It’s barely 148 kilometers away from the economic and cultural bustle of Sao Paulo, but the small southeastern town of Santo Antonio do Pinhal bears little of it. Its six thousand inhabitants live on a different wavelength, at a slower and more contemplative pace.
Even its topography and climate speak of somewhere else, especially to the many Japanese immigrants who have settled in the region: there are rice paddies nestled between the hills, and its dirt roads lead to art studios and small furniture firms. One of these spots, a 350-square-meter abode, is the home and office of Japanese woodworker Morito Ebine, one of the greatest hidden treasures in the craft of joinery both in Brazil and the world. Upon his arrival in the country in 1995, he started growing mushrooms and potatoes before opening his own workshop. Now, joined by four woodworkers and his two dogs, Morito spends his days crafting sought-after chairs, tables, stools and many other pieces of furniture.
“I’m always observant of quality, and therefore, I don’t mind taking my time to deliver the products.”
Let’s start with your background. You’re Japanese and you came to live here in Brazil, right?
I’m from Yaita, in the Tochigi prefecture. Do you remember Fukushima, where the nuclear plant exploded? Yaita lies between Fukushima and Tokyo: 100 kilometers away from Tokyo, 100 kilometers away from Fukushima. I came here in 1995. I was working with organic farming. I met my former wife in Japan; she’s Brazilian. We got married and came to live in Brazil.
Did you speak Portuguese when you arrived here?
Just a little bit. We lived with my ex-wife’s sister and her two daughters. I started learning Portuguese with those four women… and then, one day, I said I had to go piddle, and my sister-in-law lost her patience. “You need to start speaking like a man! Men don’t say ‘piddle,’ they say, piss,’” she told me.
How did you start getting involved with woodwork?
I majored in woodwork and furniture design in college, in Japan, but I never graduated. Three years in, I started working at a joinery studio and dropped out—theory proved less appealing than practice. I was also helping out at a friend’s organic farming site. Right away, I started planning to open my own workshop.
Have you always used this fitting technique to produce furniture?
Always. When I came to Brazil I realized most pieces were made out of chipboard, which doesn’t last very long. Joinery is a tradition in Japan, and furniture is handed down between generations—these pieces last 200, 300, 500 years. But nowadays, even in Japan, things have changed and furniture has become disposable. We even used to build houses that way.
Where do you source your wood from?
From several spots in Brazil, and everything is certified—I don’t use imported wood. I get Brazilian maple, walnut, and a bit of cedar from the south, but we’ve been getting loads of cedar from the north, as well. I’m also working with different types of timber: sucupira, cumaru, peroba mica and pink jequitibá. Every piece is different: chairs need to be light and durable but we use hardwoods on the tables.
Upon your arrival, did you notice any differences between timber here and over in Japan? Did you have to relearn how to use wood?
Indeed, they’re very different. In Brazil you have the world’s softest and hardest woods, and a wide range of densities. In Japan there’s a smaller range. Over there, regular woodworkers don’t use hardwoods because that would require learning new ways to cut timber.
How does hierarchy work in this craft?
I work with four people. It usually takes 10 years to qualify as a woodworker, but it’s very much a case-by-case situation: you have people with grit who are hungry to learn. In Japan, I used to work on Saturdays, all day long, and then I’d work for free on Sundays, organizing the tools. In Brazil, people don’t like to work on weekends.
In your workshop, does everyone do a bit of everything or are there functions that are reserved exclusively for you?
I’m the only one involved in pattern making. Everything else, we divide amongst the five of us.
“People think I’m some sort of chair-making genius.”
What’s the process like when you’re crafting a piece of furniture?
Most of my ideas are born on paper. Afterwards, we start putting the piece together rather carelessly, just to see if it’s comfortable, and then we go back to the drawing board and come up with a final design, a serious one.
How long does the whole thing take?
It’s a long process: two months at least.
Two months to make a chair?
Yes. I usually take two weeks just for the design phase. Then it’s three days to come up with a prototype, just to sit on it and see how it works. Afterwards, I have to rework the design, and that usually takes a week. Producing the pattern and the guides is a full month’s work, perhaps even a month and a half. But a good piece takes at least two years.
