Norio Tanno: Whimsical Woodworker and the Art of Sound
Nestled amongst gleaming rice fields against the backdrop of Hokkaido's Asahi Mountain lies woodworking studio Craft & Design TANNO. For over 40 years, Norio Tanno has hand-crafted a variety of beautiful objects, such as business card cases and hexagonal tea canisters, in a way that creates a satisfying, soothing sound when the wooden parts move together.

Upon entering the gallery I am greeted by a bright room lined with shelves displaying a large variety of wooden objects. My eyes instantly focus on a raised wooden walkway near the ceiling that appears to connect two hidden rooms, a mysterious and amusing design that sets the tone for the entire visit. I am graciously guided around by Mr. Tanno, who proceeds to pick up items along the way, demonstrating the pleasing sound they emit as they are opened and shut. A smile spreads across his face as he pulls up on a tree bud latch to unlock the drawers of a small wooden box. There is a jubilant and playful energy about Mr. Tanno that can be easily felt in his creations.

When Mr. Tanno first began woodworking after graduating from design school, he wanted to concentrate on furniture. Whilst thinking about a prototype for a chair, he struggled with creating a design that truly stood out from the rest. He decided to shift his focus and started making wooden boxes after a friend asked him to help create a selection for an exhibition at the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art in 1981. Within these boxes he found constant inspiration and started to develop his signature style, hinges and keys made entirely of wood, rather than the traditional craft style of using metal. 'I began making small wooden parts myself and attaching them to a wooden box when I started woodworking. That method was not found in traditional Japanese wood crafts, and not so much in the world.'

Norio Tanno describes himself as sound-sensitive and intentionally creates wooden objects with the element of sound in mind. As for what first drew him to this concept, ‘while I was making a wooden business card holder, a friend came over. He said, “this click sound is good.” I didn't notice [the click] until that moment. Since then, I've become more concerned about the sound each object makes.’ Branching out further with his exploration of wood and sound, he has also constructed many tonkori (a traditional five-stringed musical instrument of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido) for the National Ainu Museum. He gently takes one off the gallery wall in front of me and plays a little tune whilst declaring his love for music.

We walk next door to his studio, where the scent of wood is intoxicating. I breathe it in as I look around. Warm light streams through the windows, drawing attention to the beauty of the Asahikawa countryside and the nature that surrounds me. Slabs of lumber can be seen throughout the space: at any time there may be more than 25 different species of wood in his workshop, including rare bubinga, Japanese black persimmon, striped ebony, and trees that have been found buried in the Earth’s soil for many years by natural phenomena, like volcanic eruption. The latter are preserved due to lack of oxygen, often attaining a darker colour and becoming harder, depending on the time span of the burial, the composition of the soil and water in the area, and the type of wood. As the wood he uses varies greatly by weight, grain, and colour, his woodworking process is a delicate art that takes extreme precision and control.

He moves freely around the space, demonstrating the role of each type of equipment and noting how dangerous certain machines can be without proper guidance. Hand-drawn designs are spread out on a nearby table, along with pieces of wood in various stages of its process, from rough-cut blocks to the desired rounded and smooth feel of the finished product. He lends some thoughts into his work, ‘The trees I work with used to be a living thing in nature, a creature the same as humans. I always think about that. Just as each person is unique and distinctive, so is the tree. The Japanese think that everything has a soul, and I am helping that soul to be reborn.’ Therefore, he tells me, he does not feel the joy of creating a work, but the joy of seeing the work as a rebirth of the soul.

Sharing techniques, wisdom, and even his mistakes has been something Norio Tanno does openly on his Instagram account, and also through lectures and workshops around the world. Influenced by his own journey, he tells me that he wants to start a woodworking school to help young people find their own creative path. He knows how rewarding woodcraft can be, ‘I think everyone can find the talent within themselves. Not many people have a lot of talent from the beginning – I was the same. But for those who continue to work at it, that will grow.’

I believe that would be a perfect next step: his wealth of knowledge, youthful energy, and creative mind only adds to his obvious passion for exploring the woodworking world with anyone who so desires.

Editor’s Note:

Laura Wheatley is a photographer and writer based out of New York who creates compelling travel and lifestyle content. Exploring the intoxicating beauty of Japanese culture has been one of her greatest passions and she is always planning her next return. She is especially drawn to the stories of artisans and seeks to showcase them and their craft.

Laura Wheatley
Laura Wheatley