Category Archives: lighting

The Japanese Room

Since the house was declared complete, there has been one room that has remained unfinished. It’s pretty visible too, right at the top of the stairs, there has just been a pile of boxes and wood on the subfloor. We’ve just been telling visitors, “and that will be the Japanese room.”

Now, finally, it is the Japanese room!

After the excellent bookshelves downstairs done by Jeremy Balint, this time it’s the work of another brilliant local carpenter, Joe Calnan. Joe is multi-talented as you can see from the projects on his website: historian, educator, guide, boatbuilder, historic building restorer – and just occasionally, lucky people get to have him do some interior woodwork. We had him in mind for this project from the beginning as he’s also interested in Japanese joinery, and we’re delighted he was able to find the time to fit us in.

What we are calling the Japanese room is a typical multipurpose space that would be found in a small house or apartment in Japan, known as a washitsu. Japanese rooms are generally measured by floor area, in tatami. Tatami are thick mats woven from a special grass straw and filled with another kind of grass stuffing (although many these days have some kind of artifical foam instead), often edged with fabric. The sizing is slightly complicated by the fact that tatami are traditionally slightly different sizes in different parts of Japan, but generally they are around 90cm x 45cm and arranged in various different patterns depending on the exact shape of the room.

We had designed in this space along these dimensions from the beginning, to be a 4.5 tatami space (yojohan), plus tokonoma (alcove) and chigaidana (cupboards). In most traditional rooms, the tokonoma and chigaidana are next to each other, split by a tokobashira, a pillar that is often deliberately rustic, and sometimes even just a whole tree branch. However, in some the alcove and cupboards are arranged vertically, and this is what we decided to do because it makes the cupboards, in which we will store guest futon mattresses, more easily usable, and it also makes more a potential feature of the top of the low cupboards. We will still have a tokobashira in the centre but the ash branch from the island we are going to use is still still drying. The tokonoma has certain other traditional features too, usually a flower arrangement and scroll, both of which are changed seasonally or more frequently. Ours also has an otoshigake, a valence at the top of the alcove. The room is not divided from the upstairs hallway by walls and a door but by shoji, translucent sliding screens (although it could also be fusuma, which are opaque screens).

Our tatami mats and shoji screens both came from the Vancouver-based Lilin, who were really excellent to deal with and very reasonably priced for quality products. The shoji are made of fir, and this really determined the choice of the rest of the materials in the room – and outside. We had already choicen to use a fir top for the stair rail, and Joe used fir for the frame post and kamoi (top rail) for the shoji, and carefully matched pieces of fir for the valence and the cupboards. The tatami mats are held in place by a narrow fir frame and the base of the sliding screens and cupboards. However, the shikii (base rail) for the shoji is clear maple, the same as the floor of the upstairs landing. Maple is also much harder than fir, which makes it more suitable for the shikii, which will need to be hard-wearing. We’ve generally tried not to use any foreign or unsustainably-harvested wood for any part of the house, but Joe had a large piece of Honduras mahogany, which he has had in the store in the back of his workshop for quite a few years, which was absolutely beautiful and was almost exactly the right size for the cupboard top. All Honduras mahogany is now supposed to be sustainably harvested or cultivated, and this was certainly not from Brazil, where that is often not the case and mahogany is frequently illegally harvested.

The tokonoma is lined in this really special hand-made silk wallpaper from Ubushina in Japan, which has ‘grain’. Inspired by pictures on their website, we decided to hang it as equal size squares, alternating the direction of the grain for each so that the light would catch it in different ways. It made the cutting and hanging processes a little more complicated but the result is beautiful.

And finally, we sorted out the lighting. The tokonoma is lit by a flexible LED strip around the inside of the valence. This can be set to all kinds of color outputs, and even has some sort of ‘disco’ settings, which FK loves, but generally, a warm yellow light works best with the wallpaper and wood. The main room light is another one from Toshiyuki Tani, who also made the birch-bark shade in the lounge. It’s a simple washi-paper shade in the shape of Mt Fuji.

