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DIY Spirit: Keiji Ashizawa in Detroit

Furniture designer and architect Keiji Ashizawa is widely celebrated for founding Ishinomaki Laboratory, a local community hub for recovery activities and craftsmanship launched in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

During the final week of September 2017, the Stamps School partnered with the Center for Japanese Studies to bring Ashizawa to Michigan as an integral part of Building Community in Detroit & Regional Japan, a symposium held in partnership with the 2017 Detroit Design Festival and the Bicentennial Office at the University of Michigan.

In addition to his September 2017 Penny Stamps Speaker Series lecture, Ashizawa and Ishinomaki Lab furniture designer/sushi chef Takahiro Chiba led a public Brightmoor Bento Kit workshop at the Brightmoor Maker Space @ Detroit Community Schools as part of the Building Community in Detroit & Regional Japan symposium.


During the workshop, over seventy participants split up into teams of five. Each team was given an identical Brightmoor Bento Kit — a flat pack kit of 17 carefully sized wood components and supplies. With minimal direction, each team was given two hours to utilize the materials in the kit to conceptualize, design, and build an object of their choosing. “Everybody got the same materials, but saw things in a different way,” said workshop assistant Marcus Lewis, a woodshop instructor at Detroit Community High School. “People made tables, birdhouses, art supply stands, toolboxes — all sorts of things.”


“As a college student, you’re often surrounded by people your own age. But the workshop brought together an incredibly diverse group of people,” said participant Madeline Helland (BA ‘18). “We were all building together — everyone from little kids to adults, industry people to students, all making something new.” Workshop participants included Brightmoor community members and high school students; university students from the Stamps School of Art & Design and the Center for Japanese Studies; Toyota employees; and Detroit Design Festival participants from NYC, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, London, Sao Paulo, and Johannesberg.

“Our objective was to create space and material that would inspire interaction, use, and imagination,” said professor Nick Tobier, who traveled to Japan in May 2017 to learn about the Ishinomaki Lab materials and approach in preparation for this collaboration. “We had a huge turnout for the Brightmoor Bento Kit workshop and the creative joy was just contagious.”


In addition to the Bento Kit workshop, Keiji Ashizawa’s Ishinomaki Lab had its first US exhibition as part of Detroit Design Festival at the end of September 2017.

All of the work in the show was designed in Japan and produced by hand by local youth, including Stamps students, alums, and community members at the Brightmoor Maker Space at Detroit Community Schools , along with Herman Miller designer Mike Haag. Mitsuhiro Wada, Consul General of Japan in Detroit, spoke at the opening of the exhibition, which was attended by over 1,000 visitors.

The exhibition also included the premier of the Brightmoor Bento Box, the same kit used in the workshop. The Brightmoor Bento Box was designed in Detroit and prototyped in Japan under the supervision of Keiji Ashizawa and Herman Miller Japan. The flat pack Bento, a kit of 17 wooden pieces, can be used to construct 10 distinct wooden object and utilizes the DIY design ethos of Ishinomaki Lab.


“The exhibit was unusually festive,” said Tobier. “I have to say that after working measuring and carefully cutting the super refined clear cedar I was gasped at first when people started moving it around, sitting on it, placing their kids on it, etc. But then I saw how an exhibit of furniture meant to be used really creates space for people to come together. Likewise, the workshop was people getting together in groups of strangers who became friends to make things. This was the real spirit of DIY furniture and building — and we could not have hoped for a better time.”