Transforming communities and disaster areas through Japanese DIY design

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Ishinomaki Lab originally started out as a design collective that taught DIY furniture-making in the Ishinomaki area in Japan, which was affected by the Great Japan Earthquake in 2011. They recently visited Manila for a workshop with creative communities, such as Escolta (pictured). Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The simple, innocuous form of a humble furniture piece, say a stool or a plant box, can mask its potential to be an instrument for psychotherapy.

This is something that the participants of Ishinomaki Lab’s two-day workshop in Manila discovered as they built several pieces of furniture and fixtures, ranging from benches, lamps, to small side tables, to engage with the idea of DIY as a way to transform communities.

Japan Foundation Manila and the folks from Ishinomaki Lab handpicked people from two creative communities in Manila, Escolta and Brixton, and for two days, these creatives turned into woodworkers and craftsmen, covered in dust and sweat, with the steady buzz of activity and whirring noise from the power saw and other tools working to realize pieces for communal spaces.

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

For the team from Brixton, one of their bigger pieces is a long bench, assembled from three pieces, that will be placed between two plant boxes along the street. For the team from Escolta, some of the pieces include a ledge for a balcony and a reclined chair with a backrest made out of wood and sacks from Kalsada coffee’s produce.

Yelps of satisfaction can be heard every once in a while during the workshop: a stool finally taking shape, cutting the right pieces of wood for a stand, or just out of sheer joy from the accomplishment of creating something that will be enjoyed by many. This is something that Ishinomaki Lab has fostered ever since they’ve expanded from their humble beginnings as a workshop in Japan, “a no-name city with a blue collar and aging population,” as the Lab’s project manager David Wang jokingly put it.

Originally, the Lab was founder Keiji Ashizawa’s way of creating long-term impact for the residents of Ishinomaki after being struck by the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, helping them rebuild the community through rebuilding restaurants, as well as creating stools, such as the now famous Ishinomaki stool for temporary homes, and even benches for an outdoor cinema.

Ishinomaki Lab The participants of the recent two-day workshop conducted by Ishinomaki Lab are given design constraints so their pieces are results of a design solution. Photo by JL JAVIER

Ishinomaki Lab Keiji Ashizawa assists Kaye Lavin of Kalsada Coffee, one of the participants from Escolta. Photo by JL JAVIER

“It’s not so difficult to make things,” Ashizawa, an architect by profession, tells the audience during his talk at the Metropolitan Manila in August 2011, adding in jest that even old ladies would join classes “because they have lots of time.” The team from Ishinomaki Lab visited Bohol in March earlier that year, helping residents through a five-day workshop.

Ishinomaki Lab has grown in the six years of its operations, even having a former sushi chef, Takahiro Chiba, as one of their master builders who taught the workshop participants how to cut lumber and use some of the complicated (and intimidating) tools. The Lab now has a showroom and a gallery in Tokyo and has been featured in design publications such as Monocle and Wallpaper.

After the two-day workshop in Manila, Ashizawa, Wang, and Chiba even accompanied the two teams to their respective turfs to help install the finished pieces.

CNN Philippines Life talked to Ashizawa and Wang about the early days of the Lab, how it expanded into a business, and creating communities with character. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

You guys have done the workshop in different countries, like in Taiwan, France, Switzerland, semi-regularly in Japan, and twice now in the Philippines. Are there differences in the way people pick up DIY techniques?

Keiji Ashizawa: Good question. I could say nearly the same. [The] difference is some participants [already] have experience to do something like this so we need him or her to become another leader to organize the workshop. Of course, [for some people, a] DIY workshop is [fast-paced], but the next day, people understand what they want to do …

David Wang: I was in Singapore [earlier this] March. Mostly everyone was a beginner. It was more structured, they were actually making our Ishinomaki stool but the idea is the same, that once people get the hang of the tools, it really comes easy to them. And the good thing is that with our design constraints that we put in the workshop, like limited amount, sizes of materials, or one or two sizes of screws, it’s a bit easier. And I think people do pick up on it, and like what someone said in the workshop, it’s quite satisfying when you put the screw in the right [place] [Laughs]. It feels good. I think that’s the kind of feeling that we want people to gain from these workshops. It’s more of like an experience, a feeling, a memory that you can take with you.

Ishinomaki Lab Ishinomaki Lab founder Keiji Ashizawa helping participants from Brixton, Kapitolyo with their design. Photo by JL JAVIER

What is the most challenging thing for people in the workshops? Is it always the tools?

Keiji Ashizawa: Learning to use a tool is also difficult, but creating something, designing something is the more difficult part. This time, we had two teams and both have a designer or architect. It [makes it] much easier [for them to create something] ...

But when you started Ishinomaki Lab, you guys were teaching ordinary people to build furniture...

Keiji Ashizawa: At that time, it was more [than] just teaching to make something, a skill...

But for example, this time [in Manila], they are creating something from a concept of what they want to do and at that time they want to [realize] that concept [through] our workshop. It’s a different purpose but at the same time, our workshop always talks about … good structure [teaching the] DIY concept itself.

It’s more creative work, we are collaborating with creative people … [we just let the participants do what they want to do] but of course I’m happy to assist, we have experience and we know the many designs using our materials, so we can assist and push …

David Wang: The idea for them is not to copy the furniture. Having constraints purposely gives you more room to create simple things that forces you to think [like] “I have to make this, I have to think about this structure, I only have these kinds of choices, what can I use? What goes first?”

