In the industrial heart of downtown Los Angeles on the border of Chinatown sits the studio where the simple yet elegant bags of Building Block are designed. The studio is in a charming, 100-year-old building once owned by the Pacific Railroad Company. In the '70s, it became the
Los Angeles Woman's
building, a nonprofit space at the center of the feminist movement. Now, the space houses the studio where sisters Nancy and Kimberly Wu work alongside the designers of Iko Iko, amid large open spaces and lots of light.
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HEIDI GAUDET: Wow! This space is beautiful. How long have you guys been here?
NANCY WU: Two months. It's an unconventional space; you have to find it then climb up the weird stairs. We like that about it. We are trying to turn it into more of an event space. We have an old safe [that] we want to empty out and turn into a gallery space. It's a little creepy.
Where was your studio before this?
KIMBERLY WU: For a while we were living and working in the same space—the two of us—[and] we needed to separate it.
NW: We share the space with Shin Okuda and Kristin Dickson-Okuda. Shin makes the furniture for WAKA WAKA, and Kristin designs clothing under the name Rowena Sartin, and they created Iko Iko.
KW: When you work with a third party, it's nice to have that dialogue of what you're creating, so we share a lot of the same inspiration with them and it's not competitive.
NW: We have a similar way of thinking and a similar way of designing.
How did Building Block come about?
NW: Prior to starting Building Block, Kim and I were working corporate jobs. I was working with Nike in Portland designing footwear, and she was at Honda designing concept cars in Tokyo. We studied industrial design and that got a little tired creatively; we weren't able to express what we wanted to do at the end of the day. But, we always wanted to do something together as sisters. Kim started making bags on the side of her job. She would go to Tokyu Hands and collect materials and put them together. She had a blog when she was in Japan just for family and friends to see what she was doing. She had posted pictures of the bags and then public people started following her and got excited, asking if she had made the bags.
KW: It took off naturally. At first it was personal, like, "What is something I want to make for myself?" It started from a selfish need, and then [I found] other people wanted it, too.
NW: I think we are growing really tired of fast fashion and feeding trends. We wanted to create something simple, classic, and basic in not such a fast turn around, so we came up with Building Block. Basically, the idea is going back to paring down your wardrobe. Simple is the best; basic is the most reliable. Once [the bags] got big in Japan, we started to produce them. [Kim] was like, "Join forces with me." And we quit our jobs and moved back to LA.
NW: When we came up with Building Block, we wanted it to encompass a philosophy or idea of starting from basics and building from there.
KW: The actual definition means being a part of the whole. it gives us room the expand on an idea.
What's the process like?
NW: We introduce core styles, then reinterpret [them] into other colors seeing what works, what doesn't work. Now we are focusing more on our utility stuff; it's like trial and error. We also want to expand on the idea of utility and what's behind that. Function comes first. The backpack has the front that comes off and turns into a fanny pack.
Do you have a specific person in mind when designing?
NW: We started designing for ourselves essentially.
KW: We both have very specific tastes.
NW: And personal tastes.
KW: I'm not exactly a handbag girl, but I apply what I would wear in our products.
NW: There isn't a specific person in mind. We just want to play with this proportion and shapes, and then basically bags have archetypes. There's the brief case, and the bucket bag... what we try to do is break them down to basic forms. For example, with a duffle bag, our interpretation is a cylinder.
KW: I'm always trying to design a bag that [Nancy] would carry. She's the toughest. I like the idea of someone getting dressed around one of our bags.
NW: That's a fun idea!
How do your bags relate to Los Angeles?
KW: Having a bag in LA, you don't really need to carry it all the time because you're driving around, so it doesn't matter how heavy it is. Or maybe you want a small bag because you leave everything else in your car. I hadn't really thought about that difference. It's comfortable here, and we like that it's not competitive. We have room to breathe and to allow [ourselves] time away from the calendar. We appreciate that we are not in the fashion world.
What's next for you guys?
NW: We just introduced a new canvas utility line. We're trying to be more playful and casual. And with our lower-end line, we have a new backpack coming out. Also, I want to make shoes, which I've been working on slowly.