he accepted a lot of things from us that to him seemed really weird. We are presenting it as a collaboration but in reality each piece is quite personal, like a piece of art, that comes from Mr. Tanaka.”