Photographer: Armelle Habib, Stylist: Heather Nette King
Shopping for an antique chest of drawers or any statement piece of furniture can be quite an investment. Making sure the item you choose is just right can be testing. As antique experts with over 40 years experience and as members of the Australian Antique and Art Dealers Association (AAADA), Kazari + Ziguzagu are more than qualified to equip buyers with an understanding of different types of chests. Here we share our expert buying tips and suggestions for modern uses of antiques with a toolset to guide you toward the best piece for your intended purpose.
Types of chests
Japan is home to many types of antique chests, and determining the difference between them is the first step toward becoming a knowledgeable antique shopper, although the choice may depend on your storage needs as well of your personal taste.
Some of the main types of traditional Japanese chests are:
Choba Dansu - merchants wooden storage chest often containing four or five main drawers and sometimes with secret compartments for valuables.
- Storage wooden chest/box
Futon chest - for bedding and linen storage
- Sewing box
Kimono storage chest made from paulownia wood
Isho Dansu - Chest on chest, a chest of drawers made in two halves with one part sitting on top of the other often with the same or similar look which are mainly used for garment storage
Cha dana - tea cabinets used for storing and displaying tea ceremony equipment
Mizuya - kitchen dressers or cabinet for domestic storage
and chests from other countries in Asia such as from Korea and China, can also be beautiful and collectable as well as useful beyond their original function. This makes them highly sought-after objects for the home.
Defining an antique
A number of reliable sources, including the US Customs Service1, define an antique as an item that is at least 100 years old. Antique experts like Kazari - who agree with this definition - usually categorise anything more recent as collectible or vintage. Some antique collectors and dealers say that only things very well made or considered valuable at the time (i.e. limited edition) can be classified as true antiques. However, many experts say an antique is anything before 1920 or anything over a century old, regardless of quality of workmanship or rarity.
Historians, antique collectors and dealers have some differences of opinion between the terms antique, vintage and retro. Vintage and retro are usually considered 20th century pieces - and although the term is used liberally, we find many exemplary items of superior quality that clearly reflect the time period in which they were created.
Be it antique or vintage, Kazari + Ziguzagu only stock quality and authentic items and have a qualified and experienced professional furniture restorer on site at their Montague St. warehouse.
Antiques - the ultimate ethical choice to make!
There are many reasons to purchase an antique, not least the fact that they can become treasured and long held pieces and the value will usually grow over time so they are good investments. The most sought-after pieces of antique Japanese furniture on display at Kazari + Ziguzagu have stood the test of time: all inferior craftsmanship has disappeared, leaving only quality pieces. From a small wooden storage chest to an impressive Japanese carved and gilded altar table, antiques are also an ethical choice. They are environmentally friendly because no new resources were used to create them. Instead, they are being restored, repurposed and given new life for multiple generations to enjoy.
Photographer: Lisa Cohen, Stylist: Heather Nette King
Shopping for antiques
Whether you are searching for a choba dansu
, Japanese merchants chests
or small wooden storage cabinet
with drawers, it is good to have some understanding of the basics of shopping for Japanese furniture. If you are looking for bedside tables or chests, side tables or occasional tables or searching for a wedding gift or present for a significant birthday, buying from antique dealers such as Kazari ensures that you are buying from reputable sources.
Browsing online may help to focus your search criteria, however if you aren't willing to travel, consider shipping costs in addition to the price of your piece. The downside to the internet is that you cant see, touch and experience the furniture first-hand to determine condition, size and how much you really like it. Visit, call or email our friendly and experienced team for condition reports and other queries, to help find the best piece for your designated space.
Japanese furniture is very adaptable, often light in weight and suitable for many uses. Small chests are seldom in pairs but can often be closely matched for size and colour as bedside tables. They also make great sofa tables. Whereas a two piece kimono chest or chest on chest can work well separated and used as two cabinets. Very rarely, these chest on chests come in three separate sections.
Signs of quality workmanship to look out for when selecting your chest include:
- the type of wood used
- the thickness of wood on items such as drawers
- the detailing on fittings such as ironware handles
- the joinery (bamboo nails were used until the late C19th, dovetail joints were not used widely in Japan until early to mid C20th)
- rare or unusual design features such as secret compartments are unique to Japanese choba-dansu
- the patina, or surface character, warmth of colour and tone
Buying an unrestored piece of furniture may seem like a saving but investing in a piece which has been professionally restored by us can be more cost effective over time. Essentially, the condition affects the pieces quality, value and future longevity.
When it comes to condition, superficial surface marks and scratches on Asian antiques help to create an aged patina and character. Unlike furniture that has been french polished - where denting and surface marks are a major concern - the marks on Kazari's restored pieces are not such an issue. We prefer to consider that the surface blemishes offer a window into the history of the pieces journey and previous lives.
All of Kazari's Japanese furniture is hand selected so you can be assured of the quality and origin of the furniture we offer. The furniture in our showroom in Malvern Rd, Prahran has already been fully restored in-house and is ready to take home. Unrestored pieces can be bought from our warehouse outlet at Montague St, South Melbourne. If you'd like to have a go at restoration yourself, you can book into one of our regularly run restoration demonstrations.
When it comes to considering style and design, choose an eclectic look or, if you want more continuity, work with one colour palette, timber type or time period. If you have a piece of furniture in need of restoration, our furniture-restoring experts can provide quotes for alterations and restaining and have experience in matching finishes to existing furniture.
A practical tip is to carry a tape measure with you (and maybe a photo of the space you're decorating) when shopping for antiques so you can get an accurate idea of dimensions and make an informed decision. Be open minded about what a particular antique can be used for. Small choba-dansu are popular as TV cabinets or bedside tables; a chest on chest could become a hall cabinet. In a contemporary space, an antique Japanese chest can be used to store most items and fit stylistically into any room of the house. Chinese altar tables are mostly long and narrow and make perfect side tables that are also well placed in long hallways.
Japanese or Chinese
Knowing the difference between Japanese and Chinese antique furniture may be less important than your sense of style but here's a general guide to apply when looking at a showroom full of furniture:
Japanese cabinets have more drawers and sliding doors, are compact and lightweight, often made with handles on the side for ease of movement (originally designed to be carried on poles). There were very few tables ever made in Japan, except for temples until the early C20th, when they began importing and copying Chinese tea tables.
Chinese furniture is heavier, often with legs of one kind or another. Antique coffee tables that are repurposed tea tables are mostly Chinese. The wood of provincial pieces is often thicker with much of the grain and burr of the timber evident, whereas more refined pieces of Chinese furniture can be lacquered or painted with flowers and birds.
Lastly, buy what you love - Japanese or Chinese, old or new - not what you think will make money or impress your friends. That way, you ensure that the item you purchase will become a treasured piece that will last lifetimes.