What’s your monthly output?
We’re making about 15 chairs a month. But that’s embarrassing.
Why? Is that a lot? Too little?
It’s very little: Ideally, five people could produce 30 chairs. People think I’m some sort of chair-making genius, but actually, I’m better at making cabinets and tables.
Do clients come here with a product in mind?
We have people who bring a particular design on paper, asking whether it’s feasible to produce. I usually correct or improve the design so that we can build it. I then send it back to the client, and they approve. The most difficult thing here is not being able to understand what a client wants. Sometimes they come here asking for a table, a meter wide by two meters long. “What type of wood would you like?” I ask them. “Oh, you can choose anything you want,” they answer. “Which design?” I ask. “Oh, you can choose anything you want.” “Square or round?” “Oh, you can choose anything you want.” Having to make every decision myself makes things more difficult.
“I am not an artist. I’m under the impression that an artist makes art, not something utilitarian.”
And in turn, that’s even more responsibilities for you.
Yes. So I show them the tables I already have and I ask them which one they like best. Sometimes, it takes months before I get an idea. Every once in a while, I’ll get something like: “I want you to make a beautiful table or a beautiful chair.” I have no idea what “beautiful” means to them.
What makes you happier: a client that purchases an exclusive design or a client that gets involved in the process?
I actually like both. My work is not artistic. I give the client what they want, and in return they’re happy with my work. So, every now and then I’ll get someone who doesn’t really know what they want, but they’ll see one of my chairs and say they like it, and they’ll buy it. Or sometimes they’ll say: “I really liked that chair but it doesn’t work for me because the legs are too long.” So I go ahead and make the legs shorter, and everyone’s happy.
How many products have you designed by now?
I need to count them, but I’d say it’s somewhere between 45 and 50. That’s woodworking: smaller volume, more variety.
How long do your pieces last?
I still don’t know. But they have to last at least 100 years!
“Kids are restless, and so is young wood!”
You keep saying you don’t consider yourself an artist but a woodworker. And yet, many people come here and they feel they’re buying a piece of art. You really don’t consider yourself an artist?
I am not an artist. I’m under the impression that an artist makes art, not something utilitarian. I’ve never made any money by working exclusively on design, so I’m not a designer either. I make furniture, and I make money out of it. From this point of view, I’m just a woodworker.
You’ve said that good timber, which won’t wear, needs to be at least 100 years old.
At least. Certain woods should be cut to size and then left to dry for 100 years. Wood is like people: after 60 or 70 years, they start getting calmer. Kids are restless, and so is young wood! Ten-year-old wood, 15-year-old wood, that’s still young. After 200 or 300 years, wood goes calm. The same thing happens with trees. There are spots in the trunk where wood is younger and others where it’s older—right in the middle, for example, you’ll find older wood. But there is also such a thing as too calm: that’s the point where wood starts rotting away.
Which strengths have you developed during your years with the workshop?
I’m always observant of quality, and therefore, I don’t mind taking my time to deliver the products. And also, of course, safety. Losing a finger because you wanted to work faster is just not worth it.
What are the biggest differences between Brazil and Japan when it comes to woodworking?
In Japan, if you make a mistake, you apologize immediately. Here, you won’t hear “sorry” very often, and sometimes they’ll still swear they’re right. There’s something else that irks me about Brazil: its individualism. In Japan, we always use the plural “we”: “we make, we sell.” There’s a bigger sense of collectivity. Here in Brazil, the boss often decides for everyone, without asking for anyone’s opinion.
I take it that doesn’t happen in your studio.
I’m not really cut out to be the boss. I ask my colleagues for their opinion on everything. Sometimes, they’ll even go, “But you already asked us about that!”
Thanks, Morito, for showing us your craft and the beautiful town of Santo Antonio do Pinhal. To explore the full catalog of his works, head to Atelier Morito Ebine.
Brazil is awash with artists and craftsman, find out more, or be inspired by more stories from Japan.
Text: Ricardo Moreno
Photography: Shinji Minegishi