Building Block

Photography: Nastassia Clucas

May 10 2016

The first collection Jil Sander showed in Paris in the mid-1970s was a total critical miss. Deliberate minimalism in that frilly‚ chrome and earth tone decade was anathema—incomprehensible in the midst of oil crises and Vietnam. Over the intervening decades though‚ the object lessons of Dieter Rams‚ John Pawson‚ Tadao Ando and others have filtered down through art‚ design and into fashion through Sander’s elite ‘80s cult‚ on to ‘90s yuppies‚ then languished in the ‘00s before blowing up the mainstream this de- cade. Minimalism is to 2015 as paisley was to 1975: requisite and immutable. Adolf Loos‚ the architect dandy who famously associated ornament with criminality‚ must be partying hard in his white‚ rectilineal grave.

Still‚ despite minimalism’s ubiquity there are few brands who do it as well as Jil Sander once did. Enter Building Block‚ the Los Angeles handbag line started by sisters Nancy and Kimberly Wu. The line is marked by primary geometric forms—circles‚ squares‚ arcs‚ planes—in superlative and sometimes unconventional materials. While purists consider today’s minimalism a buzzwordy shorthand for a simple lack of embellishment‚ Building Block’s foundation is deliberate‚ purposeful reduction. In the sisters’ own words‚ the intent of the brand is to “clear away conventional standards of luxury by magnifying what is essential and editing out excess.”

In some respects‚ Nancy and Kimberly are typical siblings. Different auras. Opposing qi. But both are steeped in industrial design. This turns out to be a cornerstone of the brand’s DNA‚ as the two divvy up responsibilities but converge on their approach to creation: design starts with problems and prototypes rather than mood boards. Before their headlong dive into Building Block‚ Kim worked for Honda’s advanced design studio in Tokyo and Nancy was at Nike in Oregon. Exposure to these juggernauts of engineering left a tangible impact on the brand’s penchant for longevity‚ quality and solid construction.

Building Block’s first bag‚ a precursor to the current Cable + Outlet‚ launched with the brand in 2011. Since then‚ the collection has flourished into a full range with names like Disk‚ Bucket‚ Frame‚ Tall‚ Stencil and Big Business. And despite the strictly reductionist ethos‚ everything Building Block does magically comes across as cheeky and playful‚ no doubt thanks to whimsical shapes‚ strong colorways and unexpected materials. Their delightful Tassel is decorative flourish done right: it is a mini icon made from serendipitous combinations of leather with materials like Lucite or basic wood‚ and is a world away from typically garish luxe charms.

Nancy and Kimberly welcomed us into their space in the northern reaches of L.A.’s Chinatown this spring to talk about everything from the genesis of the brand to design heroes and sibling rivalry. Even in the buzzing hive of creative activity that is Los Angeles today‚ Building Block stands out as an auspicious bellwether for the future of luxury.

Nancy Wu

Hometown: Mission Viejo‚ California
Residence: Mount Washington‚ Los Angeles
Drink of choice: Sancerre / Sapporo
Favorite meal: Oysters / corn on the cob
Coffee style: Black
Primary mode of transportation: Honda Element

How did you get to where you are?

In short‚ sticking to my intuition while being open to fucking up (a lot) has been the driving force behind where I am at the moment. Trying to approach everyday with this in mind gives me the freedom to reframe and not get continually jaded or hung up on details—something that is so easy to fall into. In the back of my mind‚ I’m constantly reminding myself of why we started Building Block‚ which is to restart and reconsider‚ to fail and to rebuild. Also‚ good timing‚ a loving family‚ and plenty of sleepless nights have been major parts of getting me to this present point.

You designed footwear for Nike‚ a company that continues to define the intersection of innovation and smart branding. What did you bring from there to Building Block?

