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Talking Shop: A Conversation with Serious Construction's Yudai Kanayama

Oct 4, 2023

An intriguing installation lies inside Nepenthes New York, on the opposite wall from the register. This artistic display comprises a clothing rack, meticulously hand-carved hangers, a wooden frame adorned with tatami panels, and a complete set of shogi boards (a Japanese board game akin to chess). Remarkably, each piece is crafted from kumbuk - a lustrous and surprisingly resilient wood. These are the work of Serious Construction NYC, a new project helmed by Yudai Kanayama, specializing in designing, fabricating, and installing a wide range of interiors and furniture. Recently, Nepenthes New York caught up with Kanayama for an in-depth discussion about this pop-up.

Kanayama's vision is deeply rooted in Sapporo, his hometown in northern Japan, which he describes as a "perfect balance – not too rural, not too urban – with everything we need." This balance extended to his love for local cuisine, which he eventually transformed into numerous restaurants in New York City, including Izakaya and, most notably, Dr. Clark, a trendy eatery on Bayard Street that offers a taste of Hokkaido cuisine.

It was in Sapporo that Kanayama first crossed paths with Nepenthes. After school, he often visited the South2 West8 flagship store to admire fishing vests. Recalling those days, Kanayama says, "I had to wear a uniform to school every day, so I wanted to stand out when I could. I think I was too young to grasp the meaning behind the clothing fully, but I still resonated with the fashion world."

In a departure from the conventional path of many Japanese students, who often migrate to Tokyo for university, Kanayama moved to upstate New York for his education. He found the proximity to nature reminiscent of his hometown, and the abundance of vintage stores, notably the Salvation Army, offered inspiration. He fondly remembers, "People often ask me what I learned at school in America. I tell them I learned how to sell and present why something is valuable, regardless of the client's financial status. Much of the time, I'm essentially selling myself." This passion for fashion eventually led him to earn an associate degree from FIT and secure a job at a Japanese fashion boutique, where he further honed his sales skills.

However, Kanayama's career took a different trajectory when his chef roommate approached him for assistance in opening a restaurant. He recalls, "Out of nowhere, he told me I would be the best person to sell his food, and I agreed. That was a decade ago when we opened Izakaya together." Following Izakaya's success, Kanayama's career took off, with stints as the creative director for Sandoz (a Japanese sandwich store present at the food festival Smorgasburg), Gouie New York (the Essex Market sushi bar), and, of course, the self-described "dream project," Dr. Clark.

Dr. Clark, named after William Smith Clark, an American educator and agriculturalist who spent significant time in Hokkaido, has rapidly become a focal point of downtown culture. It has garnered positive press from Vogue, The New York Times, and Architectural Digest, drawing a diverse crowd from New York City's cultural elite.

Originally slated to open in the first half of 2020, the arrival of COVID-19 forced Kanayama and his partners to adapt. Given the constantly changing regulations like outdoor seating, Kanayama handled the construction in-house. Dr. Clark's setup featured plexiglass partitions, dividing tables, and a modified kotatsu – a traditional Japanese-style seating arrangement with a recessed area and built-in heaters.

As diners began inquiring about the restaurant's furniture, Kanayama recognized an opportunity. He explains, "Our inaugural project was Little Flower Cafe in Astoria. The owner, a New York native and son of Afghan immigrants, wanted to rebrand his family business."

With growing demand, Kanayama set up a workshop at 56 Bogart Street in Bushwick, housed in a four-story factory converted into artist studios. He reflects on the growth of the business, saying, "The business grew naturally," he says. "I kept adding what we needed to take a job from zero to finish. I don't think many construction companies make furniture, but we needed to handle every aspect. Now we have an in-house designer, so we do the space and the vibe and build specific furniture made of the same material for the space."

Serious Construction's distinctive feature is its choice of material, using kumbuk, a sacred wood from Sri Lanka with remarkable characteristics. Kanayama elaborates, "This wood is unique to Sri Lanka, salvaged from trees that fell along riverbanks or canals. Some of these trees spent decades submerged in water, absorbing its essence – and some pieces still bear old carved letters." The wood has incredible hardness, superior water resistance, and an unusual range of colors, from cedar hues to whites, browns, and black.

Beyond the wood's extraordinary backstory, Serious Construction stands out as one of the few fabricators in the city to work with kumbuk. Kanayama sourced the wood from Tucker Robbins, a furniture dealer known for trading in rare woods. "He worked for 40 years importing all these crazy woods from all over the world, selling the woods to top designers like architects - he was the OG in this field. Unfortunately, he had to close during the pandemic, leaving lots of inventory in his warehouse," Kanyama says. "He called me, talking about this crazy wood nobody has seen. I immediately went to his warehouse and bought the entire inventory."

Acquiring the wood was a substantial risk, both financially and logistically. It depleted their cash reserves, demanded additional storage space, and required specialized tools to work with the unyielding material. Kanayama acknowledges, "It's the densest, heaviest, and hardest wood I've ever encountered. We purchased raw lumber, which meant starting from scratch, from milling to every aspect of crafting."

The offering at the Nepenthes New York pop-up shop - kindled by Kanayama's love for Nepenthes - encompasses a wide range, including plates, hat stands, shelves, and hangers, all infused with Kanayama's creativity. He draws inspiration from antique American furniture, reimagining classic designs for the modern era, often with subtle Japanese influences like naguri finishing, ikebana flower arrangements, or shogi sets. Kanayama explains his approach: "I've always been a collector. I bring pieces from my archive to the shop and extract elements that resonate with us. To create timeless designs, we study enduring styles. We took our favorite design for the hangers and added intriguing textures." The hardware for these items is sourced from recycled materials within the Serious Construction workshop, lending a rugged touch. Kanayama adds, "We prioritize recycling and find beauty in the colors of discarded electrical wire or disused pipes."

In addition to furniture, the pop-up shop showcases archival EG Workaday items featuring custom chain stitching and zabuton pillows – cushions designed for floor seating – made from seasonal fabrics by Engineered Garments, weaving together elements of traditional American and Japanese culture. "I always liked the American mechanic's jackets from the 40s and 50s, and they often had cool chain-stitched embroidery. And you can find zabuton in old Japanese houses," says Kanayama. The chain stitching studio and the zabuton manufacturer occupy space in the same building as Serious Construction, making it easy to add these additional products.

Kanaya insists this is only the beginning for Serious Construction, eager to tackle larger projects and share his vision with the world. "I feel like I built enough for myself, so now I'm more into making a beautiful space for people," he states. "We started building restaurants and are now doing commercial and residential work. Next, because I'm interested in clothing, it would be exciting to create a clothing store. At Serious Construction, we enjoy making everything. If somebody wants something, we'll help them develop the product.