For a man who claims not to be a collector, Noritsugu Oda has one of the world’s most remarkable assemblages of chairs (1,200, over half of them Danish) as well as a fine stash of tables (70), lighting fixtures (100), cabinets (50), cutlery (1,000 pieces) and pottery (2,500). “I consider myself more of a researcher,” he insists.
Oda lives and works in the small Hokkaido town of Asahikawa in the far north of Japan where he teaches design at a satellite campus of Tokai University. It’s an appropriate place for one of Japan’s foremost furniture buffs since Asahikawa is best known for its concentration of wooden furniture makers.
Oda started accumulating 40 years ago, when he was in his twenties. “At first, I just liked beautiful things and started buying them,” he says, “but then it turned into a research project.” Fascinated by the design, construction and materials of Danish chairs he decided to write a book on the subject. “I thought it would take five years,” he says, laughing. “It took 17.” The resulting book, published in 1996 – Denmark no isu (Danish Chairs) – is a definitive work containing 400 detailed illustrations by Oda.
Oda’s research took him to Denmark to meet the chair designer he still most admires, Finn Juhl. “There had been a Danish boom in Japan,” he says, “but it had passed by then – many Japanese people didn’t know his name.” Wary of what he had been told about a reputation for being difficult, Oda approached his hero with trepidation. Needlessly, as it turned out. Juhl was charm itself and, as he pointed out, well disposed towards the Japanese since he had been treated so well on a visit to Japan. It emerged during the course of conversation that Juhl had been entertained on his visit by Sori Yanagi, Isamu Kenmochi and Kenzo Tange – three giants of Japanese design – so his warmth towards the Japanese was easy for Oda to understand.
“When I started buying chairs in the 1970s I wasn’t a furniture specialist,” says Oda. “I was working in the graphic design and PR department of Takashimaya [department store] in Osaka.” The first chair he bought was an LC4 chaise by Le Corbusier. It cost nearly 10 times his monthly salary. “I paid for it in instalments and had to do freelance illustrating on the side.”
In the early days his tastes also veered towards Italian (“the centre of the design world at that time”) but he soon found his niche in Danish furniture. He is an authority on the subject and has published numerous books and exhibition catalogues. He has written a book in Japanese on Hans Wegner – Hansu Ueguna no isu (Chairs by Hans J Wegner) and visited the designer in Denmark. He owns 140 of Wegner’s chairs, one of which, a Hoop Chair, was sent as a gift by Wegner himself.
Oda lives in a house next to a birch wood that he designed a decade ago around his furniture. The house is filled with the furniture, lights, pottery and glass he has acquired over the years. He is remarkably relaxed about his chairs – he uses them everyday, occasionally rotating them in and out. He lends them freely to exhibitions and has no anxieties about incomplete sets or imperfections.
Oda’s house is spacious but full of mostly Scandinavian furniture, with every drawer crammed with cutlery, ink pens, knives and candle snuffs, and one wall lined with over 100 iittala glass birds. Everything in the house is comfortable and well used, from the Bruno Mathsson reclining chair to the Poul Kjærholm circular dining table.
Nothing is off-limits, not even the unique two-seater Finn Juhl prototype sofa that came from Juhl’s house after his death in 1989. “I mix them around – I want to understand how they work.” Nor is he a purist; there are Japanese dolls from his father, who worked for the Imperial Household Agency, a Korean kettle, a mask from Burkina Faso. It’s a proper home, not a gallery. The rest of his furniture is kept in a local warehouse. It’s fascinating to see how Oda built up this world-class collection on a modest income, simply through buying when designers were out of fashion, scouring auction catalogues and getting to know dealers, particularly in Scandinavia, who could alert him to pieces he might like.
Oda is modest about his extraordinary collection. “There are impressive collections, say, in the US, but I have been doing it gradually even when I didn’t have the money.” Oda says. “It would be very difficult to build up this collection now. I certainly couldn’t afford to do it.”