At Nike I learned about respecting all the individuals who are involved in making a product happen‚ from design to development to marketing. Within such a large company with an enormous amount of product‚ it can be easy to casually disregard details and rush through to get something to market. But if each individual obsesses over their given set of details‚ this is what ultimately makes for a product that you can be proud of as a collective team. At Building Block we communicate constantly and find the best kind of success through trusting one another to do our specific roles.

Do you have set roles? Is there anything you hate doing that you usually pass off to Kimberly?

With design and brainstorming we share hats. After that‚ I handle graphics/packaging‚ sampling for production‚ and various design- related tasks. Anything that comes close to finance and numbers I usually throw the ‘hot potato’ to Kim—she can count higher than I can.

It’s difficult to describe Building Block bags as minimalist or even essential. Rather‚ they’re rigorous. Smart. Precise. As if they were drawn by architectural tools. How do you describe Building Block to others?

Building Block began as a personal exercise in editing our lives and clearing away what we deemed excessive in order to return to an intentional way of making purposeful product. I describe Building Block to others as a method of creating by editing.

 

Who are your design heroes?

Vignelli‚ Takashi Igarashi‚ Martino Gamper

Do you think less is ever just less?

No‚ I enjoy the idea that less doesn’t have to mean a lack of‚ but can suggest the presence of possibilities.

What was the very first Building Block bag and how did it come about?

The Cable + Outlet bag was the kick off point to Building Block. It was initiated by Kim‚ who was living in Tokyo at the time and exploring various hardware stores for unconventional materials and supplies. The design spoke to an easy‚ sophisticated‚ straightforward aesthetic and struck a cord for both of us as a distinctly fresh approach to the leather purse.

How do you prototype?

I work best with paper and scotch tape to prototype our structural styles. This format allows me to translate an idea from flat pattern to dimension to digital file quickly for our production team.

The Tassel has become something of an icon for Building Block. What’s the story there?

The tassels offer a moment of humor and irony in our collection. Historically‚ tassels are a maximalist icon that are used in excess for decoration or to imply luxury. We’ve simply amplified the proportions and stripped down traditional methods of making through a minimalist approach.

What are your hobbies when you are not designing bags?

Getting some surf in the early A.M. and solitary walks when there’s time. Also‚ it’s springtime and I’ve been considering what’s blooming around LA. Lately I have been going on various walks‚ taking photos of species‚ reading about them via book/web and cataloging for reference. It’s a nice pastime I share with my closest friend who is a horticulturist.

What have you been reading lately?

Sontag’s The Complete Rolling Stone Interview on the plane‚ The New Western Garden Book before bed. The New Yorker during the week.

 

Why do you think Los Angeles has become such a center for design and art over the past few years?

I’m thinking the horizontal landscape of Los Angeles has allowed it to be increasingly magnetic for certain artists and designers. The diversity and layout of the city is very non confrontational and to explore parts of the city requires a lot of patience and minimal expectation. Maybe these characteristics are what make the city a center for people who are a combination of interesting‚ unconventional‚ and willing.

Do you have any big hopes for the future of the city?

Hoping for a complimentary helicopter service (with mini bar) that takes you from the east to the west side while skipping out on hours of traffic (big hopes).

What’s your favorite neighborhood?

Chinatown

You two clearly work well together‚ but you’re siblings. Any rivalries? How do you settle creative conflict?

I have hot qi‚ Kim has cool qi. This basically translates as having completely opposing energy flows. Our conflict is never over anything creative‚ but rather about approach. We almost always have the same end objective in mind though reach it through completely divergent speeds and courses.

It can all feel chaotic and frustrating in the moment but it is probably healthy to settle issues through opposing viewpoints.

Tell us about a time Kimberly convinced you to change your mind about something.

We are both stubborn and have strong beliefs so it’s nearly impossible to change each other’s minds‚ unfortunately. Once she convinced me not to get a broccoli quiche with a side of broccoli… That made complete sense for some reason.

How do you think your own personality has shaped the brand?

