Up and Coming
Shin Okuda (an excerpt from Paper View)

Today, we introduced a selection of housewares to the Sight Unseen Shop, including Shin Okuda’s whimsical plywood and steel Shaped Bookends. We thought this was the perfect opportunity to introduce you to the Los Angeles designer’s inspirations and work, which we originally showcased in Paper View, Sight Unseen’s first-ever printed edition. Though the book has a limited run, copies are still for sale in our online shop. Get yours here before it’s too late, and read on to find out more about one of our favorite up and coming designers. 

Shin Okuda had managed to elude his fate over and over again before finally setting up a fur­niture design studio in Los Angeles five years ago. The narrowest miss: befriending a gaggle of industrial-design majors at Chiba University, only to then study literature and education because he couldn’t picture pursuing an artistic life. The most hilarious: moving upon graduation from small-town Japan to Scottsdale, Arizona, where a friend’s travel-agent cousin needed help hosting Japanese businessmen on golf vacations. Once the novelty of that experiment wore thin, Okuda went on to hold a string of odd jobs in L.A. until he began assisting in the studio of a now-famous sculptor, where for five years he contin­ued to subvert his creative instincts. “I was the only guy there who didn’t have a degree in art or design, and I think I was too intimidated by their skills to follow my own interests,” he recalls. And yet when he looked at what they were mak­ing, eventually he realized he might have some­thing different to offer: “I didn’t think furniture needed to have such complicated curves,” he says. “I wanted to make the opposite of that curvy design-y stuff.”

Since Okuda went solo in 2007 under the moniker WAKA WAKA, he’s been creating angu­lar plywood pieces that are as indebted to the Bauhaus as they are to Japanese craft — namely the straightforward construction of traditional shrine furniture, something he documents each time he returns home. “When you see my pieces, you can see how they’re built; the structure is obvious,” he explains. “I don’t use crazy hard­ware, and my joints look simple, even if they’re difficult to make. Just a straight line and a round dowel.” A year and a half into his practice, he found a kindred spirit and partner in the fashion designer Kristin Dickson, who had just opened the craft-based concept shop IKO IKO near his studio. He designs geometric tables and zigzag coat racks for the store, and she fills its shelves each time the couple visits his family in Japan. Though it sounds a lot like serendipity, Okuda still demurs: “It’s not like I wanted to be a furni­ture maker. Those were just the skills I had,” he says. “It was a natural way for me.”

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Inspiration for your grand piano desk: “They were displays for Zachary Leener’s first show of ceramic sculptures at IKO IKO. He requested that there be an opening and closing element to the pieces, which provided a really specific reading to his sculptures, like they were toys or artifacts. We looked at the relationship between design and function in Shaker furniture as inspiration. Personally, I wanted to challenge myself to combine all of the elements from some of my previous pieces — the dowel supports, the notch details, the cutout feet — into these two desks, maintaining a simplicity but also incorpo¬rating some kind of playfulness.”

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Objects you keep around the studio for inspiration: “Books, books, books. One of my current favorites is one a friend gave me about the Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. The inspiration for his projects usually comes from outside the actual space he’s working on. It could be anything from the natural environment around the space to ponds and planets. It could be an imaginary environment that he sees, too. The environment and the building become indistinguishable. I think it’s really interesting to think of the balance between what I make and the character of the space.”

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First thing you ever made: “A cardboard car that could shoot toothpick missiles. In Japan, a lot of things are packaged in boxes, and when I was growing up my mom kept all of them for me, so I would use them to make things. On a more formal level, my first piece was a plywood-framed chair with an elastic webbed seat and back. I made it out of the waste from a project at the sculptor’s studio. When I look at my recent plywood and leather stool, though, I can see a similar structure — simple lines, spare use of material, a contrasting texture.”

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What you’d make if you couldn’t use any wood or straight lines: “Elaborate tea ceremony snacks. In Japan, a year used to be divided into 24 equal and distinct seasons. Each season had specific traditional colors. Color has a very important role and meaning in Japanese life and culture, which can be seen in paintings, craft objects, textiles, literature, and beyond. It would be so amazing to make tea snacks using those seasonal colors for each of the 24 seasons.”

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Favorite place to shop for materials or inspiration: “For books, I love spending time at Alias in L.A. When I go back to Japan, visiting temples is a wonderful reference and experience in general. On our last trip, Kristin and I saw a group of miyadaiku (temple carpenters) repairing the gateway arches to a shrine. The bed of their truck held a pile of replacement posts with hand-carved joinery. We watched them for an hour, fitting the pieces together with 10 different types of mallets.”

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First thing a stranger who saw your work would say: “I could make that.”

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Design or art hero: “I really respect the 16th-century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who perfected wabi-cha style. He changed the whole philosophy around the tea ceremony and its practice, simplifying its style and transforming it into something much more expansive and honest. Instead of using expensive Chinese porcelain, he wanted to use clay made by a roof tile guy. And from that idea, he made everything — from the tiniest bamboo whisks to the whole tearoom architecture. In that sense, it’s a direct influence on my relationship as WAKA WAKA to IKO IKO. For us, the goal is to create a context for the things we make, and we’re always very conscious of how they work together to create an experience. That involves defining the relationship among the furniture, ceramics, clothing, objects, paintings, rocks, and plants in the shop, which in turn inspires my work.”

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Last great exhibition you saw: “Ellsworth Kelly at LACMA was really surprising. It was so great to see simple shapes in vivid colors within such a large space. The positive/negative spatial relationship Kelly creates in his work is powerful. It feels really fresh and contemporary, and without any extra elements to distract from your experience of the innards of the work.”

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Most interesting thing you ever brought back from your travels: “An antique ceramic basket for ikebana by Shobei Uguisudani, from the Meiji era. I also love finding architecture books only issued in Japan, like the ones from Toto publishers.”

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Where the name “Waka Waka” comes from: “When I made the first Cheese table for IKO IKO, Kristin said I should have a name for the furniture. In the car on the radio, there was a Fela Kuti song playing, and he was singing ‘waka waka waka,’ so I thought that sounded good. Although World Cup soccer was also happening, and Shakira’s song for the games was actually called ‘Waka Waka’ — I didn’t know, and I was embarrassed about that later.”

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Fictional character who would own your work: “Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati’s films. In his home, there’s a bit of whimsy, exaggeration, and modern form — all balanced in empty spaces. Each piece shows strong personality.”

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Right now Shin Okuda is: “Happy to be making and sharing WAKA WAKA pieces.”

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Okuda's Shaped Bookends are now for sale in the Sight Unseen Shop! Follow this link to buy a pair or two!