He now restricts himself to smaller pieces. In part, he jokes, because his wife Keiko has clamped down on his spending. Collecting has become too expensive – vintage Danish furniture is highly prized by collectors all over the world now. Oda’s favourite chair, his beloved Finn Juhl 45, is a first generation version in rosewood, which he picked up for very little 30 years ago. To buy the same chair now would be a major investment.
“There’s a timelessness to Danish design,” he says. “Italian furniture is more fashion oriented. I loved it at the time but afterwards, not so much.” (He is, however, very fond of his Achille Castiglioni stereo). He points to a rare Danish sideboard made in the 1930s from Cuban mahogany – “Danish design is very functional; the makers thought about how people would use the furniture, even down to the size of the plates. You never tire of it.” The chairs that aren’t Danish come from all over the world. He has dozens of Japanese chairs by the likes of Sori Yanagi and Motomi Kawakami. He also has a number of prototypes, which satisfy his fascination with the thought process behind a celebrated design. He has all the classic chairs that you might expect, but selectively bought. He has the requisite Eames lounge chairs but only the early Brazilian rosewood edition. “Since the boom here, there are so many. It’s like mass production now.”
Oda laments what he considers a decline in the quality of Scandinavian manufacturing. “Royal Copenhagen and iittala are manufacturing in Thailand .” He blames investors who buy into the business and want to see returns but who don’t consider the spirit of the company. “The focus is on cheaper manufacturing,” he says. “The products are similar but cheaper to produce – they look the same but they’re not.” It’s not easy to make money from a chair collection – museums give a small lease fee and free tickets to the exhibitions; he has his teaching and book writing and is now working on two books on furniture for the Korean market and another in Japanese. He’s a talented illustrator and has frequently designed the posters as well as lent most of the exhibits for a number of shows.
Oda spent 15 years working on a landmark book in Japanese: Irasutoreteddo Meisaku Isu Taizen (Illustrated Masterpieces of Chairs), which was finally published in 2007. His knowledge of furniture design is encyclopedic. Oda also published a book about traditional Japanese architecture, Nihon No Ie – Kita Kara Minami Made (Japanese Houses from North to South).
Next year is the centenary of Finn Juhl’s birth and Oda is already preparing to lend his chairs for a major exhibition in Korea. Oda’s neat study, filled with vintage Bang & Olufsen stereos, is in the basement of his house where he keeps his precious auction and furniture catalogues – he has 30,000 books – and some rare pieces that he doesn’t want to keep in the warehouse.
Oda’s collection has always been highly personal and never about financial return. His wife, the amiable Keiko, is happy to live with Oda’s acquisitions, but she doesn’t share his interest. Nor do his two children. Oda has already told them that he wants to keep the collection intact and won’t be handing it on to them. He would love it to be shown in public and he has been quietly campaigning for a design museum in Japan for years. “A country like Japan should have a design museum,” he says. “It’s important for students to see properly made furniture.”
Oda is now being courted by the Danes and also by the Koreans who are hoping that his collection will end up there. He is holding out, however, for something permanent in Japan. “I want my family to know what I did with my life,” he says.
Mr Oda's guide to being a collector
“I’ve been collecting various objects and furniture as I go along,” says Noritsugu Oda. “My ultimate goal is to build a design museum, which doesn’t yet exist in Japan.” Here are his top five tips for aspiring collectors.
Follow your heart: You don’t have to take an academic approach to collecting. Buy things you truly like.
But don’t lose your head: When it comes to buying, be careful to stay within the price range that you can afford.
Do it for pleasure: Collect something that doesn’t have anything to do with your main occupation.
Don’t follow the herd: It’s easier to start collecting things that other people aren’t. When other people start collecting the same things as you it becomes much more difficult.
Build your knowledge: Don’t only collect objects – try to collect the related documents and collateral material that goes with them. It will give you a deeper understanding of what you’re collecting.