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Taking the next step: Where art meets architecture

Interview - October 18, 2022

Mr. Kiyoshige Sakata talks about how his firm’s stairs take a new approach to bridging the gap between functionality and aesthetics.


Can you tell us a little more about your manufacturing philosophy and the strengths or competitive advantages of your company?

My father started this company some 64 years ago in 1958. At that time, we were a company that was supplying TV antennas because it was a time in which TV's began to penetrate the Japanese market. It was an age in which the television began to play a major role in households across Japan.

You could watch many major historical milestones of the country being marked by coverage on TV, for example the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Prince‘s wedding ceremony and pro-wrestling. All of these things started to become really famous through the widespread distribution of TV as it became a household appliance.

And with that, our TV antennas also were sold on a massive scale. In the 1960s there were a few years in which all of a sudden the sale of TV's declined rapidly, and it was at that time that our company felt that it was important to diversify in order to really be able to weather such serious situations as sales of TV antennas fizzling out.

Since TV antennas are made of steel and aluminum, we already had the assembly line and manufacturing capacity to manufacture with those materials. We were looking for other ways in which we could make use of our capital, and that's when we entered the world of architecture.

Slowly, our company started to develop as Japan entered an age of increasing urbanization, where those living in rural areas all began to travel and live in large metropolitan areas such as Tokyo and Osaka, producing larger demand for housing in these larger urban areas. There was a noticeable shortage in housing.

At the same time, the type of materials used in housing and construction changed rapidly with the revolution brought about by aluminum. Before that, Japanese homes were primarily constructed out of wood and paper, if you are familiar with the paper screen.

Houses started using materials such as aluminum, steel, metal and concrete, and there was a rise in demand for aluminum. That was when YKK AP also started their company, and LIXIL, a famous Japanese architectural firm. They were working on the window sashes, and aluminum-based companies in the housing and architecture industry saw rapid growth.

Although we weren't necessarily producing products for windows themselves, we did provide aluminum based products for balcony railings or security features that you would fit to windows.

Stair products

I actually joined the firm in the 1980s, during which Japan saw a levelling off of economic growth, which had been rising rapidly in a seemingly unstoppable upward trend from the1950s until the 1970s.

Coming in at this time where Japan’s growth was plateauing, I knew that I had to do something different from what my elders did, from what my dad did, in order to sustain the company. I had to think out-of-the-box.

I happened to study architecture in university. I understood architecture as being this combination of building and art. What my dad had focused on was the building aspect, and what I studied was more the architectural elements, and I realized that what was lacking within the company was the aesthetics, or the art.

I think this kind of culture, looking into the aesthetics of architecture, was something that hadn't necessarily taken root yet in our company. I actually struggled a lot to change the mindset and the culture of our company. Every day I made efforts to really get acquainted with people who were specialized in the arts and the artistic elements of architecture - the aesthetics – and create good relations with them and bring them into my network. I really did my best every day.

I believe it took about a decade to establish this new type of mindset and culture throughout the company, but slowly, as a result of these steady efforts, the type of orders that we received started to change and before I knew it, clients would comment “Wow, your products are cool”.

Later on when I became president we started to change our recruitment requirements and we started to actively recruit and hire individuals who had a solid knowledge of architecture in the broader sense, which I wanted our company to embrace, involving both the building and the artistic aspects.

There's a complete difference in the ethnicity of recruits now compared to before I assumed the presidency. I actually became president when I was 41 years old, and I believe that if it happened ten years later, I don't think we would have developed into the kind of company that we are today.

During the last 19 years as president, being able to recruit talented staff who have the same appreciation of what I wanted for the company has really helped to change and build the kind of company that we are today. Our greatest strength has been our employees.


When you talk about value coming from employees, this has been a major challenge for a lot of SME’s - bespoke companies in Japan - in terms of hiring talented recruits, given the aging of the Japanese population and the general demographic decline. Has that been an issue for you?

I believe that recruiting talented personnel is probably the most important job we have to do. We have an amazing and talented person, Miss Yoshikawa, in charge of recruitment. She’s also in charge of human resources, sales and marketing.

I feel that most SME’s are not really focusing on how important recruitment is going to be. I don't think they're putting that much focus on it. I actually received some consultation regarding how to approach HR services, and you have to pay a lot of money for a consultant to help your company. It was a really expensive investment.


Could you give us an overview of the types of products you create and how you think they best embody your philosophy of creating beautiful solutions? Is there a particular product that you think best demonstrates this aesthetic element?

There are three features to our staircases. The first is the see-through element. Transparent stairs. Through installing such staircases, the point is to try to make the room look bigger and more spacious. That may not be an issue in places like North America, where the houses are sprawling, but in Japan it’s really important. In North America, a regular staircase is fine.

The second strength is very difficult to achieve. We are able to ensure easy on-site assembly because all of the parts are made separately so it becomes very easy to assemble on-site. In some places it's called the “knockdown construction method”.

It's very interesting because although it may be something that was common in the automotive sector, when it comes to steel staircases, the market had no idea about this style of manufacturing or construction. No one was thinking about it. It was that revolutionary for me to introduce it.

