Over their careers, many architects and designers stray across borders, cultures and disciplines in the hope of translating their skillset to new fields and possibilities – with varying degrees of success. While the fields of product design and architecture share many similarities that allow this multifaceted approach, the difference in scale, materials and technology can be likened to different languages that take a lifetime to master. Enter Keiji Ashizawa, an architect and product designer translating the differences in the pursuit of complete design.
Following his father into architecture, Ashizawa took a roundabout route to establishing his own design firm. After a period working in an architecture practice as a young graduate, he was inspired by the French metal-worker and architect, Jean Prouvé, who charged, “Never design anything that cannot be made.”
Ashizawa pivoted and joined a steel-working studio Super Robot, united in the pursuit of “finding new possibilities of playing with steel.” This atypical experience brought him much closer to the raw materials and processes of fabrication, giving an intimate knowledge of the materials and their detailing – and a keen sense of the relationship between architecture and industrial design.
After establishing Keiji Ashizawa Design in 2005, an opportunity emerged to work on a residential project for a high-profile Japanese client, alongside acclaimed Australian architect Peter Stutchbury – himself a steel devotee. This mutual exchange of languages and ideas invigorated Keiji, prompting an interest in the looseness and sculptural approach of ‘Stutch’, introducing the limits of translation, and laying the groundwork for successful future collaborations with foreign architects such as Danish design darlings Norm Architects (with whom he produces a furniture collection Karimoku Case Study and spaces).
While many architects will occasionally stray into the realm of product and furniture design as hobbyists, Keiji has made this an integral part of his design studio. He is quick to point out the detailing and material concerns are fundamentally different, and his work in furniture requires him to learn new fabrication techniques, sitting with the knowledge over long periods. The Karimoku Case Study brand is born of a desire to design both furniture and the space in which it sits – reversing the practice of designing furniture to suit an existing space, and reinforcing the two-way conversation between the disciplines.
This role of furniture in space-making is a central thread of Ishinomaki Lab – an ongoing project born of Keiji Ashizawa’s response to the devastation wreaked by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. On attending to the damage of a recently completed project in Ishinomaki City in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Keiji was inspired by the resilience and industriousness of the restaurant and shop owners who sought to restore their businesses in the absence of skilled carpenters who were in short supply.
With a government grant, and supply of donated Canadian Red Cedar, Ashizawa established a public workshop for the local community, hosting DIY workshops, designing outdoor furniture, as well as “creating spaces where people could reimagine the future of the city together.” Utilising the existing dimensions of the excess lumber, a range of furniture was developed that was easy to construct and could be used as simple outdoor furniture – eventually expanding as a brand to market the products beyond the local community. The visible screw fixings, and simplicity of assembly have become signature aspects for Ishinomaki lab, which has since become an internationally recognised brand.
Keiji Ashizawa Design has recently completed a community space (showroom, four guest rooms, cafe and office space) in Ishinomaki, re-connecting the threads of industrial and architectural design, and allowing for a new generation of diverse backgrounds to meet and inspire.
Ashizawa notes that it can be difficult to capture what his practice does, and that some misinterpret his work, focusing on the diversity of output rather than the relationship between them. Rather, his ideas are born of lack or necessity, and often it is about a desire to create the entirety of a space. “Like a comic writer trying to create a perfect world” Ashizawa san forges a new design language, combining existing disciplines into a new whole.