Japanese Step Chest – Greene and Greene


In the summer of 2011, I heard about the WoodExpo that would be held in February 2012 as part of the New England Home Show in Boston.  The WoodExpo was started in 2009 by Tommy MacDonald of Rough Cut TV show fame.  Tommy sees the expo as an opportunity to reconnect woodworkers with the buying public and also educate them.

The expo includes a juried woodworking show with two categories and one of them really got me thinking.  One category is open to any type of contemporary or period furniture, but the one that caught my eye was called ‘The Next Step’.  The idea was to have a number of ‘step stool’ entries that show the vast range of woodworker creativity that can be unleashed on this single, relatively small piece of furniture.

At the time I saw the announcement, I was finishing up the two Federal Step Stools that are shown on other pages here and thought I might just enter one of those.  As I thought more about it, I decided that I should use this as yet another learning opportunity and come up with something that would push my design and building muscles – not hard to do at this point.

I had lately been spending time focused on the works of Greene and Greene – architects from the turn of the last century out in California that transformed the Arts and Crafts style up to a higher level, at least for me.  The Greene’s were influenced by Japanese design that was just being exposed to the American market in the late 1800’s.  The ‘big idea’ that came to me was to design and build a traditional Japanese step chest, but in the Greene and Greene style.

In 1904, Charles Greene attended the St. Louis World’s Fair at the request of his client, Adelaide Tichenor.  His subsequent design of her home and furnishings, as well as much of the future work of Greene and Greene was influenced by this fateful trip.  My design is based on the idea that Charles Greene designed a step chest for one of his clients based on a Kaidan Dansu he might have seen in St. Louis, but with his own signature details.  My piece is a combination of Japanese step chest forms – ‘rail’ frame, panel door, flush steps, inset risers – and Greene details – ebony plugs, mahogany, rounded corners, full door hinge, tsuba cutout.  And, what small chest in its right mind would come without a couple of secret compartments!

I spent a lot of time (and some book budget) researching both the Greenes’ and the step chest form.  Both of those topics were infinitely fascinating to me.  After a number of different drawings and a couple of small models, I started building in the fall.  First, of course, is the wood.  The Greenes mostly used mahogany – the ‘high class’ wood of its time, but the Cuban or South American species they had available is mostly gone or seriously expensive.  I decided to use Sapele, sometimes referred to as African mahogany.  I picked up some nice straight-grained pieces locally, but both the Japanese and the Greenes often used highly figured woods for the doors and drawer fronts, so I ordered a piece of Sapele crotch to cover that.

The building process was slow, in large part because I was sorting through some of the design details as I went, but also having to learn new processes and techniques along the way.  The submissions were due by end of December – which is a deadline I missed given the holiday distractions – but luckily, they decided to extend it to the end of January which gave me the extra time I needed to finish.

It’s fair to say I’m proud of the chest and the process I went through from blank paper to finished piece.  In the beginning I told myself that the expo was a good excuse to go through this process, but I would probably not get in.  Needless to say, I am honored that the piece was accepted into the WoodExpo.


2 Responses to Japanese Step Chest – Greene and Greene

  1. MJ says:

    I’m so impressed by the diligence and passion that goes into your work. The result is something beautiful, fine, and functional. Quite an accomplishment.

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