What began as a simple DIY workshop to help local people recover from disaster has now gone on to become a ground-breaking furniture brand that’s reshaping the design world, says Nicola Capper.
The afternoon of Friday 11 March 2011 was like any other in Ishinomaki. But little did its people realise, in a matter of hours disaster would strike, leaving the city in ruins and one in four of its residents dead.
It all started with an earthquake; the strongest on record in Japan, and one of the most powerful in the history of seismology. For three minutes the ground shook so violently that it knocked the Earth six and a half inches off its axis.
In the tsunami that followed due to the sudden displacement of sea water, waves measuring as high as 30 metres – that’s the equivalent of a nine-storey building – struck the coastline, swallowing everything and everyone that lay in its wake.
Over a decade on from the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, it is estimated that almost 4,000 of Ishinomaki‘s inhabitants perished that day. Around 33,000 homes, half of the city’s total, were either completely or partially destroyed.
Yet out of the unimaginable destruction, and the gargantuan task of rebuilding that followed, it was the spirit of DIY that would reignite this devastated community.
Tokyo-based architect Keiji Ashizawa headed immediately to the disaster area to help a friend. “At first I went with a shovel and boots and, even though I was mainly cleaning, I thought that if there was a space nearby where citizens could make, fix, and modify things by themselves, the speed of the recovery would be much different,” he says.
“The earthquake happened at a time when there was lots of discussion about how designers should be more involved in society and, from my own experiences, I had a hunch that DIY skills would have a big impact on Ishinomaki.” He adds, “As the situation calmed and a semblance of civic life returned, I knew it would be a good idea to build a community space where residents affected could freely access materials, tools and assistance from designers and volunteers like me to complete their own repair work.”
It's not just the creatives at Ishinomaki that have rejuvenated a community with recycled and up cycled design details. It's a global trend...
Along with running DIY workshops, the newly established Ishinomaki Laboratory, soon began helping to restore and renovate local shops, and rebuild public spaces where people could reimagine the future of their city together.
“One of the highlights from the early days was working with students from the technical high school to build benches for an outdoor cinema screening that was taking place that summer, as there was nothing left to sit on outdoors. The presence of a bench in the middle of nowhere became a sign of hope and brought a renewed connection between people and place,” says Keiji.
“Also, that Fall, leading American furniture manufacturer Herman Miller joined the assistance programme; along with locals and primary school students, we examined what was missing in the temporary housing that had been erected. We found that a simple step stool was needed and the furniture that was then constructed in our workshops was offered to the community free of charge.
“With so many restrictions after the earthquake, furniture design in Ishinomaki existed to solve problems,” he admits. “But little did we realise the true value and appeal of our unique ‘handmade’ products was rekindled through activities like these and would soon attract the attention of makers and consumers outside Japan.”
Sharing good design
Today, the Ishinomaki Laboratory has grown to become an independent global furniture label. It’s run under the close supervision of former sushi chef Takahiro Chiba, who handles day-to-day operations in the workshop while a roster of young, talented designers from around the world plan and produce the products they offer.
“Compared to other furniture makers, where we really differ is that participants today learn and experience DIY and furniture-making in the same way as when we first started. These activities are never a one-way process, but a mutual exchange, and we are continuously amazed by the quality of what is produced, as well as inspired by the people we meet,” says Keiji.
“Through our ‘Made in Local’ project we collaborate with a growing number of partners, including MENU from Denmark and Bucle in Mexico, to share our story, our craft and our passion for DIY.”
Those collaborations also foster a sustainable approach to materials, logistics and distribution.
“Through this initiative, Ishinomaki Laboratory products can be made anywhere,” he says. “Using locally-available materials and distributed in the same place, we reduce the shipping of both the materials needed to make the products and the final designs themselves, which is very much in the DIY spirit of how we began.”
The first furniture manufacturer and retailer to partner with the Ishinomaki Laboratory was London-based SCP. Founder Sheridan Coakley tells us, “I first met Keiji Ashizawa in 2014 and realised immediately we had a shared love of good design, locally sourced materials and creating sustainable products.
“At SCP, we had been developing our own specialist factory in Norfolk since the early 2000s – and part of that was to build a fully-fledged workshop. We soon realised that the Made in Local project was something we could undertake here using the same Western red cedar and given the strict specifications that Ishinomaki Laboratory set, in terms of sizes of wood, fittings, joinery details and so on.
“It’s been the perfect project for us. It’s further developed the technical skills of our craftspeople and allowed us to produce our own market ready designs. I’m very happy to see that the concept is now spreading around the world, with similar initiatives taking place in Manila, Berlin, Detroit, Busan and Singapore.”
Sheridan continues, “The Made in Local project proves that design is not just about beautiful things, but about solving problems in society, and if there is a lesson to be learned, it is to keep it simple.”
Building a better future
To mark ten years since the disaster, and to celebrate their long-term partnership, the two founders showcased a special collection of furniture and domestic objects at last year’s London Design Festival.
Twelve distinctive contemporary designers, including Ilse Crawford and Philippe Malouin, were invited to produce pieces made from stock board widths of red cedar within the constraints of the Ishinomaki Laboratory guidelines.
The result was an eclectic mix of human-centric design, chairs, tables, planters and even bird baths, perfectly harmonising British and Japanese sensibilities. Sheridan concludes, “I certainly think that the products in our collection signpost a better future: one where we get things made locally, in sustainable materials and to a very high standard. These products might be more simple and less extravagant than what we have become used to, but perhaps that is a good thing.”
Back in Japan, the city of Ishinomaki is still in the process of healing and recovery. Near to its original workshop, the recently opened Ishinomaki Home Base, which includes a showroom, café and guesthouse, now welcomes a growing number of outside visitors.
Keiji also reveals “With the results of a recent crowdfunding campaign, we are also set to transform another vacant space into a citizen’s laboratory and a public laboratory. We would like to make it easier for people to access manufacturing, and for people who stay at the Ishinomaki Home Base or visit Ishinomaki to use it.”
The Ishinomaki Laboratory may have been born in the aftermath of disaster, but – at a time when environmental awareness and human needs are becoming increasingly important – its thoughtful, DIY-oriented philosophy perfectly reflects the changing priorities in furniture design today.
As Keiji concludes, “Through our products we hope we can help people to rediscover their own innate creativity and resourcefulness, to enrich and empower everyday life and provide all society with a more fulfilling future.”