A4 / OFFICE CAMP LLC
Aiming at a toy that inspires everyone (Part 1)
This time we visited A4/A-Yon (OFFICE CAMP LLC), which makes “tumi-isi,” hand-processed and hand-painted building blocks, in Higashiyoshino Village, Nara Prefecture. The unique building blocks each have a different shape and can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. The product was selected as one of the GOOD DESIGN BEST 100 in 2021. Mr. Daimon Kanno, product designer, started production of the blocks in earnest in 2016, eight years after the first release. Why did it take so long? How has he faced and overcome the challenges? He spoke on these questions from a creator’s perspective.
The idea comes from loading a trunk
— “Tumi-isi” blocks are not tetrahedrons or cubes, but rather random polyhedrons. When you play with the blocks, you stack them in a balanced manner like stones. It’s a toy that can be around us but has never existed. How was it created?
Daimon Kanno I studied product design at Kobe Design University until 2007. While I was still a student, I set up a product design office called A4 (A-Yon) with my academic friends. We entered various competitions, won prize money, and used it to make furniture and other industrial products on our own.
The year after I graduated, I participated in an international trade fair in Germany. These building blocks were created at that time. We had never traveled abroad, and had to send our work overseas. So, we tried to make products small enough to stack in a trunk. It was then that “tumi-ishi” was created (tumi-ishi was the spelling at that time, with “h” added).
Since graduating, I have run a furniture factory as well as a design office. Then, I started using wood scraps from the factory. Even though they were scraps, we explored the beauty of the shape and the fun of stacking. We made many improvements and exhibited at the trade fair.
– You didn’t investigate toys or building blocks to get inspiration for tumi-isi. Instead, you combined your image with the mixture of materials you had and small shapes. Then, you created a new type of building block. It’s interesting.
Kanno Yes. I didn’t intend to make it into a toy. In the first place, I enjoyed making things with my hands and I had a desire to create something. So I started a design office and furniture factory. Perhaps I can say that what I formulated in my mind would be created through my hands one day.
The shape of each building block is different. I whittle it according to my mood. But I set minimum rules: The cross section should not be horizontal, vertical, or 45 degrees, if possible. I thought it would be more difficult and fun to pile up. And it would look more beautiful.
Design points: The idea and design of the random polyhedron was highly appreciated. The aesthetics of size, shape, and color of each block were pursued to make decorating fun. They are made of various materials such as Yoshino cedar, Japanese cypress, broadleaf trees, and recycled cork.
Products that allow users to be creative
– That’s why they are not simply square or triangle, but polyhedron. Because of the different shapes, is the way of playing different from that of ordinary building blocks?
Kanno General building blocks are stacked to create a physical space such as a castle. Tumi-isi is just stacked in a balanced way. If you stack horizontal or vertical ones, to some extent you can predict the result of stacking. Because tumi-isi has a different shape, size, and color, you cannot predict what will happen. Because of the irregular surface, you have to find the center of gravity and shape every time. It’s interesting to stack them while finding that there is no right answer. It’s always fun. It’s been 15 years since I developed it, and I’m not tired of it.
I think tumi-isi is a semi-finished product. How to enjoy or use it depends on users. The users stack, decorate, or use it in ways I cannot think of. I always use feedback as a reference.
It’s not at its best when it’s simply in stores. The more it’s used, the better it gets. I want to make such semi-finished products.
In the month after it caused a sensation, counterfeit products were distributed around the world
– The characteristics of the product allow adults to enjoy it, too. What was the response at the trade fair of the time?
Kanno There was an unexpectedly good response. There was an unbelievable crowd at the booth, and the exhibition ended with a great success. However, from the following month, under the same name of tumi-ishi, many counterfeit products were made overseas and were found here and there.
The purpose of participating in the exhibition was partially to find a manufacturer who would work with us in production. But we were too inexperienced to achieve it. So we only sold to people around us for a while. We were waiting for an opportunity to expand our product line.
– The prevalence of cheaper counterfeit products has limited the activities of the original producer. It was a serious matter. But it didn’t end as it was.
Kanno When I moved to Higashiyoshino Village in Nara Prefecture in 2013, I started to consider production again. First, there are good quality Yoshino cedar and cypress trees in the village. Then, OFFICE CAMP HIGASHIYOSHINO, a coworking space, was completed. Various creators, including woodworkers and photographers, began to gather. I felt like the foundation of manufacturing was solidified.
When I had a problem, the woodworkers and editors around me would give me advice, and the photographers would take pictures of products, which made it easier for me to communicate the product. I thought I would devote myself to self-production.
As a result, tumi-isi began to sell. Now we have employed several newcomers to the village. We make it in the form of a household-based handicraft industry. Even after receiving the GOOD DESIGN AWARD in 2021, this has not changed.
There are people, there are things
Kanno “Tumi-isi” is a product that stands between industrial products and crafts. If you change the material from wood to plastic or resin, and produce tens of thousands, you might call it an industrial product. But currently we hand-whittle and hand-paint each piece, so it may be more of a craft.
If we move the production to China and mass-produce it, we can make it cheaper and sell more. But we’re not interested in that kind of thing. We value the sense of work, that is, we make and ship our products.
– I feel this is reflected in the nuances of the product. How many do you sell a year?
