Above: Image courtesy of Masaki Ogawa

This is an article from the fall 2017 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

In 2011, the city of Ishinomaki made international headlines because it was devastated by tsunami waves and the Great East Japan Earthquake. The calamity destroyed more than 50,000 buildings and left behind more than six million tons of debris.

Three years later, when Brad Hammond (M.A. ’15) first went to Ishinomaki, it reminded him of  Detroit.

“Ishinomaki and Detroit are completely different places,” he says, “but the problems of what to do about shrinking populations and industries were the same.”

When he was hired as the engaged learning and Japan partnerships coordinator for the Center for Japanese Studies (CJS) in 2015, Hammond approached LSA’s Center for Global and Intercultural Study (CGIS), LSA’s Community-Engaged Academic Learning (CEAL) program, and Nick Tobier, a professor in the Stamps School of Art & Design and the Edward R. Ginsberg Senior Counsel to the Provost on Civic Engagement. Together with Associate Professor of History Leslie Pincus they created a course that would connect organizations in Ishinomaki and organizations in Detroit and collaborate on solutions to their common problems.

“It was offered through CGIS as a global intercultural experience for undergraduates,” Hammond says, “which requires a preparation course, an abroad experience, and some kind of application of the knowledge students gained abroad back here at home. We thought, what if we designate Ishinomaki as the study abroad site and Detroit as the application site back home?”

Ishinomaki is a provincial town in northern Japan flanked by the ocean on one side and rural countryside on the other. Before the tsunami hit, unemployment had driven people away in the 1980s, leaving a lot of vacant real estate. Afterwards, the damage was so complete no one talked about rebuilding. Instead, they talked about creating something new.

Begin by Doing Something

Four months before the tsunami, Tokyo architect Keiji Ashizawa had finished renovating a friend’s restaurant in Ishinomaki ­— one of the thousands of buildings the tsunami nearly destroyed. When Ashizawa returned to Ishinomaki, the obvious need was housing, and there was a dearth of people with either the training or tools to make necessary repairs. Ashizawa donated tools and started teaching people basic carpentry skills. A few months later, Ben Matsuzaki, president of furniture manufacturing company Herman Miller Japan, brought volunteers from his company and more tools and materials and held a furniture-making workshop with Ashizawa.

People were living in temporary housing, which came with clotheslines that were hard to reach. The tsunami had also swept away public benches, so even though the houses were cramped, there was nowhere to sit outside. Ashizawa designed a lightweight chair that doubled as a stepstool so people could hang their laundry and then sit for a chat with the neighbors.

The stool became the first product manufactured by Ishinomaki Laboratory, a global company that partners with internationally known designers to create a line of D.I.Y. furniture that serves a practical purpose. Its pitch to new designers goes something like this: These are our materials and our tools. Here are our skills. Now go design something we can make.

“Part of the Lab very much comes out of this trendy, hipster ethos appropriate to someone like Keiji Ashizawa,” Hammond says, “but in the early aftermath of the tsunami they made things people needed to live their lives.”

In just a few years, a town internationally known for its tragedy has also become known for its furniture, which is distributed and exhibited in museums and design shows all over the world. Today, Ishinomaki Laboratory’s furniture line includes, among other things, desks, shelves, sofas, and shoe racks. It also sells a quirky Bento D.I.Y. Kit, from which you can build a toolbox, a birdhouse, a bookshelf, or a stool.

The kit is a nod to those early, post-tsunami workshops Ashizawa offered, packaged to be reproduced in schools and in community workshops. The bento box embodies the Lab’s D.I.Y. philosophy: Getting your hands on tools and making stuff is empowering.

Tobier and Hammond wondered if this philosophy would resonate in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit.

State of the Art

For decades, Brightmoor has been known for crime and capacious blocks of abandoned buildings. As early as the 1990s, there were streets you could not drive down because there was too much garbage in the way: boats, junked cars, sofas, car tires. You could drive blocks without seeing an inhabited house, reasons why it also became known as Blight More.

By 2013, almost a quarter of Brightmoor’s 8,000 houses stood empty. When the Detroit Blight Authority began working in the neighborhood, it pulled out 100,000 pounds of illegally dumped trash. Today, many of Brightmoor’s vacant buildings have been razed. Crime is still a problem, but there are community gardens and signs of renewal. There is also a lot of art.

