x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

'A lot of our customers look at our pieces and see trees and nature'

Cult shop This exquisite shop in Hong Kong features modern furniture inspired by traditional Chinese craft and made without a single nail.

In an age of assemble-it-yourself furniture made of particle board and plastic, the young designers at Joineur in Hong Kong are blazing a decidedly traditional path: creating durable items that are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside. Walk into their shop in the city's Wan Chai neighbourhood and you'll spot what look like 3-D wooden jigsaw puzzles sitting on the counter. In fact, these are models illustrating the traditional Chinese carpentry methods used by the company's craftsmen. Play with the pieces for a few minutes, sliding the slats in and out and fiddling with the wooden pegs that hold the various parts together, and suddenly it dawns on you: Nearly every table, chair, bed, sofa and bookshelf in this store is made without a single nail. "We think these techniques are so beautiful, we must preserve them," says Denise Chan, an interior designer and one of the shop's four founders. "Our core idea is to take old methods and apply them to new styles."

Chan's interest in traditional arts and crafts was sparked by a mentor during her days at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the mid-1990s. As their entry for a contest, she and Brian Lee, now her husband, designed a sofa that takes its inspiration from the Chinese character meaning "to sit". This pictograph shows two people sitting on a mat, facing each other with a small table between them. The sofa is actually a day bed with three sections, the middle cushion of which can be folded down to create a table. Functional for sitting, sleeping and even eating, it's an ideal design for Hong Kong, where apartments are notoriously cramped and every inch of space must be maximised.

After designing that piece, which is now known as the Daydream Bed, Chan had a chance meeting in 2000 with Jeff Wong, whose family owned a traditional Chinese furniture shop in Hong Kong and employed a stable of carpenters in Dongguan, in mainland China. But with highly ornamental and fusty Chinese designs losing popularity, he was searching for a way to revitalise the business. Chan and some friends made some trial designs on computers then went to China to consult Wong's craftsmen. "You have to go to the factory and sit down with the carpenters to find out what will work," said Chan. "They don't work with computers. When your idea passes from your hand to the carpenter's hand, they have their own ideas. We have to work together to find the most suitable materials and methods."

After coming up with several collections comprising about 100 items altogether, the Joineur team opened its first shop in 2002. Now there are four branches and the company has 250 carpenters. Ebony and rosewood are the preferred materials, and production encompasses 18 steps; it can take up to two months to complete a single piece. In addition to the use of timeless carpentry methods, many of Joineur's designs are inspired by classical Chinese motifs and concepts.

One of the signature items is the Brothers' Stool, which sells for about 1,600 Hong Kong dollars (Dh757) and embodies the idea that brothers, while two separate beings, are inextricably joined. Carved from a single piece of wood, the stool separates along a zigzag joint in the middle to create two smaller seats. While drawing on tradition, Joineur's designers are mindful that their pieces must function well in the modern home. Their Cloud Screen, (10,400 Hong Kong dollars) made mostly from frosted glass in a frame, incorporates an ancient Chinese "cloud" pattern around the margins - giving the piece an unmistakably Asian flavour, but without the heavy embellishment seen in antique wooden screens that replicate the same motif dozens of times. "The idea is to give a hint of the pattern without being too decorative; we wanted to keep it clean," said Chan. "The glass also offers privacy but lets light through." Similarly, the Han sofa and chair collection is based on a low seating style from the Tang dynasty (618-907AD) that's visually appealing, but notoriously uncomfortable. The Joineur team updated the design with an upholstered cushion on the bench, but it's inset to maintain the low profile.

By striving to make items that are functional, sturdy and aesthetically appealing, the Joineur team aims to create furniture that will last for decades. "Many people these days easily throw things away," says Chan. "But if I have something like this, I can't throw it away. A lot of our customers look at our pieces and see trees; they see nature. And when we explain how they work inside, they love it even more. They want to keep it."

Joineur, Shop 131-132, Level 1, Grand Central Plaza, Shatin, Hong Kong. + 852 316 82700, www.joineur.com