Kanno About 2,000 boxes, or 10,000 blocks. This is the threshold of the product in a way. If it clears this threshold, it makes good business sense. It allows me to pay my staff and everyone can maintain a work–life balance. It is designed not to lose “what is important.” This means that we are not only designing goods, but also the flow of money.
– Ideally, we can make enough to live on and enjoy working. I think it makes good business sense because it is between craft and industrial product. If it’s a craft, only craftworkers can make it. It becomes more expensive. If it’s an industrial product, the market competition can be exhausting.
Kanno That may be true. We can achieve this because we have a community called OFFICE CAMP, we have newcomers who work with us, and we have a system to utilize our respective strengths. If it was just me, all I could do is to make a craft.
When I was at a furniture factory in Kobe City, I could not make it take off and had a difficult time. But here in Higashiyoshino, I work harmoniously with my colleagues. I live rather than work.
I think people should come before things. But in today’s society, it’s as if people work for things. It seems reversed. I always live thinking about what should come first and what’s important.
We can learn from knockoffs
– I think severe market competition is partly due to the prevalence of counterfeit products. Have you implemented any countermeasures?
Kanno No, not at all. In fact, I don’t mind that they create freely. If you search “tsum-ishi” or “tumi-ishi,” you will find many manufacturers offering knockoffs. When we paint colors, they offer products with similar colors. I feel that they are studying our trends.
Because the shape of tumi-isi is easy to make, it can be easily imitated. Because we can make it, woodworkers can make it with simple machines and tools. But perhaps the essence can’t be imitated: Our thoughts and experiences we’ve accumulated, feelings about people who play with it and people who make it, and the organizations and backgrounds that make our business work.
Only the appearance is imitated. Such “important things” are not. That’s why I don’t worry. Also, the recognition of the real “tumi-isi” increases through imitation. It’s kind of a give and take (laughs). Eventually, I would like to invite manufacturers who imitate it to join us, saying “Why don’t you make the real thing?”
– It’s also a sign of your unwavering confidence that knockoffs are no match for the real thing in terms of quality.
Kanno Many of the knockoffs are made in an easy and simple way, using horizontal or vertical surfaces. And each shape is small. I had an acquaintance who bought a knockoff without knowing that it was fake. He came to regret it because he found it boring. So, I had it sent to me and whittled it to make it a high-quality “real” thing. I even think it might be good to develop such services in the future. Even knockoffs are materials.
– You have interesting ideas.
Kanno I simply wanted to know the difference between our products and counterfeit products. I can even learn from the counterfeit products. I think we can live more positively and happily if we consider it as material rather than claiming copyright infringement. If there’s a fake, there’s also a real thing. It’s an honor.
– You have made tumi-isi since you moved here. It is made from beautiful Yoshino wood.
Kanno Yoshino cedar and cypress are used. The largest block is about the size of an adult fist. It takes trees about 80 to 100 years old to do that. The center of the log cannot be used. There are no knots in the wood, unlike wood from a hardware store. It is made from materials that are more precious than one might think.
When I first came to OFFICE CAMP, I exhibited furniture made of plywood. A local asked me why I used the kind of wood used for behind walls. Yoshino is a forestry village with a history of 500 years. So they have a good eye for wood.
Then I realized that I had to use real materials. I’ve come to believe that it should be made of high-quality material and that each block should have a different shape in order to make a really fun tumi-isi.
Manufacturing with the use of nature and local networks in Yoshino supports the one-of-a-kind toy. OFFICE CAMP LLC won the GOOD DESIGN GRAND AWARD 2022 for Magical TYROLDO Candy Store. In Part 2, Mr. Kanno will talk about how creativity is connected to Yoshino.
In GOOD DESIGN TANBOU (=exploring), we deliver interviews and introduce works based on a certain subject. This time, the theme is “creation wave.” When we unravel “Good Design,” we can see how one “Good” perspective or action leads to another “Good” one, which embodies good things in waves. We cover the story of how new ideas are connected to each other to create good things and events.
A fun balancing object that can be played with or displayed, with the aim of cultivating a sense of creativity. With random polyhedrons and an easy-to-grip finish, you can have a unique stacking-up experience like stacking stones on the riverbank. It is finished with natural paint that is harmless to the human body. The size is designed to prevent accidental ingestion. So, even small children can play with it safely. https://www.designofficea4.com/tumi-isi
- Award details
- 2021 GOOD DESIGN BEST 100 “tumi-isi” https://www.g-mark.org/en/gallery/winners/9e491275-803d-11ed-af7e-0242ac130002
- Daimon Kanno A4, Product Design Div. OFFICE CAMP LLC.
- Daimon Kanno A4, Product Design Div. OFFICE CAMP LLC.
- Daimon Kanno A4, Product Design Div. OFFICE CAMP LLC.
After working in the editorial department of “AXIS,” she became a freelancer. She writes, edits, and plans, with a focus on design and life culture. Her major editorial works include LIXIL BOOKLET series (book, LIXIL Publishing) and “Oishisa no Kagaku” (magazine, NTS Publishing).
After graduating from high school, he learned how to take photos from a photographer he had met at a part-time job. Since 2008, he has been based in Osaka, presenting his work while focusing mainly on photography for magazines and advertisements.