 Since 2010, the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design has brought arts programming into Brightmoor by partnering with community groups and Detroit Community Schools. Joined by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Stamps launched a campaign in 2013 to convert a 3,200-square-foot vacant building into the Brightmoor Maker Space (BMS).

BMS, which opens this fall, will offer community workshops where adults and kids can develop creative skills and new business ideas can incubate. It’s also the future production site of the Brightmoor Bento Box.

In March 2017, four U-M students; Tobier; Bart Eddy, lead instructor at BMS and co-founder of Detroit Community Schools; and Herman Miller senior engineer Mike Haag met with 30 Detroit Community High School students. They talked about Ishinomaki Laboratory and the spirit expressed through its products, particularly the Lab’s Bento Box. The team introduced the idea of a Brightmoor Bento Box, and Tobier asked the high school students what such a box might contain.

The students had a lot of ideas, such as a bender, which transforms from a bench into a ladder, and a pro chair, which turns protest signs into chairs. Tobier drew some early schematics from the high school students’ first designs and Tobier, Eddy, and the U-M students made a prototype with guidance from Ishinomaki Laboratory artisans when they arrived in Japan in May.

 “All the time we were in Ishinomaki, students were reflecting back on the partners in Detroit,” Tobier says. “They were also taking what they learned in Detroit to understand what was happening here.”

Having Second (and Third) Thoughts

The students presented the Brightmoor prototype kit and the furniture you can make from it to Keiji Ashizawa and Ben Matsuzaki. They then incorporated that feedback into a revised design. The Ishinomaki Lab staff led a workshop using their bento box to teach the students how to lead a workshop themselves. The students debuted the Brightmoor Bento Box when they led a workshop for the Ishinomaki Lab staff. In September, the U-M students and Keiji Ashizawa taught the Brightmoor high school students to lead a workshop with the Brightmoor Bento Box as part of a symposium celebrating CJS’s 70th anniversary, U-M’s Bicentennial, and the 2017 Detroit Design Festival, entitled Building Community in Detroit and Regional Japan.

In August 2017, the Brightmoor high school students, local wood artisans, and U-M students began producing the Brightmoor Bento Box. Using the Lab’s sales and distribution model, they hope to associate Brightmoor more with these beautifully crafted bento boxes and less with blight.

Facilitating the collaboration between Ishinomaki and Detroit has had a huge impact on the students. “Some of our students had never left the country or been on a plane,” Tobier says. “For them to go somewhere so far away and to connect with people there in such a powerful way was an astounding thing to witness. As we watched, they achieved a degree of confidence and an understanding that their role in the world is just emerging.”

Hammond recalls a night a few students from Detroit were talking with each other about replicating what they’d seen in Ishinomaki back home. In Ishinomaki, Makigumi had renovated a space called “The Geek Factory” for ITNAV (see sidebar below). Ishinomaki Lab had furnished it. They brought their collected strength to bear on their community’s issues. The students saw potential in bringing interdependent groups together to support neighborhoods in Detroit.

This, from the beginning, was the power Hammond saw in the program. Connecting students to people as well as to a place in Japan gave them a chance to think about problems from a different perspective, and to become immersed in the issues and aspirations of a particular place. It gives them a new lens to look at themselves and problems closer to home, too. “By asking them to work at the grassroots level,” Hammond says, “we hope to create an experience that enriches and complicates their world.” 

Learn more about the Detroit/Ishinomaki collaborative

Makigumi and Revival Detroit address long-standing real estate vacancies in their respective communities. The U-M students studied the strategies each used for acquiring and renovating vacant property and for engaging the community around them in order to create a toolkit of best practices.

ITNAV and Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation create opportunities for high school students. The U-M students helped to create Humans of New York-like profiles of students from both cities who were interested and active in STEAM, creating a forum where students can compare their stories and experiences.

Ishinomaki Laboratory and Brightmoor Maker Space cultivate local economic development by teaching people creative skills and incubating new business ideas. Inspired by Ishinomaki's Bento D.I.Y. Kit, these groups worked together to design a kit manufactured and sold in Detroit.

Photos courtesy of Center for Japanese Studies

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