My 4-year-old daughter’s eyes light up when she spies something sitting on the work table. Unlike her normal playtime preferences, it is not a rainbow-haired unicorn, felt tip pens or a plastic doll that has caught her attention — it’s an industrial looking electric screwdriver.
It is perhaps fair to say that the idea of mixing electric tools with young children is something that any sane parent, myself included, would normally go well out of their way to avoid. Yet I recently put my parental reservations on hold when I took my two daughters — aged 2 and 4 — to a resolutely family-friendly furniture-making workshop in Tokyo.
The workshops are run by Ishinomaki Laboratory, an inspiringly creative and community-focused company that was established in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami disaster. The concept was the brainchild of Tokyo-based architect Keiji Ashizawa, who hoped to help revitalize the northeastern city of Ishinomaki, which was devastated in the tsunami, by empowering locals to rebuild their homes and businesses at do-it-yourself furniture workshops.
Collaborating with an array of contemporary designers, Ishinomaki Laboratory subsequently created a series of templates for simple furniture pieces — from bookstands to shelves — which are as stylishly minimal as they are easy to build.
In addition to staging workshops across Ishinomaki (and selling their goods at design stores around the world), there are regular events in Tokyo, held at Design Koishkawa, an airy industrial gallery space run by Ashizawa in the Koishikawa district.
“Drawing from our experience after 3.11, we strongly feel that practicing DIY was a very effective way for residents to rebuild their lives after the disaster,” explains Ashizawa. “The problem is that because it is hard to start making something on your own without the space or resources, most people end up not taking that first step.
“Here, we would like to provide that opportunity for everyone to experience the joy of DIY and making something with their own hands. Our hope is that by transmitting these DIY skills bit by bit to people in Tokyo, we can foster the possibility for the local community to change for the better as well.”
The workshop I attend with my husband and daughters is an outdoor session — which they also hold regularly — at an organic market event in the same neighborhood.
Here, basking in Sunday afternoon sunshine, surrounded by distracting stalls selling French cakes, local design products and artisan beers, we sit on cardboard stools at low wooden crate-like tables covered with power tools, pencils, screws and scraps of sandpaper, while boxes filled with various shaped pieces of wood line the sides.
First of all, we have to choose what we want to make — and my 4-year-old is unwavering ambitious: “I want to make a stool.” (My 2-year-old fell asleep just as we arrive, which frankly, I’m a bit relieved about).
To her delight, we are handed a neatly tied bundle of four wooden plywood parts, all already measured to size so no cutting is involved — in short, everything we need to make a small, simple stool, consisting of three cedar wood planks for the sides and top (one with a distinct Ishinomaki Laboratory logo branded on the side), plus a circular wooden bar to link the two sides.
Staff mill around the tables, where other families are already at various stages of making items ranging from shelves to boxes, and we are soon given our first task: pencil marking for attachments and nails.
After being told the exact dimensions in millimeters, my daughter holds down the metal ruler as I mark points in pencil, a process that takes longer than I had imagined.
Next, it’s sanding time. My daughter initially revels in her newfound responsibility as the “official sander” as she diligently smooths the edges of wood with scraps of sandpaper, although, as with most 4-year-olds, her attention soon wavers and about 10 minutes later, I spot her trying to sand her left cheek.
Finally, it’s the fun bit for parents: drilling. My daughter is fortunately happy to keep help hold things in place at a sensible distance. I’m perhaps just as dangerous as a toddler when it comes to handling tools.
By this time my 2-year-old has woken and is reveling in playing with the various pieces of wood lying around in nearby boxes, her big sister is proudly giving the newly constructed stool a final sanding.
Fortunately, the stool is not only easy to make, it’s also small and light, so we hook it onto the back of the baby stroller when we later make our way home across Tokyo, with my older daughter pulling it down at every possible opportunity — station platform, street corner — to sit on it with great pride.
“We encourage woodworking and DIY as a fun way for families to bond and create something special that they can take home,” says Ashizawa, who explains that all ages are welcome, with children as young as 3 able to take part in the furniture-making process, as long as a parent is helping them. “The joy of DIY is something that both parents and children can experience, and we believe it is a benefit for kids to be exposed to basic woodworking from a young age as a way to develop a mindset of problem-solving and creativity.”
Ishinomaki Laboratory usually holds 90-minute workshops at Design Koishikawa in Tokyo on the second and fourth Saturday of each month, starting at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Regular workshops are also held at in Ishinomaki. Costs start from ¥2,000 per product, depending on the item made. For more details, visit www.ishinomaki-lab.org/en.