He took the challenge and he gave to his community a new hope and new possibilities. Keiji Ashizawa is a Japanese designer and director of Ishinomaki Laboratory (ishinomaki-lab.org), a design workshop lab in Ishinomaki-city, Miyagi prefecture, Tokyo. The lab was born after the tsunami and the Great East Japan Earthquake which devastated the whole area on March 2011. Born as a common utility area for locals to conduct their work, Ishinomaki Laboratory launched a new disruptive idea of community design pushing the boundaries of DIY: an ensemble of meetings that provides training for mastering design skills, producing handmade products as well as regular technical guidance for local high school students and children. With this new business model Ishinomaki Laboratory won “2012 Good Design Award” in Japan. Currently the laboratory is involved in a series of workshop with Switzerland. We caught up with Ashizawa to talk about Ishinomaki Laboratory and his new International design venture.
D: Would you like to explain us the concept of Design Workshop?
KA: The workshop concept was elaborated by Pierre Keller, former director of the Swiss design school ECAL in collaboration with Patrick Reymond, co-founder of the Swiss design studio atelier oi. The idea was to establish a sort of bridge between Switzerland and Japan in order to explore the two different approaches to design. For each workshop they select ten designers, five Swiss and five Japanese, who have to spend five days in Switzerland, first, and then in Japan to work together on a project. In Switzerland designers work with the industrial furniture company WOGG, which provides all the materials, and in Japan with Ishinomaki Laboratory. The aim of the program is for each designer to come up with a design for possible products suitable for the International market.
D: How did it start?
KA: It started in Switzerland. The first assignment for Japanese designers was to have a taste of Swiss lifestyle. They organized for us a tour where we were able to see different landscapes, taste local food and meet local producers. The intention was to give us a chance to understand the mind-set, to touch and experience the kind of products are desirable in Switzerland.
D: How does the workshop work?
KA: For five days ten designers have to work on a project. Usually the process starts by learning and analyzing raw materials used by WOGG and Ishinomaki Laboratory. From there, they have to understand what kind of skills are needed and issues like productivity and marketability. Of course, during the process the design of a product changes as designers get to know each other. This approach helps them develop their know-how in a new context and market through the realization of a project abroad. Merging different cultures and approaches can lead to unexpected and innovative outcomes.
D: How is Ishinomaki Laboratory involved?
KA: Ishinomaki Laboratory is the host maker in Japan. Since the inception in 2011 our policy has been to produce furniture with designers engaged in workshops. Gathering together ten talented and busy professionals under the same roof for a very short period of time is a rare situation. We asked them to design few prototypes for our new collection of products was coming out last summer. We are a young company and we need fresh energy from outside.
D: Can you share with us how Ishinomaki Laboratory was born?
KA: It was born as voluntary workshop place for the local community in Ishinomaki-city, Miyagi prefecture, which was devastated by the tsunami and by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. At the beginning it was just a common utility area for locals to conduct their own work with materials provided by designers in Tokyo. Then, slowly, it became a center for DIY until local shops started to contact us to repair and renovate their stores. Now some of Ishinomaki Laboratory’s core activities include running a design workshop to provide training for mastering design skills as well as providing regular technical guidance for local high school students and children.
D: What did you learn and what are you still learning from this cultural design exchange between Switzerland and Japan?
The approach to design is very different. Japanese designers are more practical and focused on the product in itself. Swiss designers, instead, are more focused on the idea, the process and on developing new method to get the best out from a particular situation. They study raw materials as a chef studies ingredients for a new recipe. It was very interesting for me to watch them working and I learned a lot about the importance of materials in designing a project.
D: What’s the main challenge?
KA: As a host of the workshop the main challenge was to make great result for this workshop in a short time. For me communication is very important so my commitment was organize meetings everyday to talk about what they were working on.
D: What kind of projects did you realize during the workshop at Ishinomaki Laboratory?
KA: Table, tray, small bookcase, chaise lounge using wood. We showed all the the prototypes during Tokyo Designers Week 2015 and at International Furniture Fair Tokyo 2015.
D: When is going to be the next event and what will be the project you are going to work on?
KA: I just finished a design workshop with architecture students in Taiwan. In 2016 Fabien Cappello, a product and design studio based in London, and I will organize a workshop with architecture students in Japan. The workshop will take place at Ishinomaki Laboratory. Students will learn how to use timber, wood prepared for use in building and carpentry, to make our furniture.
D: What do you like about Design Workshop?
KA: It's fun. It's efficient.
D: Do you think that after this experience your idea of design has changed? If so, what is your new point of view on design?
KA: It evolved in terms of possibilities. It made me realized that I want to host more design workshop with designers and architects from around the world.