Assembling steel staircases and ensuring that the assembly is seamless is a very difficult thing to achieve so we actually prefabricate all of the parts in our plant. One staircase is about 400 kilos, and 400 kilos is impossible for a person to carry so they're transported via crane and installed on the site before the roof is installed. This is when it comes to steel stairs.

In order to make see-through staircases you need to use steel and you can't do it with wood - it wouldn’t be see-through. However, if you use steel you need large machinery like cranes because of the weight. We were actually able to figure out a solution because of our expertise in TV antennas.

Since we had this history of balcony railings and TV antennas, we had expertise in welding and joining large steel parts together in seamless ways, and that know-how came into play here.

We knew which portions needed to be welded and which portions were better connected through other means like screws. Being able to separate and know what is best in order to create the best product was something that we had under our belt.

Once you use the crane method of installation, then the painting process - the coating of the staircase - becomes the final step. The reason for this is that the workers who are conducting the painting need to do it as the final step in order to create the cleanest finish.

With our method, we actually install the staircase after everything else is done in the home. After everything else is painted, for example, and we use a painting style that is completely different from the painters coming in and painting it themselves. Instead, it’s a pre-painted finish which ensures that the quality of the painting is completely different. It blows the traditional method out of the water in terms of being anti-corrosive and it doesn't peel as easily.

Let me just summarize everything that I just said. This staircase is made out of steel and if it's made out of steel, then you cannot use the knockdown method traditionally, but by using the knockdown method you're able to provide an effect called baked paint, and you can do this baked painting finish in the factory itself.

Since it is already pre-done in the plant and then installed on-site, it creates the finest finish and it leads to our third strength, which is beautiful design. I know aesthetics is quite subjective, and for that reason we always provide variations catering to different aesthetic tastes. We provide different colors and different styles, and we made a conscious effort to cater to a wide range of tastes.

I actually struggled a lot when I first thought about how to actually venture into steel staircases. It was a struggle because no matter how small a steel company may be, whether it's a steel processing plant operated by three or five people, there will always be a crane on-site.

Since we were producing TV antennas and aluminum hand rails, we never needed a crane so I always saw the workers breaking their backs to carry these materials, and actually it was a weakness of our company up until this point. However, we were eventually able to turn it into an advantage by using it as an opportunity to become stronger.

KastomBed product

You mentioned before that 90% of your products are stairs. We saw just this year the KastomBed an adjustable steel bedframe, was released. Can you tell us a little more about this new product?

I was actually out for drinks with university friends. I was in Hokkaido with my college buddies and one of them knew I made stairs and over drinks he said to me “make a bed”. It was just that he wanted it for himself. I told him “There are plenty of steel-based beds in the market, just go buy one from there”. And then he said “Actually the one I'm looking for isn’t there”, and I said “Liar!”.

Then when I thought more about it, I realized that when it came to steel beds, there are the kinds that you see in hospitals, but when it came to the premium market and luxury steel-based bed frames, there wasn't a market for that. There weren't any.

Then I realized that 20 years ago there was a similar situation with staircases so then I thought maybe there was value in entering into this business. That's where the idea took root. Then, over one year, we did a number of different trials and eventually we were able to manufacture this steel-based bed frame for the high-end market.

I also thought about what kind of competitors might arise. I imagined what other companies could there be out there that could also enter this market? Beds are usually two meters long and staircases are about four meters long in Japan.

I actually realized that there were very few players in the industry that had the capacity to manufacture 4-meter staircases so I thought, what about those that have the capacity to manufacture 2 meters? There are more of them than those who can manufacture four meters, but even then there aren't that many, so the market itself was small.

When it comes to small manufacturing using steel parts and steel processing, there are many companies, obviously. Take the automotive sector as an example. It's a huge red ocean with regards to being a saturated market when it comes to smaller steel parts, but when it comes to the processing and manufacturing of larger steel parts, there are still areas that you could consider being a blue ocean.


Why did you go to Vietnam in 2015 and what advantage does that location have?

We didn't actually have a strategy to sell in Vietnam. Our choice of Vietnam wasn't necessarily in order to profit from globalizing in that way, and I think this is the difference between an American entrepreneur and a Japanese one.

We didn't expect for the business to gain anything from producing that kind of facility in Vietnam. In Japan there's a technical study exchange system where the government provides support for companies that participate in recruiting or receiving applicants from abroad and providing technical study for a three-year period after which the students who were studying in Japan would then return to their own country.

We actually had about ten such students, some of who were from Vietnam. What's very interesting is that one commonality between Japan and Vietnam is that we share Buddhism as a religion. I think that helped to create a natural sense of mutual understanding between the people involved, so there was a cultural element to it.


Actually, the Vietnamese are really good with detailed handicraft and they are dexterous. They had that similarity to us when it came to being really good working with their hands and doing detailed work.

I felt that working with Vietnamese students, they had something that was a little bit similar to the Japanese mindset, so it's easier to communicate and over the course of three years you become really well acquainted with them.