I am drawn to sincerity‚ timelessness‚ foods that don’t require sauce to be delicious‚ zero hesitation when in the water‚ a focused sort of casualness and chaos. Maybe a few of these personal ideas are reflected in the way I would like our brand to live with our customers. I think you should be able to enjoy the products as seamlessly incorporated in your life—as something more than a bag but as a simultaneously precious‚ functional object you have taken time to consider and use with a secret sense of satisfaction.

What will you be doing in 2025?

Having a drink with the same familiar friends and hopefully a handful of new ones.

Kimberly Wu

Hometown: Mission Viejo‚ California
Residence: South Pasadena‚ California
Drink of choice: Red wine
Favorite meal: One made at home‚ usually a pasta or a stew. A meal that gets better over days.
Coffee style: Black or with almond milk
Primary mode of transportation: 1976 BMW 2002

How did you get to where you are?

I knew I wanted to pursue design relatively early on‚ though was indecisive on what specific field. Nancy and I both attended Art Center College of Design. I studied transportation design both because I was interested in the subject and because I saw a career opportunity. Honda’s advanced design studio hired me out of school and I worked with them for three years in L.A. before transferring to their Tokyo studio. Somewhere along the way I hit a creative wall at work and began to experiment with bags on my days off and with Nancy via Skype. My sister and I had been wanting to start a project together‚ and luckily what we were making started to gain attention. Timing and circumstances aligned and we eventually left our jobs to start BB.

Honda is known for precision engineering‚ from robots to race cars. What did you bring from there to Building Block?

Our studio at Honda was comprised of 4-5 people which is not far from the current make-up of BB. The experience of working with a small team‚ time management and standard professionalism culled from a corporate upbringing were all helpful factors in getting our company started. Of course there is also crossover with how we approach the design process and how sketch is interpreted into 3D form.

What are your set roles? Is there anything you hate doing that you usually pass off to Nancy?

Our separate roles are largely determined by our strengths and weaknesses‚ but generally we always communicate at least an outline of what we’re working on so that there are no surprises. Anything that is design-related we make sure to discuss and develop together. Independently‚ I oversee production‚ whole- sale orders and finances. Graphic design intimidates me‚ for that I rely on little sis.

It’s difficult to describe Building Block bags as minimalist or even essential. Rather‚ they’re rigorous. Smart. Precise. As if they were drawn by architectural tools. How do you describe Building Block to others?

Someone once offered a great compliment‚ that they are handbags for people who don’t like handbags. I thought that was a generous thing to say and also appropriate.

 

Who are your design heroes?

Takashi Igarashi‚ Bruno Munari‚ Dieter Rams

Do you think less is ever just less?

Sure‚ less is less when there’s an imbalance in proportion to necessity.

What was the very first Building Block bag and how did it come about?

An iteration of the style we call Cable + Outlet. I had just moved to Tokyo so was often shop- ping for daily things as well as exploring around the city. It came together organically during a trip to Tokyu Hands—the way materials were displayed felt like a boutique version of Home Depot‚ with emphasis on quality and accessibility. Some of the parts making up this first style were sourced from there. At the time Nancy was living in Portland so we would Skype and work out the kinks.

How do you prototype?

After a sketch‚ I usually prototype with canvas and scrap leather glued or sewn together to get a correct proportion. It’s kind of a circus act in the beginning stages but they are necessary steps in order to imagine an end product. Nancy will then draw it up digitally as a tech pack for sampling.

The Tassel has become something of an icon for Building Block. What’s the story there?

We try to pare down our designs so that they act as a sort of starting point. Basics that you can dress up if you wish. The tassels are playful‚ interchangeable‚ meant for adornment. They give the designs a little flexibility.

What are your hobbies when you are not designing bags?

Lately I’ve been reliant on routines and have been enjoying the simplicity of rituals at home. Frequent trips to the nursery‚ long neighbor- hood walks.