9 September 2014
Photographs and Story by Miyuki Yamanaka
Edited by Amy Pettifer
I take a bus from Sendai to Ishinomaki because the trains still aren't running. From the window, there are many new buildings dotted in the landscape and life appears to be carrying on as normal; two years ago, things were very different. An hour and a half later, arriving at a cosy rural station, I'm immediately hit by the strong, salty smell of the sea. Takahiro Chiba, chief of Ishinomaki Laboratory, picks me up and drives me the last few miles. On the way, he points out the remains of a house, just a few meters from an embankment. "Nobody wants to live next to the sea anymore," he tells me, "but I'm very much interested in it because it's cheap!" As we drove, the sea dipped out of view, but the salty smell and the sound of the waves stayed with us.
In 2011, Ishinomaki City was among the municipalities most seriously affected by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Waves up to 10 metres high, destroyed houses, schools and disturbed thousands of lives. Out of this unthinkable disaster, Ishinomaki Laboratory was born. A team of designers, led by architect Keiji Ashizawa, created a public space and community centre for local people, encouraging them to restore and reconstruct the area themselves. The common utility area is filled with lumber and repair materials provided by volunteers - mostly designers from Tokyo. The team assists local residents with DIY projects, teaches workshops in schools and helps to restore local businesses. Among the team's many activities, the Fukko Bar (in Japanese, "Recovery Bar"), has proven extremely popular.
As the project developed, Ishinomaki Lab came to the attention of the wider world thanks in part to the involvement of Herman Miller Inc., the global furniture manufacturer. Encouraged by the company, the team took their products to international fairs (including Ambiente, Germany and interiorlifestyle Tokyo) and in 2012 received the coveted Good Design Award for their very simple, functional and honest pieces.
"What I realized when we participated in international fairs," Chiba said, "is that people were interested in the products first, before they knew that they had come from an earthquake-hit-area. Then we would start talking about Ishinomaki Lab, explaining the story of how the business began and buyers would say, 'I'd like to support you, I'll take two." In Japan on the other hand, the conversation started with, 'ah, the area hit by the earthquake...' It was very interesting to me that - outside of Japan - our products were first judged by their design, appearance and function."
Chiba and the team are leading a local movement, helping to rebuild the landscape through community engagement, education and sustainable thinking. Their project not only provides inspiration and resources but also, as it grows, job opportunities for local people. "Ishinomaki had become a tourist attraction for studying the earthquake," Chiba continues. "People came here and felt sorry about what happened, that's it. But I would like them to imagine - really imagine - what it would be like if the same thing happened in their town, and what they would do to survive. I believe the past is not really important - we have to look to the future."
One of Ishinomaki's signature details is trestle-style legs - simple in design and built to withstand the elements. They support a range of pieces including stools, benches and tables. The Ishinomaki Bench was the very first product to emerge from the Laboratory workshop, developed collaboratively between Ishinomaki Industrial high school students and the lab's own designers. It was intended for use in the temporary outdoor movie theatre and has become a popular item both in the community and with Ishinomaki Lab's wider audience.
Since 2011, Ishinomaki Lab has evolved from its original story, to a place where their products stand on their own. "Even though we are often described as DIY furniture makers,' Chiba explains, "the furniture we deliver to customers is already finished; it's just made with a DIY sensibility. All the products are simple to make yet durable, and we would like people to use them until they wear out. Some people might complain about the flaws that come with age, but I'd like to create a new genre of furniture design that's more relaxed and creative. If you don't like the corners of a table, then saw and file them yourself. You can do such things with our products."
Despite Chiba's desire for adaptation, I couldn't help but feel that the objects produced by Ishinomaki Lab carry the experiences of the people that built them - that they could not have been created anywhere but in Ishinomaki.
In the future, when all the memories of the earthquake have faded away and the town is fully restored, the work of Ishinomaki Lab will carry forward the story, the emotions and the energy of the people dedicated to rebuilding their lives together.
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All of Ishinomaki Laboratory's pieces are available for sale on their website. London-based SCP carries their fantastic AA stools, made at the Lab and in partnership with Tokyo-based Torafu Architects. The AA stools form part of SCP's current exhibition, Simplified Beauty, running 13th - 21st of September.