Log-home packages from Michigan find lively Japanese sales

It's not quite on a par with a new Toyota plant in Tennessee or a multimillion-dollar citrus shipment to Japan, but the business connections are still international. They link a family of woodcarvers from Oberammergau, West Germany, a Michigan company that makes log homes, and Japanese bankers and developers eager to capitalize on Japanese interest in rustic buildings.

And, in a very small way, Town and Country Log Homes of Petoskey, Mich., will be doing its bit to help lighten the United States-Japanese trade imbalance.

The company this month shipped the first of 100 log-home (as distinguished from log-cabin and hunting-lodge) packages to Japan. The homes will be used at a resort development 100 miles northeast of Tokyo near the town of Karusawa, in a mountainous area where many Japanese leaders spend the summer.

On the mantel of the first of the log homes is a carving chiseled by Pietro Venotti, one of the woodcarvers of Oberammergau. He, his wife, and 20-year-old son have been artists in residence at the log-home company.

The Venottis' connection with Town and Country Log Homes was through a Swiss businessman, Eric Meyer, who lives in a log home near here. Last summer, after the Venottis admired their host's home, Mr. Meyer took them to its builder. There they met Julius Kowalski, who began producing log homes more than 30 years ago.

The Michigan company eventually hired the Venottis to execute special commissions for its customers. These include scenes from the customer's family history chiseled for posterity into the edges of a mantel or log.

Mr. Venotti studied at the School of Art in Ortisei, Italy, under master sculptor Runggaldier Augusto, and there carved religious statues in modern style for export to cathedrals and art galleries in the US. In the early 1970s he moved with his family to Oberammergau (the Black Forest town famous for its Biblical ``Passion Play''), where he creates religious statues in the Gothic and Baroque styles.

This ``is the first step in a hand-holding arrangement between this northern Michigan town and Oberammergau,'' says Stephen Biggs, president of Town and Country Log Homes.

But ``hand-holding'' is not the only arrangement Town and Country Log Homes is looking for overseas. Besides the sales to Mitsui, the company is preparing to export log-home packages to Switzerland, Germany, and Italy later this year.

The shipment to Japan was arranged by Norman A. D'Orazio, president of AMD Ltd., an Orchard, Mich., company that specializes in exports to Japan. Mr. D'Orazio says log homes have become rather faddish in Japan. Many old log buildings are being relocated from Japan's coal mining areas and moved to resorts and residential areas, he says. Thus he is optimistic about the market potential of these log-home packages.

The Michigan company uses Michigan-grown white cedar, known for beauty, insulating value, and resistance to insects and decay. Each log is hand-peeled and dried in a kiln to make it free of shrinkage, twisting, and settling. Mr. Kowalski has patented a method of splitting the logs, inserting insulation between the two halves, and gluing them together, ensuring general tightness of the eventual construction.

Company architects and designers have prepared 18 standard plans which can be modified with the aid of a computerized drafting system. Many of the housesare two-story structures with more than 4,000 square feet, costing on the average $60 per square foot, complete.

Mr. Biggs predicts his company will soon become the largest fabricator of log homes in the US and expects more than $6 million in sales this year. He says that Americans -- and perhaps Japanese -- ``are getting tired of going home to glass and steel after working in glass and steel offices.''

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