The potential of “Honest Design”

Text / Jun KATO ( Journalist )

Architect. Product Designer. Interior Designer. Curator.Entrepreneur. For someone like Keiji Ashizawa, it doesn’t do him justice to give him only one job title. His projects and initiatives are wide-ranging, and each one is inspiring. Everyone that comes in contact with him becomes captivated by his amazing sense of energy and vitality, as well as his ability to churn out one brilliant idea after another. I count myself amongst them.

Not long after Keiji left his job at an architectural studio to strike off on his own, I went to interview him for a magazine at a co-working space that he had designed himself. In one of the corners, there was a meeting table that was made out of blackened steel – a material that Keiji loves. “It’s nice, right? This table. Steel is a surprisingly warm material,” Keiji said, while he laid out a mound of projects that he had worked on, right on top of the slender table. As he scribbled furiously with his favourite water-based pen on his sketchbook,Keiji began to speak. Sensing his enthusiasm for understanding the unique characteristics and production processes behind different materials, I immediately realized that he was the type who could fully immerse himself into deep investigation. Even though this was just an interview, I noticed how his sketches embodied a special meaning: he was not so much drawing for the purposes of explaining, but instead to explore his thoughts through paper. It was almost as if his pen was moving to depict a vision of a future built from discoveries gained from his past work.

His story before he started his own practice is quite special. Graduating from the architecture program at a well-known public university, he started working at an architectural firm run by one of his professors.While spending several years gaining practical work experience, the young architect was also becoming more acquainted with the practice of making things from the ground up. Together with Tetsuya Hosokawa,who led the metalworking studio called “Super Robot”,and lighting designer Izumi Okayasu, they created original pieces of furniture and lighting fixtures. At first,Keiji’s involvement with the group was more like an after-work activity, but eventually their desire to show their work to a larger audience became stronger.After he decided to leave his job at the architectural studio, he officially joined Super Robot as a full-time employee. Works such as the “Flat Packing System”are examples of how these collaborations bear fruit -the act of bringing three strong personalities together is almost like a chemical reaction. What emerges is far from the specialized nature of the architecture world, and is instead full of the dynamism and joy of discovery that is available only by physically being in the workshop, where things are being made. It was these products and furniture pieces that Keiji ended up exhibiting at installations, which he organized himself,as well as presenting at design events within Japan and abroad. As his works began to receive a positive response from the world, his sense of creativity and originality started to grow.

The two years Keiji spent at Super Robot had an immense effect on him. To start with, his understanding towards how to utilize steel as a material grew deeper.This meant he became adept at considering the cost of different shapes and sizes of steel in order to figure out which to order, while being able to produce and finish the final product by the deadline. After many hours on the workshop floor, Keiji had developed an intuitive sensibility towards the thickness and strength of steel,in addition to its manufacturing process. Designing while making – this became an important component of his decision-making and thinking process. A quote by French designer Jean Prouvé, which Keiji often references, puts this philosophy into words: “Never design anything that cannot be made.” Learned on the job, this way of thinking was less about escaping the chaos that occurs when there is a disconnect between the theoretical design and the actual act of fabrication,but more about creating a fertile ground where new things could be born. With their eyes set on the world outside of Japan, the Super Robot unit sought to exhibit their creations in places where they could be recognized – moving in a way that was unconventional in the world of architecture.

Pure forms, created from honest design

Even during his time at Super Robot, Keiji began to take on several architectural commissions. However, as the work coming to him personally began to increase,he decided to form his eponymous studio. Despite architecture having a larger scope than furniture, his basic attitude and passion did not change. He has always tried hard to put into shape the ideas he had developed from his time on the workshop floor, while communicating it to people. Ever since the young architect struck out on his own, Keiji has consistently strived towards a philosophy of “honest design”.He does not skip over any one facet of a project,whether they include the site and its associated costs,legal restrictions, or the client’s wishes, but instead approaches each one head-on. Even if these solutions are more or less decided from the beginning, it is not derived from a putting the various conditions of a project in a hierarchy. As the gears in his head turn,holistic answers in the form of architecture start to emerge – arriving at a final version only when Keiji is satisfied that it has fulfilled every aspect of the project.