I became acquainted with them and I asked one of the students, “When you return to Vietnam, what kind of work do you want to do?”, and they said, “Well, we would love to do this kind of work there in Vietnam, but there are no businesses related to it. They don’t exist”.

Since I felt they were such good people, I thought, “OK, why don't we start a company in Vietnam?” That’s how it came about. It wasn’t a particular need to manufacture or sell. I wanted to provide them with a job when they got back home.

That was what spearheaded the motivation for our Vietnam office. It was simply my care for the employees. Obviously, we're a company so we need to think about raising a profit otherwise we'll go bankrupt, but for me recruitment and human resources come first, and second come the technical aspects. I believe that this way of thinking would be something unheard of in North America.

I'm actually not really good at meeting people who I’m not already familiar with, so I prefer to work with people who I can create long rich relationships with that would stand the test of time, and I think the staff who share such values are those that stay with the company.

You asked me a question about the aging population. We actually don't have a retirement age limit here. 15 years ago, we decided to remove any limits to the retirement age. If there are those who want to keep working for us, no matter if they're 80 or 90 years old.

We do have one rule, however. If I as president ask them to leave, they have to leave the company that day. That's the only thing that I did keep in the contract. As long as someone higher up doesn’t want to fire them, they can continue working, no problem.

It’s a way of looking at the company as being like a country in a sense, with my role as president being like a Prime Minister taking care of the country. In this sense, when I think of my employees as citizens of this country, when you think about how the government works, it's actually more beneficial to the government for taxpayers to exist than to be on the receiving end of those taxes, so you want the taxpayers to be able to stay in that position for as long as possible.

Obviously, if they fall ill or their mental faculties fail them, then that’s another story, but if they're healthy I'm sure they would want to continue working. I think anyone would want to do so. As soon as I became president, I dismantled those retirement age limits. Although there are many young people working here at our company, we also have quite a number of those who are older, so it's interesting. It's fun.


What message would you like to send overseas, maybe to architects or overseas executives in the construction industry that you would like to share with our international readers? What would you like them to know about Katzden Architec?

I've never even thought about this. For me, I believe architecture is something that is very locally based. It's something that I never thought our company could go global with, as it's really domestic.

Obviously, smaller items like phones or cars or bottles of tea are things that might be shared internationally through globalization, but when it comes to buildings and architecture, I really believe that it is something that is very specific to certain local needs and requirements, and these can be so varied that I never thought of it as being something that can be shipped out internationally.

For example, you know that Eskimos live in igloos and that's a very specific type of structure that is adapted to that environment. I believe that all of these things like buildings and architecture are adapted to their environment. It's very specific, so I've never thought of it as a global product.

Certain elements of interiors or architectural materials, such as what YKK AP does with their windows, may be exported overseas. The reason why the Japanese architecture industry started out with wood and paper as their materials is because wood was a resource that was easily available here in Japan. However, now we import our wood from Canada and Northern Europe.

When I went to Canada the land was relatively flat and didn’t have such steep inclines and mountains as Japan has so it’s relatively easier to cut trees and transport them, whereas in Japan there are such steep slopes that it’s difficult for the required machinery even to get up there to cut the trees down as well as deliver them.

Buildings are adapted to their environment, so it's a domestic enterprise, and the reason for that is because architecture needs to adapt to the climate. I believe buildings always have to be adapted to the climate, and there's a specific reason for that too. Historical, climatic, and cultural factors need to be respected and that’s why building architectures are all based on these three elements that are very locally derived.

Just because we may be successful in Japan doesn't automatically mean that we will be successful abroad. I don't mean that I'm limited to Japan, but I do believe that Japan is the foundation from which to grow. I think that products such as cars and smartphones are absolutely borderless, but when it comes to the architecture industry, you have to think about things a little bit differently.


You mentioned that in architecture, understanding local needs is very important. Would you be interested in finding local partners in different countries that can give you insight into local needs so you can customize your products to those markets, since you manufacture products that are highly customizable?

I absolutely do believe it's crucial to partner with those who understand local factors, but I haven't yet met such partners, and that's just where I'm at.

I haven't necessarily identified an area of priority to focus on. If it happens as a result of a serendipitous connection then we'd go for it, but I don't have any particular strategy in mind.


Let's say we come back to interview you again on the last day of your presidency. What would you like to tell us about your goals and dreams for the company by that time, and what would you like to have achieved by then?

I’ve decided that I'm going to retire at 67 years old. Seven more years. I do feel that whoever is president, it's not the best thing for the company to have one person being president for a very long time, and I say that even though I've been president for 19 years.

We want to be a company that continues to have clients who may be few in number, but love the product.

In terms of a business philosophy, we’re always looking to produce things that other companies haven't produced yet and be bespoke in our manufacturing style and what we produce. When we have these marketing meetings and I ask my employees to think about new ideas and what could be their next proposal, I always ask this question, “Are there other companies that have already been doing this?”, and if the answer is yes, then I say “OK, no, we won't be doing it”. I don't want to replicate anyone else. I don't want to be a copycat. It's the easiest thing to copy others.