American barn architecture meets Japanese craftsmanship: Foster Retreat by Norman Foster and Karimoku

Japanese brand Karimoku collaborates with Norman Foster on furniture for a new project in Martha’s Vineyard

Karimoku Foster Retreat
(Image credit: Chuck Choi)

British architect Norman Foster, long synonymous with dynamic, bold and cloud-brushing structures, and Karimoku, the Japanese wood maker celebrated for its attention to detail and craftsmanship heritage, may not appear an immediately obvious match. Yet these two worlds combine to harmonious effect in the Foster Retreat, a new project by Norman Foster and the Norman Foster Foundation on the edge of a creek in Martha’s Vineyard, with the sharpness of the modern architecture perfectly countered by the soft edges of the Karimoku furniture.

The angular structure of steel and timber cuts sharply into the sky, casting clean lines of light onto the scenic landscape of Martha’s Vineyard, in a minimalist riff on traditional American barns.

Karimoku Foster and Partners

(Image credit: Marc Fairstein)

Step inside, however, and another design language unfolds: flowing through the space is furniture with a soft DNA of warm curves and gentle organic lines made from smooth wood and light textiles, crafted to life by Japanese artisans.

The Karimoku collaboration with Norman Foster led not only to the creation of bespoke furnishing throughout the Foster Retreat, it also resulted in Karimoku’s ‘NF’ seven-piece furniture collection, which was launched in Tokyo this week.

NF collection by Karimoku and Foster + Partners

Karimoku Foster Partners

(Image credit: Marc Fairstein)

The collection came about after Lord Foster apparently struggled to find an existing furniture collection that would work inside the Martha’s Vineyard retreat, which serves an array of functions, from a private home for him and his wife to a series of creative-style residencies.

Keen to tap into the visual and tactile potential of timber, Foster + Partners joined forces with Karimoku to create bespoke furniture to complement the architecture, which takes the form of a bold mono-pitch roof with skinny structural portal frames of steel, alongside grey-hued timber slats echoing the weathered timber boarding of local barns.

‘Wood was the obvious choice not only for reasons of sustainability but also as a direct reference to the traditional buildings that characterise the island,’ says Lord Foster. ‘The wood-based furniture I designed for Karimoku is an extension of the philosophy behind the building. lt has always seemed to me that there is a commonality between the American Shaker Movement and traditional Japanese furniture.’

Karimoku Case Study series

Karimoku Foster and Partners

(Image credit: Chuck Choi)

The Foster Retreat, Martha’s Vineyard, is Case Study 07 for Karimoku, the latest in a series of architect-designed furniture collections that tell the story of the setting for which they were created. Earlier examples include the Azabu Residence in Tokyo, by Keiji Ashizawa and Copenhagen-based Norm Architects.

Unveiling the new ‘NF’ furniture collection at a special exhibition at Karimoku Commons Tokyo, Frederik Alexander Werner, designer and partner at Norm Architects, who creatively directed the design collaboration and new collection, told Wallpaper*: ‘The furniture is soft and playful. While the architecture is strong and sharp, the furniture has a really soft design language. It relates more to human touch and human proportions. It’s the perfect balance.‘

The ‘NF’ series includes a dining chair, two stools, a lounge chair, a sofa and two tables, collectively defined by the softly curved lines of skeletal oak frames, complemented by pads of soft upholstery in light natural shades.

Dining chair by Foster and Partners and Karimoku

(Image credit: Chuck Choi, Courtesy Norman Foster Foundation)

The starting point was the dining chair, as Mike Holland, senior partner and head of industrial design at Foster + Partners, explains: ‘The chair was designed through a continuous exploration of form and ergonomics, in search of a balance between the two. The distinctive frame and organic transitions give it a refined complexity.

‘Blended spliced joints quietly celebrate the connections between the different elements of the chair, reflecting the intricate relationship between craft and structure. The chair works in perfect harmony with the dining table. Its sloping armrests tuck neatly into the matching angle on the table’s underside.’

The furniture was fluidly designed in order to respond to the multiple functions of the space, resulting in flexible and versatile pieces – suitable for both homes and offices – that are also beautifully crafted.

‘The lightness of the collection provides a foil to the bold architectural form of the retreat, which draws inspiration from the generous barn structures of North America,’ says Holland.

‘We knew that this bespoke collection would require an ambitious and highly skilled manufacturer, who would allow us to push forward and realise our detailed designs. Karimoku understands the delicate relationship between furniture and architectural space. The company’s attention to detail, high level of craftsmanship and proven record of beautifully crafting wooden furniture made them a natural choice for this project.’

The new NF Collection as well as Karimoku-made wooden models of iconic buildings by Foster + Partners are on view at Karimoku Commons Tokyo, until 9 December 2022 

Karimoku Commons Tokyo
2-22-5 Nishiazabu

Danielle Demetriou is a British writer and editor who moved from London to Japan in 2007. She writes about design, architecture and culture (for newspapers, magazines and books) and lives in an old machiya townhouse in Kyoto. 

Instagram - @danielleinjapan