What They Bought
Kristin Dickson of L.A.’s Iko Iko

Inside Kristin Dickson’s store Iko Iko in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood, there are polka-dot shirts and wooden knitting needles, zig-zag coathooks and Mexican moccasins, ceramic urns and jars of jam. There are selections from Dickson’s crystal and vintage-book collections — the latter with titles like “On Weaving” or “On Fiberworks” — plus pieces from her boyfriend Shin Okuda’s furniture line Waka Waka. And as of this month, these items were joined by a haul of objects from a three-week trip the couple took to Okuda’s native Japan, where the fare spanned vintage textiles to traditional trivets to novelties like toothpaste and black Q-tips. It’s a credit to the pair’s curating talents that the shop nevertheless feels like the product of a coherent vision. “I focus on work that balances high design with craft and traditional processes,” says Dickson. “I want it to be an exploration of textures, cultural artifacts, utilitarian objects, and beautiful curiosities.”

When she opened Iko Iko a year and a half ago, in the front of the studio from which she designs the clothing line Rowena Sartin, the concept was to keep the focus tight, swapping out the goods every six weeks to make way for a new store-wide theme: still lives, scientific ordering systems, weaving. Dickson would invite friends and local artists like jewelry maker Hanna Keefe and ceramicist Kelly Breslin to contribute works, and she and Okuda would make items, too. But by way of evolution, the themes have since been demoted to smaller assemblages that exist amidst the larger collection, with fall/winter 2010 being devoted to the spoils the couple brought back from Japan.

Dickson left for the trip knowing she wanted to explore her existing interests in Japanese culture. She’d long been a fan of the country’s textiles and ceramics, and having taken ikebana flower-arranging classes, she was partial to objects that had to do with plants — which had always figured heavily among the selection at Iko Iko. “Being there gave me a full frame of reference for the kind of Japanese aesthetic I feel inspired by: simplicity, beauty through imperfection, and nature,” she says. “We wanted to bring back pieces that reflected those ideals and also represented specific traditions or artistic practices, since each city in Japan is known for something different.”

After starting in Tokyo, the pair made their way south through the region where Okuda’s parents live, ending in Fukuoka. They visited artisans’ studios, galleries, and antique stores, asking people along the way for advice on where to find the best examples of the town crafts. “We were at this woman’s weaving studio and asked where we could find indigo-dyed textiles,” recalls Dickson. “She said there was an old lady selling her whole collection over by the museum right now — nice, random things like that would happen to us.” Wherever possible she bought 10 or 15 of each object to bring back to the shop, paying particular mind to how well they’d fit in with its existing aesthetic, as with a series of vintage triangle plates that echo Iko Iko’s logo and the triangular grate on its façade. But she also deviated in small ways, as with the Q-tips and a series of Japanese teen magazines from the ’90s, purchased for their style references.

For this story, Dickson offered us a glimpse into her perspective as a curator by photographing pieces from the new collection alongside existing store offerings. Inspiration shots from the buying trip itself are interspersed, so you can see what she saw.


From top: Waka Waka handmade knitting needles, Waka Waka zig zag sculpture, Shaku ruler. “We got the Shaku rulers at this very old hardware store, and they’re on a measurement standard that no one uses anymore, except for measuring kimonos. Shin’s grandmother used to teach tea ceremony, and his mother has boxes and boxes of her kimonos, which she showed us when we visited. Typically you’d just have a few for ceremonies like weddings and funerals, but Shin’s grandmother wore them every day because it was part of her practice. Kimonos are always made as a full rectangle that you never actually cut; you fold and stitch the fabric to fit the person. Shaku rulers are now used for that purpose.”


A video game arcade in Kanizawa, whose zig-zag façade and ’80s graphics caught Dickson's eye.


From top: Vintage glassware from Kyoto, a piece of string, Sanyasou bachi pots from the Shiga region, pair of hot-pink tights. “The bachi pots are wildflower containers made in a rough, bisque-type clay, without any glaze. You’re supposed to go on a walk in nature and pick a plant to put inside it. I just think it’s amazing that they make a specific pot for a specific kind of experience with a flower. Shin uses the words ‘casual’ and ‘formal’ a lot to describe the difference between objects like this — it’s not a formal ikebana arrangement, it’s just a casual gesture.”