One of his early residential works, “11 Boxes”, tears down the wall between furniture and architecture.Its very existence is proof to how well the conditions of the project have been understood and met. The central structure is made from eleven boxes, assembled in a way that is on a similar scale as furniture. By approaching the construction of the house as a part of workshop fabrication processes, Keiji increased the precision of the frame structure, which eliminated the need for secondary components. Details were worked out, allowing for the exterior panels to be directly installed to the mainframe. This is an architecture that is both rational and functional, using a streamlined design process that considers everything from the materials,parts, and how they fit together, to the fabrication,production methods, and on-site construction. Even to outsiders, there is a kind of purity in the design.The “Gravity Light”, which is one of the first products he designed, as well as his later architectural projects all share this same spirit. Whether he is combining steel with different materials like wood, collaborating with furniture makers on designs, involved in large-scale projects, or dealing with an increasing number of overseas commissions, Keiji has never once wavered in his approach.

In 2007, I published a book made up of interviews with Keiji Ashizawa Design, Torafu Architects, and Yuko Nagayama and Associates, as well as their works.Even though these firms were just starting out, they had already realized many projects that were fresh and original. It was exciting to witness how they actualized their ideas while crossing over boundaries that were not immediately visible, but could be strongly felt.What makes me still happy to this day, is that their stances have not changed, and that they continue to be at the forefront of the design world while constantly yielding new perspectives.

In that same year, Keiji was about to move offices.However, before moving in, he personally organized an exhibition focused on prototypes, holding it at the still-vacant space for his new studio. Using sketches and mock-ups, this installation was meant to show people the process of trial and error that takes place before a project is completed, whether the subject was product design or architecture. At that time, even though the process of prototyping was already seen as important, it was a novel idea to have designers themselves draw attention to this by showing their own examples. No matter how you look at it, you can say that this is a part of having the confidence to show his idea of “honest design”. Keiji’s purpose behind organizing this event resonated with the participating designers, who were able to offer real critiques of each other’s work without holding back. It was inspiring to see them grow by learning from their peers. The exhibition ended up being held again four times at different venues every year, each time eliciting a great response.

Coming into one’s own during tumultuous times

Just as plans were underway for the fifth iteration of the “Prototype” exhibition, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck Japan’s northeast coast on March 11, 2011. As the quake literally shook the surface of the earth, it also caused a big shift across Japan by rocking the foundations of people’s value systems. Above all else, designers began to constantly ask the question of who they were designing for, and for what purpose.For example, this could be seen as an opportunity for reevaluating design itself and its deep relationship with life, for example, by making things that are needed in developing countries, and not objects that are abundant in a consumer society. However, design was still generally thought of as just “decoration” for adding colour to people’s lives. In the aftermath of the disaster, the significance of this type of ornamental design was lost.

Like many other in his field, Keiji was unhappy that there was not much he could do to directly support the disaster area. However, he was a human being first and a designer second. Keiji had a friend who ran a Japanese restaurant in the city of Ishinomaki,which was arguably one of the most heavily-hit areas.About half a year before the disaster, the architect had worked on the interior design of the restaurant. After receiving a call for help from his client, Keiji packed supplies of food and immediately headed north. As he went to Ishinomaki many times, each time removing rubble from partially-destroyed storefronts or clearing the sludge and mud that had poured in because of the tsunami, an idea struck Keiji – “Why not build a workshop stocked with tools and materials so those affected by the disaster could use it to rebuild their lives by themselves?”

The area that Keiji entered was a local shopping street made up of old-fashioned stores that were connected one after another. Even though the tsunami inundated the first floor of the street, shops gradually reopened for business in the buildings that had managed to avoid complete destruction. However, as this was a state of emergency, it was difficult to find carpenters and other professional tradespeople to help repair the shops. This realization led him the idea of setting up a workshop in the city center, which could provide the necessary tools and supplies to shopowners for conducting their own repairs. Retail activity could then be restored as shops resumed regular operations. Despite how volunteer activities for disaster recovery usually had charitable implications, Keiji sought to distance himself from this by stressing that “he was no saint”. He simply wished to have the storekeepers – with his friend on top of the list – to have a thriving business by providing the tools and a place for them to regain their livelihoods. This would also be based on the idea of DIY, which was a long-time interest of Keiji’s.

