The Japanese DIY workshop that builds minimalist furniture for disaster relief

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Following the Great East Japan earthquake of 2011, the designer and architect Keiji Ashizawa started the Ishinomaki Laboratory, a community project that applies the minimalism of Japanese design to building sustainable furniture out of existing resources. Pictured above is its Tokyo showroom. Photo from ISHINOMAKI LABORATORY

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “I’m an architect and a designer,” Keiji Ashizawa is saying. “But I’m not a good man.”

He is giving a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila called “Design for Disaster” as part of the Japan Foundation’s ongoing Japanese Design Today exhibition, where his works are featured in the Disaster Relief category. He then clarifies: When things get tough, he’s not usually likely to offer a large sum of money to help out financially. This earnest confession aside, Ashizawa has actually done more good than he’s letting on.

In 2011, following the Great East Japan earthquake — a disaster that triggered a tsunami and had a 9.0 magnitude, making it the most powerful recorded earthquake to have ever hit the country — Ashizawa came to Ishinomaki City to visit a client, and was instead faced with the aftermath of such a tragedy. Buildings and houses were reduced to rubble, including the restaurant he and his client had been working on. During their efforts to restore it, it occurred to Ashizawa that perhaps not many people could afford the same kind of professional help with recovering what had been destroyed.

ishinomaki lab One of Ishinomaki Laboratory's earliest projects was the Ishinomaki bench (left) by Ashizawa. The Ishinomaki stool, also by Ashizawa, was inspired by plastic beer cases. Photos from ISHINOMAKI LABORATORY  

This realization led him, with the help of like-minded people and volunteers, to set up the Ishinomaki Laboratory, which in the beginning had consisted of a series of workshops for students and locals to learn how to create and build their own sustainable wooden furniture for the purpose of post-devastation rehabilitation. There’s an emphasis on do-it-yourself (DIY) methods and techniques; it’s important that people make do with objects at hand, because times are difficult, and to be prepared for disaster means to be able to work with whatever materials are available to you.   

One of the earliest projects was the simple yet stylish Ishinomaki bench, designed by Ashizawa himself; high school students were taught to build it, and the sessions culminated in outdoor film showings that utilized the finished products as seats for audience members. Ashizawa was also inspired by the plastic beer cases he would see around the restaurant he was restoring. While they appear to be a good alternative for stools in theory, he points out their fragility and inability to support weight. He came up with the Ishinomaki stool, which he says is definitely sturdier and more stable. Workshops for making the stool included children, who were able to create it without difficulty.

ishinomaki lab The AA stool (left) by Torafu Architects can be stacked horizontally, while the Carry stool by Tomoko Azumi can be converted to a container when turned upside down. Photos from ISHINOMAKI LABORATORY  

With the project gaining traction, Ishinomaki Laboratory soon found a home in a refurbished parking structure. Its DIY products became fixtures not only in homes, but also in restaurants and establishments, such as the city’s Irori Cafe. “It’s not so difficult to make things,” Ashizawa says, adding in jest that even old ladies would join classes “because they have lots of time.”

The product line expanded: To name a few, there’s the AA stool by Torafu Architects, which can be stacked horizontally; the Kobo table by Ashizawa that complements the Ishinomaki bench; the stackable Carry stool by Tomoko Azumi, which can become a container when turned upside down; and the Flamingo stool by Koichi Futatsumata, which mimics the way flamingoes stand. The line now also includes shelves, bookstands, crates, clothing and shoe racks, and sofas — products that, while still made primarily of wood, have branched out to black steel and canvas for materials. The pieces are clean, minimalist, and functional; true examples of the elements of Japanese design. 

ishinomaki lab The Flamingo stool (left) by Koichi Futatsumata is designed to mimic the way flamingoes stand, while the Kobo St-Desk by Ashizawa is built using black steel. Photos from ISHINOMAKI LABORATORY  

Ishinomaki Laboratory began to widen its reach with a showroom in Tokyo, a partnership with Muji, and larger retail efforts. Stockists now include stores in Germany, Singapore, France, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, as well as more areas in Japan. Ashizawa has traveled all over the world to give talks and workshops. What began as a small initiative has turned into a serious business for him, but at the same time, he says, there’s still a goal to invite many people to take part in it, and that its original purpose hasn’t been forgotten.

In March, Ashizawa, along with Ishinomaki Laboratory’s lead builder, Takahiro Chiba, visited Bohol for a five-day workshop (called the “DIY Diskarte Workshop”) in partnership with FabLab Bohol, the country’s first fabrication laboratory and an outreach program launched by the Department of Trade and Industry. It was attended by local carpenters and even young adults, whose work and resourcefulness were praised by Ashizawa.

ishinomaki lab Ashizawa, fresh off an overnight flight from Japan, headed straight for a hardware store in Bohol to gather tools and materials for the "DIY Diskarte Workshop." Photo from THE JAPAN FOUNDATION MANILA/FACEBOOK

ishinomaki lab A planning session for the workshop in Bohol, held under a tree at a lumber yard, with local carpenters, Ishinomaki Laboratory's Takahiro Chiba, a translator, and Charles Barrete, an industrial designer from FabLab Bohol. Photo from THE JAPAN FOUNDATION MANILA/FACEBOOK  

However, he admits that, because the workshop teaches participants to rely on what they have lying around, the materials and tools they were able to gather didn’t quite have the best quality, and he hopes for improvement on this in the future with help from the government. Nonetheless, he was amused by the simplicity of the group’s transactions around the area when sourcing these materials, particularly the cut-and-sell method employed by the wood and carpentry shops, and observes that people in Bohol “enjoy life,” and that he had such a fun time there.

When it comes to designing for disaster, Ashizawa believes that a good example is borne of one’s understanding of the situation and use of materials. At Ishinomaki Laboratory’s Tokyo showroom, there’s a display wherein the furniture is arranged to represent how it would appear in the context of “normal life.” It would make sense for Ashizawa to go to all that trouble to present his creations as such — it reminds people of how they came about in the first place.

ishinomaki lab Part of Ishinomaki Laboratory's efforts to branch out was the opening of its Tokyo showroom. Photo from ISHINOMAKI LABORATORY  

His story, and that of Ishinomaki Laboratory, is one that is very relevant to the Philippines, a country the architect notes is as prone to natural disasters as Japan. It takes the Philippines months, if not years, to recover from the damages of these disasters, and while there’s no shortage of relief efforts, a project like Ashizawa’s is not just ingenious — it’s necessary.