A lab birthed from disaster

Japanese architect Keiji Ashizawa's plan to help earthquake victims rebuild their homes grew into a furniture label

Japanese furniture label Ishinomaki Laboratory has won international praise and awards for its line of red cedar products that are minimalist in style and easy to assemble.

Its light Ishinomaki Stool joined the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London two years ago. While the stool is a symbol of the young brand's success, it has a backstory rooted in the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Japanese architect Keiji Ashizawa - the man behind the laboratory - finds it necessary to tell the story of his label's origins very often as it reminds people that good can come out of a disaster.

The soft-spoken 43-year-old says: "Ishinomaki Laboratory is getting really famous. But it helps to keep sharing why it was started because it is so easy to forget. People are always looking for new things."

The laboratory began humbly, almost by chance, as his ground-up project in the disaster zone.

Following the tsunami, he was unable to contact a friend who lived in Ishinomaki municipality, one of the worst-hit towns in Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan.

They eventually spoke on the telephone, but Mr Ashizawa, who has an eponymous architecture and design studio in Tokyo, was told that the four-month-old restaurant he designed for his friend was ravaged.

Unsure if the entire structure was sound, Mr Ashizawa's friend asked him to go to Ishinomaki to work on redeveloping his property.

Once he arrived, he could not ignore the need to do something about the destruction around him. People struggled to rebuild their homes, while volunteers who trickled in were not always trained or equipped to rebuild homes.

He left Ishinomaki with an idea. The father of two says: "Carpenters were too busy (with requests to rebuild homes). You had to wait six months. I thought about teaching the residents basic do-it-yourself carpentry skills. It's not so difficult.

"Once they learn, they can rebuild their homes themselves... It's much easier than them waiting for my help."

An owner of an empty shop let him use the space for free and he filled it with tools and strips of Canadian red cedar. The fragrant, inexpensive wood is now the hallmark of Ishinomaki Laboratory's products.

He spoke to high-school students and Ishinomaki residents to convince them to take him up on his offer. He even renovated a bar called Fukko Bar "to show what we could do". Fukko means "recovery" in Japanese.

Soon, people started turning up at the facility to learn to make things. It operated on an honour system. Residents could use the tools and the space to build whatever they wanted. They just had to keep it clean.

Mr Ashizawa, who shuttled between Tokyo and Ishinomaki then, says: "Some took the tools and never came back. It was difficult to control, but you just have to trust people."

It was a minor snag, but Ishinomaki's community rallied together for the good cause.

The project got a boost a few months after it started, when global furniture-maker Herman Miller ran a furniture workshop for locals and donated tools and materials.

Mr Ashizawa also realised there was a need for furniture that is light, durable and easy to assemble. Temporary housing in the post-disaster zone was small and people liked to stay outdoors.

It spurred him to create the Ishinomaki Stool that doubles as a step stool which can be used to hang laundry. It led to more products that drew on the same principle.

Expanding the product line was a matter of survival, says the architect, who has designed a cabinet and wall shelf for Swedish furniture giant Ikea's PS 2014 collection.

He did not want to keep relying on government funding or handouts to run the workshop.

He says: "I wanted to keep the volunteers paid and pay rent. It's good to get the economy of Ishinomaki going again. It gives the people a normal life again."

Today, Ishinomaki Laboratory has five full-time employees, including former sushi chef Takahiro Chiba, who gave up his vocation to try woodworking after the tsunami. It is still making furniture and holding workshops, while a Tokyo showroom has opened. Non-wood items such as tote bags have also been added to the range.

Besides Mr Ashizawa, some designs are from guest designers and studios such as Torafu Architects from Japan and Spain-born designer Tomas Alonso.

Some furniture pieces are now sold in Singapore - at Supermama Gillman Barracks in Malan Road and Shop Tema Hima at the Esplanade. Prices range from $160 for a Carry Stool, designed by London-based designer Tomoko Azumi, to $4,000 for the three-seat Kobo sofa by Mr Ashizawa.

The pieces are assembled, though customers can choose to assemble selected pieces themselves.

Mr Edwin Low, 37, founder of Supermama who runs both shops, says he decided to sell Ishinomaki Laboratory's furniture because each item is "more than a design piece".

"It tells of the relevance and power of design in everyday life and circumstances - how a simple idea brought people together, transformed the community and grew from a social project to something commercial."

Working on this project has changed Mr Ashizawa's design philosophy in some ways. He says: "I try to design in a more honest way. That means not wasting materials or using super expensive material. Ishinomaki Laboratory's designs are organic and simple. That makes it beautiful. After working on this kind of furniture, I know that it's enough."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2017, with the headline A lab birthed from disaster. Subscribe