First, Keiji sent a message to the executive committee that helped organize the “Prototype” exhibition,asking if they would be interested in participating in the creation of a community workshop. In the beginning, I could not grasp the real intention behind the project, which would later become Ishinomaki Laboratory. However, after visiting his office and speaking with him, a strong desire emerged within me – as summer approached, I wanted to support the reconstruction efforts by working together with locals to establish this workshop. Made up of designers and other professionals, Keiji had seen that the executive committee had a strong track record of hosting design events, even with limited time and resources. Just as he expected, the designers, driven by strong sense of enthusiasm and mission, gathered together for a common goal. We received a donation of tools and parts through the generosity of a few companies, and then by summer, completed construction of the workshop in a building in the city that was damaged by the disaster. Shortly after, we put on a furniture-making workshop for the architecture students at Ishinomaki Technical High School, creating benches and stools together.

The benches and stools born from this workshop are wonderful objects that encapsulate the idiosyncratic style of design and projects that Keiji has cultivated, combined with a dose of serendipity. The gifted designer had only prepared a few sketches for how to build the benches that were to be used for the first session. He drew them right on the day of the event,while sitting in the bullet train headed for Ishinomaki.Using only the necessary pieces of dimensional lumber, the structure is simple, but functional and durable. Most importantly, it can be easily assembled anywhere and with the most basic of tools. Designed with the purpose of facilitating communication after the earthquake, its presence also projects a feeling of warmth. Even when removed from its origins in post-disaster Ishinomaki, the utilitarian forms have a beauty that will captivate people all around the world. As a testament to this, the Ishinomaki Stool was selected to be a part of the permanent collection of London’s V&A Museum in 2015.

With the support of global furniture manufacturer Herman Miller and others, Ishinomaki Laboratory has continued to hold DIY workshops with the local community and beyond. Many original pieces of furniture have been realized by collaborating with
a large number of designers. Over the course of a few years, Ishinomaki Laboratory has transformed itself from a community workshop for reconstruction assistance to an independent, locally-run business.Starting with SCP, a retailer of modern furniture in London, Ishinomaki Laboratory products are nowavailable in many countries around the world. As the world’s first “DIY maker”, the upstart furniture label seeks to spread a new lifestyle through its designs and products to places far and wide. Growing from a simple idea proposed by Keiji, it is doubtful whether Ishinomaki Laboratory could continue to exist without his drive, tenacity, and ability to involve those around him to contribute to this innovative project.

Fostering a new culture through good design

If you ask Keiji in the beginning whether he expected Ishinomaki Laboratory would develop into its present form, he would say half of it went the way he expected and the other half he would have never dreamed of happening. “In the beginning, I did not really think Ishinomaki Laboratory could become a business.Turning it into a venture takes a lot of time, and there are many challenges that come with it,” Keiji commented. Despite this, at a certain point, he began to believe it was possible. As he began acutely aware of the need to transform Ishinomaki Laboratory into a business, he immediately put this idea into action – a mindset that is generally reflective of all his projects.
“I didn’t know how this would relate with my other parts of my life, but once I started, I realized there are a lot of different connections that could be made in the end. If you can connect all the dots, it opens up a whole new world,” comments Keiji, who is not one to make small changes along the status quo. While the close collaborators of Keiji occasionally tease him for his way of doing things, they are also excited when they unexpectedly find themselves covering new ground together.

In 2016, Keiji opened a gallery called Design Koishikawa in a large space that he rented in a building near his studio. Also home to several lifestyle shops, Design Koishikawa brings new life to this historical district in Tokyo. Through Keiji’s personal connections, designers around the world are invited here and given a great deal of flexibility to hold one-of-a-kind exhibitions that have achieved wide acclaim. Prior to running the gallery, Keiji also spearheaded the construction of the Ishinomaki Laboratory TokyoShowroom, complete with a guest house on the second floor for friends and acquaintances to stay at. Keiji explains, “For travelers, how they experience the city is dependent on their lodging and whatever guidance they are given to navigate the area. As each person forges an organic connection with neighbourhood, the community itself also becomes a more interesting place”. From a small product, to a single community – the impact that Keiji has extends in a way that is unbound by scale.

In the next few pages, Keiji Ashizawa will show us the true power of design. Through each “site” that he introduces to us, we can observe how a unique culture is developing. Just like how Keiji plays many roles at the same time, there is a reason why I am convinced that the most suitable title for him is actually -“innovator”.