In the midst of the pandemic, Darin Maki, founder of the clothing brand CRFT by Maki, was looking to help some of the struggling small businesses in Little Tokyo, a historic Japanese American district located in downtown Los Angeles. Enter Wilkinson Graphic Design student Kyle Kawakami (‘21) who volunteered his skills and time to help Maki collaborate with Anzen Hardware to create a special holiday gift box.

“This project was super cool to me because I was able to give back to a community, that means a lot to me,” said Kawakami.

Anzen Hardware gardening gloves.

The gift box contains a limited-edition Anzen Hardware T-shirt, gardening gloves and an imported Japanese vegetable seed packet for customers to purchase. A portion of the cost will go toward restoring the recently graffitied storefront windows of the historic hardware store. Kawakami helped to conceptualize and design all of the collaboration’s pieces included in the package.

What was once a hotel supply store in 1946, Anzen sold to all the hotels in the neighborhood. Eventually the hotels disappeared and small businesses began to pop up. The hotel supply store transformed into a hardware store supplying the locals. In 1954, Nori Takatani, a high school kid from Hiroshima, began working at the hardware store and is now the owner and operator, still working there every day.

“The aim of the collaboration is to fight the gentrification of Little Tokyo by telling some of the rich stories in the area,” said Kawakami.

“Ever since we opened our doors in Little Tokyo the goal was always to work with Anzen Hardware store. This cultural gem has served the local community for 74 years and has intrigued countless onlookers with their imported product line from Japan. During the pandemic, we truly learned what community was in J-Town,” said Maki.

Kawakami and the CRFT by Maki team worked for months collaborating over zoom and weekly group chats executing a product that they were proud of and something that would help Anzen Hardware. Kawakami was honored to have this opportunity to use his graphic design skills to give back.

“With this collaboration, we wanted people to feel a part of the story of Anzen. We wanted the design to feel vintage, like you picked it up from the store back in 1946. If you look carefully at the design, you can find a few subtle nods that speak to CRFT by Maki, Anzen, and Little Tokyo.”

When working on this project Kawakami was reminded how his graphic design courses at Chapman taught him about the role of a designer in society in class.

“My favorite class was History of Graphic Design where we dove into the designer’s role in society and how that applies moving forward with the work the next generation puts out. Through that class, I’ve personally found that all great work has had an underlying sense of duty and privilege to serve and represent marginalized groups. As Graphic Designers, we are communicators of a story, not just advertisers. That is what I keep in mind when approaching my work, especially this project.”