Q+A: Paul Musial & Josh Fetner, Shibui Japanese Antiques

Tucked away in the corner of Washington and Water is Shibui, a Japanese antique store that specializes in traditional Japanese dressers and other uncommon finds. We sat down with Paul Musial and Josh Fetner to learn more about how Shibui has been restoring Japanese antiques— and shifting people's perceptions of them.

Tell us all about Shibui— the founder, inspiration, and mission.

Josh Fetner: Shibui has been around for over 20 years now and the owner, Dane Owen, started it in a little flea market in Sante Fe, New Mexico. He loved tansu, which is traditional Japanese cabinetry, so he went out and bought a piece of furniture, restored it, then sold it. Then that gave him enough money to get two pieces of furniture. He built the business by doing that over and over and over again, and now we have a pretty big store in Dumbo.

Paul Musial: For him, if he’s gonna buy something, he’s gonna buy something that he loves so that if it ends up not getting sold, he gets to keep it for himself. That’s where Shibui, which is this Japanese beauty ideal, has grown from. It’s all about the appreciation for the objects.

Can you talk more about the meaning behind Shibui and how it represents the products?

PM: So the most literal definition of shibui is astringent.

JF: But it’s a type of beauty and there’s really no English word for it.

PM: So its highest form is about mimicking nature. You see that sometimes with ceramics where the glaze is just allowed to drip, and it’s this natural state of itself. And nowadays the meaning of shibui has actually shifted to mean cool, so when younger Japanese people come in, they sometimes laugh.

Where and how do you collect your pieces, especially the tansu pieces, since that seems to be your signature item?

JF: So Dane will go to Japan once a year and he’ll go to about 30 countryside auctions. After hitting up all of those auctions, he packs an entire shipping container with pieces he loves and they all have to sit for a couple months because the wood has to adjust to the US climate. Then we do all of the restoration here. Dane does restoration on everything and he also takes old things and makes them into new things that you could use, like lampshades.

We don’t think that just because things look brand new, they look better. It could take 150 years until the furniture gets to where it looks really beautiful... We’re just helping it on its journey.

Paul Musial

PM: Part of that restoration is the focus on conservation. We’re not trying to make things look new. We’re trying to make things look like they should. If it’s 200 or 300 years old, we’re not trying to strip it and bring it back to what it would look like today. We try to keep the integrity of the piece while allowing it to be more stable. Like Josh was saying, the climate is so different here, the wood reacts differently to humidity, to temperature. So the restoration really is about conserving these pieces, which have only gotten better over time.

We don’t think that just because things look brand new, they look better. It could take 150 years until the furniture gets to where it looks really beautiful and it could take 150 more years for it to look even more beautiful. We’re just helping it on its journey.

Could you walk us through the restoration process?

JF: Dane allows everyone who works here to work at the warehouse and there, he teaches you how to restore, which is what I’ve been doing with him. As for the process, it begins with the wood shrinking when it arrives. The Japanese made tansu with wooden pegs, and in America, we use nails for everything. The wood that the tansu is made of is stronger than the pegs, so when the wood shrinks, the pegs snap, rather than the wood of the furniture. So when this happens, the drawer or the whole body can come loose. We go in and restructure all of it, and we replace all the broken wood pegs with new wood pegs because we don’t want to use nails. A lot of people do use nails and we see it on pieces that we’ve restored, but it just tears the pieces apart and doesn’t allow them to be in their natural form.

PM: We try to complete the process in its most original method. All the tools used are original.

JF: Yeah, Dane has a whole collection of Japanese woodworking tools and he likes to do it exactly how they would do it. He’s obsessed.

How has Shibui evolved over the past couple of years and where do you see it going?

PM: One thing that we really value at Shibui is the education experience, because when you go into a Western antique store, you sort of recognize everything for what it is. When you come into a Japanese antique store— and there’s not that many of them— you don’t recognize a lot of the stuff. So we’re expanding that education process and one way we’re doing that is by bringing things in at different price points. We have customers from museums and high-end collectors, and that really can be inaccessible to people who have never seen Japanese antiques. They see something that's $10,000 and they don’t even want to ask anything about it. So within every category, we try and have things at all levels so that the person coming in for the very first time can feel comfortable asking about it and we can spend time teaching them about it. So it’s kind of like an intro into Japanese antiques.

We’re also aware that there’s this market of people in their 30’s who are getting their first adult apartment and they’re another crowd of people that we’re really engaging with. They want something that’s going to last, and what’s really great is that this stuff has been around for 150 years. If you take care of it, it’s going to last 150 years more. So the value that you get from these objects is so much better than if you go to a big box store and pay the same exact price. And you know, part of the teaching process is that we understand that people don’t want to necessarily have a full-on Japanese looking home. But the cool thing is that you can have a Japanese piece in your home and it totally goes with your modern or Victorian aesthetic. The pieces work really well together.

We’re currently exploring new avenues for our pieces. So these chairs were designed by a Danish designer. We’ve been taking Danish designer furniture and reupholstering it with Meiji era fabrics because for whatever reason, indigo goes really well with modern, Danish pieces. These darker Danish chairs have an old, handwoven silk brocade obi on it— it’s sick. So that’s definitely another direction we’re exploring. So it’s really about the education and experimentation processes that we’re focusing on as we go forward.

What’s been special about having a store in Dumbo?

PM: As an international community and tourist destination in Brooklyn, Dumbo’s always filled with people from all over. I would say that being here, we have seen a huge increase in foreigners. We have a lot of South American, Central American, and European clients and we’re shipping things constantly around the world. Part of that too, is the fact that Japanese antique stores don’t exist everywhere.

One other thing we like to point out when people comment things like, “this pattern looks like it’s from the 1970s” or “this artwork is art nouveau,” is how there are whole movements in art and architecture that have their roots in Japan. This goes right back to the education process, but people’s minds— I mean, my mind is always blown when I’m just like wait, that’s 300 years old? You know, [the Japanese] have been doing it for a long time. Not everything is based in Japan, but a lot of it is. Making that connection for people is like (mimics explosion sound) cool.

Last but not least, what are your favorite spots in Dumbo?

JF: Yoga Vida, if that counts. I go there a lot. Almondine’s cool too.

PM: Oh, I like Almondine. I also like taking Olive to the dog park.

JF: And Taco Dumbo.

Mentioned in this article

Yoga Vida Almondine Brooklyn Bridge Park - Main Street Taco DUMBO