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Studio Tour: Wood Artist Yukihiro Akama

by Sofia Tuovinen

When the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster hit Japan in 2011, many people that artist Yukihiro Akama knew along the coast were directly affected. Although the mountain home that Yukihiro shared with his wife Ryoko, an artist and composer, and their children Fue and Honori, wasn’t in the inundation zone, there was still a risk of radiation exposure. Based on the disastrous events, the family made a big decision — they would relocate across the world to the UK. The Akamas made the move that same year, and settled in a community in West Yorkshire, where Ryoko could begin her PhD studies.

It was through a sound project that Ryoko was participating in that Yukihiro met Samantha Allan of The Shop Floor Project, an online gallery showcasing and selling the works of talented artists and makers. Despite the initial language barrier, Yukihiro and Samantha got to talking about their shared love for Japanese architecture. “The Akamas came to stay at our little cottage, with their adorable two children, and we became good friends, sharing food recipes from sushi to British stews,” Samantha reminisces. Yukihiro, who studied architecture, showed Samantha pictures of some mud and timber buildings and furniture he had designed and made back in Japan, and told her that he hadn’t yet found a creative spark in his new home country. It was then that Samantha had “a lightbulb moment,” and came up with the idea of commissioning Yukihiro to make a collection of miniature wooden houses, based on the buildings he had designed in Japan. Soon after, Yukihiro foraged some wood and began carving out houses, using Japanese chisels and Chokokuto knives.

From the very first collection, it was clear that these miniature houses were something truly special. “The first collection sold out quickly, followed by another and another. We carried on exchanging ideas — I would send Yukihiro a book on vernacular English farm buildings or water towers, he would respond with sketches full of wondrous structures,” Samantha explains of the creative process.

The main characteristic of Yukihiro’s miniature houses has always been that they are are carved from one single piece of wood. Since the initial collection, the structures have grown long legs, inspired by both British water towers and traditional Asian stilt houses. “They are almost anthropomorphic, as if the trees have come to life and will start walking around, interacting with one another,” Samantha describes the one-off pieces. Drawing ideas from Japanese mud houses, Yukihiro’s miniature creations also feature surfaces daubed in clay, as well as minuscule stones collected from local lakes. The various textures, ranging from smooth to rough, give each piece an undoubtedly unique aesthetic.

When Yukihiro first began carving miniature houses, he used a small corner of the shed in the family’s backyard. The shed was originally built as a bird house, and some windows were covered in black paint. With each new commission from The Shop Floor Project, Yukihiro has slowly expanded his workspace to meet the needs of his growing craftsmanship, adding more tools, machines and lighting. The family leads a busy life, and you can often find Yukihiro working in his studio early in the morning or late in the evening. “I like that my studio is always ready, waiting for me when I have time to visit it,” he explains. Yukihiro loves to work in silence, but sometimes turns on the radio to learn English, which he now also learns from his children. “By having my studio I can keep my life creative. It is easy for my children to visit my studio and see what I do — they sometimes create artworks with me using wood. I feel like I am doing right by myself when I stay in my studio,” Yukihiro explains.

Yukihiro’s miniature houses are truly special, as is the story of how they originally came about. I hope you enjoy this sneak peek into Yukihiro’s backyard studio, where inspiring ideas and skillful handicrafts meet in the shape of these small wooden structures. Yukihiro’s works and limited edition prints are available exclusively from The Shop Floor Project. Sofia

*The Shop Floor Project offers Design*Sponge readers 15% off the Yukihiro Akama Print Collection (unframed prints only). Use code DSJAPAN15 at checkout! The promotion ends June 29, 2017.

Photography by Benedict Phillips

Image above: Yukihiro in his backyard studio, where he spends his days carving one-of-a-kind miniature houses out of single blocks of wood.

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With each commission from The Shop Floor Project, Yukihiro has expanded his workspace in the family’s converted backyard shed. “I did not have any electric tools or machines when I started, and had only some hand tools I brought from Japan,” Yukihiro recalls. The front room is where Yukihiro drafts, cuts and carves his miniature houses. The back room is designated for decorating and finishing touches.

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The shed window used to be covered in black paint. To get some natural light into the space, Yukihiro removed the paint but left the shape of a miniature house in one corner!

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Yukihiro’s tree houses are as exceptional as they are fascinating. The houses are carved from single blocks of wood, then planed, stained and decorated with clay and small stones.   

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“Whenever I get an idea for a house, I draw it on the blackboard and the work bench before the idea disappears from my head, and my children sometimes thankfully leave their ideas on there too,” Yukihiro shares.

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Sketches of various house designs cover a wall in Yukihiro’s studio. A selection of his house plans are available in limited edition runs from The Shop Floor Project.

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The process begins with wood blocks — Yukihiro draws house plans on them in pencil, and then begins carving.

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Yukihiro smoothing the surface of a tree house with a Japanese chisel, before finishing it with a wavy pattern using a Chokokuto knife.

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When Yukihiro takes a break, he enjoys Japanese Onigiri rice balls and Bancha tea or coffee, while watching his children play in the garden. The hand thrown coffee cup is from The Shop Floor Project’s pottery range.

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Yukihiro plans to renovate his studio over time. “I would like more space to draw and for guests to have tea, […] I want to renovate all of the interior, paint the walls and ceilings, change the concrete floor to a wooden one, get more windows and skylights,” he shares. 

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Tree houses in the window add a warm and welcoming touch. “They look like that they say hello to cats who always come here,” Yukihiro says.

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“Yukihiro made one house with long ‘stilts’ and we just fell in love with it, so did our customers, who asked for more of these,” Samantha recalls the development of the distinctive stilt houses.

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A shelf in the studio holds spoons made by Yukihiro, work-in-progress houses and various woodworking tools.

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Yukihiro in the garden, outside his studio.

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Each miniature house that Yukihiro makes is one-of-a-kind.

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The tree houses show true craftsmanship, with various surfaces and finishes.

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“What I love most about my studio is the foggy window facing the garden where my family plays.” — Yukihiro

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Comments

  • Thank you Samantha, Ryoko and Akihiro for shedding some more light on these beautiful wooden houses on stilts! I loved hearing about how you met and the series of events which led to their beginning…especially love the “foggy window” that displays some of the houses to the local cats and the chalk ‘ideas’ board that the children also leave their ideas on. Keep up the great work!
    Rachel Kato. 22/06/2017

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