Overall, we are delighted with the room.


Lighting is one thing we had really left along while we finished the construction. The electricians just fitted basic fittings and whatever bulbs they had to hand – basically whatever enabled the electrical work to pass the inspection – and we didn’t really touch anything until recently.

The exceptions were the bathrooms where we got the electricians to fit water-safe Light-Emitting Diode (LED) lights and places where we had already bought fittings from Ikea that were code-compliant (Francis’s bedroom, the kitchen, pantry and outside). We also replaced most of the bulbs with LED bulbs, and now the whole house now has LED lighting. LED-based lights should last for 25-30 years without needing to be replaced and will use a tenth of the electricity of conventional filament bulbs, without the levels of mercury in Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) – which also don’t last anyway near as long and are nowhere near as energy efficient as LEDs. People used to be worried – some still are – that LEDs give a ‘harsh’ of overly blue light. That might have been true several years ago, but now LEDs can be found from this bluer end all the way through to warm yellow-orange that looks and feels like filament bulbs (and there are even LED bulbs that physically look like vintage bulbs too). Of course the great thing about LEDs is that they don’t have to look like bulbs at all. They can come in strings, or flat, or almost any shape.

However, there remained the question of proper fittings, in the main parts of the house and other rooms. Our friend in the island built a house a few years ago, and she struggled for months to find light fittings she liked. The truth is that contemporary lighting in Canada, and not just at the more affordable end of spectrum, is really bad. Terrible design, cheap materials and poor manufacturing in mostly in uncertain conditions in China, are the order of the day. Most of the lights are poor imitations of ‘antique’ designs or fake art deco. None of the lessons of the modernist movement in terms of functional and good design for everyone, appears to have been learned. Certainly there is a wide range of affordable lighting but it’s all, without exception, bad. Ikea has offered some options – and we taken a few of them – but even theirs isn’t that good and they appear to have almost given up on doing simply things well in terms of lighting.

Added to this is the fact that Kayo and I don’t have exactly the same tastes. I tend to like a greater range of modern lighting, and particularly the more colourful. Kayo is more minimal. But we have enough overlap! We particularly wanted a couple of pendants to go over our dining table and some kind of modern triple, descending pendant for the stairwell, as well as something interesting for the lounge area, and something actually Japanese for the tatami room upstairs.

Unsurprisingly we got the latter from Japan, a simple washi paper shade, and found the interesting light for the lounge from the same maker, Toshiyuki Tani, this one made from shaved birch-bark laminated with clear plastic on a metal frame.

For the others (and also for furniture, about which there will be another post in future), I had been spending some time lurking on eBay, etsy and European vintage sales sites like (formerly RetroStart) for the last couple of years, trying to pick up some bargains from the era when lighting really was well-designed, namely the mid-20th century, particularly in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy. I picked up a few NOS (new old stock) Danish pendant shade kits, which were quite common at the time, but it doesn’t look like we’re actually going to use more than one so we’ll probably sell the others on. But we managed to find what we wanted for both the stairwell and dining room.

For the dining table, we were lucky to find a pair of genuine ‘as-new’ Louis Poulsen PH 4/3 lights for less than half the new price. I love Poul Henningsen’s designs, and it doesn’t matter how many of them you see, the simple PH 4/3 still works in almost any setting. It’s an almost perfect design.

For the stairs, we had a lot more trouble as it’s difficult to agree on one piece for such an important setting and difficult to find anything affordable that’s so big. Because the stair rail is steel, I really wanted something that echoed this and provided further contrast to all the wood. We eventually settled on a triple Star pendant designed by Dutch architect and designer, J.J.M. (‘Jan’) Hoogervorst for Anvia. It’s got an industrial feel but also creates a really beautiful light and works very well in the space. The black and white enamel finish is a little battered but it’s even better for that and rather than restore it, we’re going to leave it that way.