Dickson was struck in general by the Japanese relationship to plant life. “There’s greenery everywhere, and decorating a space is often done just with plants, which is really nice. What blew my mind every day was that we’d be walking along in front of an insurance agency, or a convenience store, and they’d all have these collections of potted trees lined up in front — it was totally normal. There’s not a lot of space for landscape architecture, so this was their answer to that. I have at least 10 pictures like this one.”


From left, on an IKO WAKA big dot paper print: Rattan Takraw ball, nabeshiki trivet, vintage pink streamer, glazed dish from Hagi, IKO IKO hand-cast bronze bangle, nabeshiki trivet. “I had been looking for something everyone in Japan used, the kind of thing you’d see on everyone’s table. All the houses we went to had these woven trivets, which are only made in Okinawa. I saw them at department stores, so I don’t think they’re seen as these highly prized craft objects. It’s more that people use them, and they happen to be a cool design. But everyone does recognize that they always come from Okinawa, which is an idea we’ve lost in America. While our objects may be designed here, we always know they’re from another place, which takes away that regional or local feel.”


A photo taken on the Naoshima ferry, on the way to Tadao Ando’s Chichu Art Museum. “Of course it was so clean and organized that even the ropes were in a pretty arrangement.”


From left: Vintage metal dishes from Kyoto, miniature brass forks and spoons. “Our logo is shaped like a triangle, and a lot of the shop furniture is too, so I thought these dishes I found in an antique shop were nice emblems for Iko Iko. They’re only about 2 inches tall and 3 or 4 inches at the bottom. They and the little appetizer forks and spoons for me represent the smallness I saw in Japan — I always felt like a big giant there. Everyone was so petite and everything was on a more miniature scale than in America: cute cars for the cute small streets, tiny parking spaces and compact homes.”


In Kanazawa, Dickson and Okuda came across this scene in a so-called oden restaurant, which serves various types of skewers in broth. “This guy’s father started the restaurant in the ’20s. A lot of the smaller diner or noodle-shop restaurants had this pack-rat look, which I thought was funny. He had so much stuff crammed in there: the lucky cats and the decorative memorabilia.”


From left: Dyed wool locks, glazed bowls from Hagi, bud vases from Hagi, crystal chunks. “I had done research before the trip about the greyish-pink or milky white glaze that’s particular to the Hagi region. I wanted pieces with that glaze that were functional, like these bowls that can be used for food or flowers. There’s a common practice in Japan of having something organic in your home, and the bud vases allow you to display a single flower without the effort — you don’t have to make a whole arrangement, so it can be really simple. The blue wool is from Oregon, but I picked the color because it’s like the indigo you see in a lot of the Japanese textiles. The crystals are from my collection.”


A typical street scene in the Hagi region, where the bud vases are made. “This picture shows how old it is. It’s not like Tokyo; it’s a small place where people still hang their laundry outside, with traditional Japanese architecture.”


Boro textile panels overlayed with wood tablet looms. “Boro means ‘rag,’ and it refers to mended or patchwork folk textiles, typically indigo-dyed cottons, meant to extend the life of the fabrics. It’s like our own way of using old clothes to make a blanket or a quilt. I have a lot from my grandmother, and the patches are from her clothes or my mom’s. And just like quilting, with boro textiles there’s a geometry to how you’re combining the colors and textures and patterns, but in a more Japanese way. You can almost see Modernist painting styles in their compositions. The panels we brought back — from the Meiji period at the turn of the 19th century — are all different sizes, but most people would hang them on a wall.”


Another flash of indigo: Scrap metal piled outside Okuda’s grandfather’s copper factory in the Moji region. “They gave us a tour of the whole place, which was beautiful because of they way they organize everything by color. When they process the copper, brass, and aluminum, it creates these tiny curls, so you see mountains of curly metal shards — it’s totally ridiculous. A lot of the tour was us flipping out and being like, ‘I've got to take a picture of this!’ and our guides being like ‘Why would anyone want to take a picture of this?’”


The interior of the shop, prior to the arrival of the Japanese haul.