For example, the 2x6 is most likely gonna be the seat because it’s the thickest and the strongest one, the 2x2 might be the legs if it’s gonna be a stool, or a central support piece. When you think about these kinds of patterns or way of logical design thinking, it makes it a lot easier and that’s what Keiji was talking about [with] the design aspect.

This time, it’s just really letting people [do what they want to do] because they already have a strong idea of what they want to do and that’s really the strong part, I think because most of the participants are from these creative communities, their purpose isn’t just for themselves, it’s not like [they’re] building a stool for themselves. For example, “If I built this stool, it can also be used by the old tenants and the new tenants.” That’s furniture being not just a private thing but also having a communal aspect.

Ishinomaki Lab Takahiro Chiba of Ishinomaki Lab. During the workshop, he assists the participants in operating the bigger power tools, such as the circular saw. He was a sushi chef prior to joining the Lab. Photo by JL JAVIER

Ishinomaki Lab David Wang, the project manager of Ishinomaki Lab. He and Takahiro Chiba are both based in Ishinomaki while founder Keiji Ashizawa is in Tokyo. Photo by JL JAVIER

Herman Miller was an early collaborator. How instrumental was that not only in building the Ishinomaki Lab brand but the business component as well?

Keiji Ashizawa: That time they collaborated, it was quite helpful. They took care of the workshop place. They bought materials, machines, so we could have a really big workshop with elementary school students and residents. The Herman Miller guys taught Chiba-san a way to make furniture quite easy.

Until now, Herman Miller’s concept of furniture, it’s not just design but to solve problems and find solutions for society. That’s totally a beautiful concept that we really want to pursue. We really appreciate the workshop that Herman Miller [gave]. The Herman Miller shop is now selling some of our furniture and Herman Miller Japan really helped us in business development.

David Wang: We’re still like a startup, relatively incorporated in 2014, so this is only our third year of operation, and for a long-running company like Herman Miller to provide that kind of institutional know-how is extremely beneficial for a small company [like us]. A lot of things in running a business, they’ll tell us, is not just [about] the design stuff but also business development, small stuff, little things we wouldn’t really think [about] but they’ve been doing for ages and have like a routine for so Herman Miller is a really important collaborator.

Did you have to sketch out a five-year plan for the business?

Keiji Ashizawa: We grew in a really organic way but we understood it’s quite important to keep thinking, keep developing, and keep having good conversations. We already have a lot of responsibilities because we’ve already sold a lot of furniture [Laughs]. Sometimes they ask us to repair something … but I think I want to expand the Lab in a big way and expand our business. We now have seven people in the company.

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" earlier in 2016. Photo from THE JAPAN FOUNDATION MANILA/FACEBOOK  

Your first workshop here was in Bohol in early 2016. How did that go?

David Wang: That was the first project we did with Japan Foundation Manila. The idea was that through this kind of intellectual exchange, through furniture and DIY design and in Bohol, the setting was after an earthquake and they had to build a kind of social resilience in the community through building furniture. So the idea was how to transfer our story from Ishinomaki and see if it was applicable to other locations around the world, this kind of self-sufficient, self-reliant [community].

But also we’re focusing on the community and not just the individual, through low-tech accessible basic tools. It’s not like we’re gonna drop a 3D printer into a disaster region and it’s going to print stools [Laughs]. We’re at not that level yet. We thought that was an interesting place to start a collaboration between nations. It’s something that Japan can share with the world that isn’t just about cultural exports but real lived experience.

So this is also a learning experience for you guys ...

Keiji Ashizawa: Yeah totally, we’re even learning from Kapitolyo and Escolta.

David Wang: Chiba-san was walking around Escolta and Kapitolyo, just looking at how it’d be great if Ishinomaki had this kind of energy too. When he was walking around The Hub, he was amazed at how an old building can be reused in such a fashion, especially when we saw the old photos of The Hub in the museum … the department store photos ... it had the same kind of energy, just a different time. It’s interesting that it can be carried on from different generations. These creative communities, they are doing really good stuff.

I definitely think Japan can learn from them too. We were talking about why it was easy for them to do what they did. Maybe Japan is too strict?

Keiji Ashizawa: Basically, yeah.

David Wang: Remember when we went to Kapitolyo and we saw all those food parks? That’s crazy. So many restaurants and they just popped out of nowhere. In Tokyo, you just have one.

Ishinomaki Lab David Wang, Takahiro Chiba, and Keiji Ashizawa of Ishinomaki Lab at the First United Building in Manila, where the participants from Escolta installed their finished communal pieces from the two-day workshop. Photo by JL JAVIER

Is this something that you also want to do in Ishinomaki? You mentioned yesterday during the Ishinomaki Lab talk at SoFA that you want to revive the old shopping district in your area.

David Wang: We’re not located in the city center anymore but we still collaborate with a lot of institutions that are located there. There’s a similar sentiment that we want to revive the old shopping street because that’s a compact city center in Ishinomaki and that’s the only place where you can get around walking. It offers a really different experience, a street-level experience of regional Japan that is more intimate and accessible to normal people. Otherwise, it’s just cars and suburbs and chain restaurants that you can see anywhere and don’t have much character. Especially after the disaster, a lot of that character blossomed, people are coming in and there is new energy. And we’ll see how it goes, it’s been six years now after the disaster, there’s still a lot of work to do.