Studio Visit
Building Block, designers

This time last year, Kimberly Wu was designing cars in Tokyo for Honda’s Advanced Studio and her sister, Nancy, was in Portland, designing shoes for Nike. In spare moments, Kimberly would visit hardware stores and collect the sort of everyday objects that seem to come into focus in other countries, and that somehow encapsulate the dilemma of being a transplant: how a change of scenery can sharpen your appreciation for the small details around you, and yet also remind you in their strangeness that it’s not quite like home. “The world can be as big or small as you want it to be,” Kimberly says, “And Tokyo is this place where you feel like the world is gigantic, but you also feel tiny in it. There are so many people around you always, but it’s so alone and solitary.” Meanwhile, across the choppy Pacific, Nancy was coming to a similar emotional conclusion, but drawn from a different set of observations. “Portland is like the opposite of Tokyo,” Nancy says. “It’s so small and quiet, and that can also be really lonely. I think we were both lonely.”

So when Kimberly’s experiments combining those hardware-store finds with simple, pared-down bag shapes began to gain deserved notice, the sisters decided to leave their corporate lives and start Building Block together, trading too-infrequent visits for a joint move back to Southern California, where they grew up. “We’ve never worked together before, but in our heads we’ve always been working together,” Kimberly says. Adds Nancy: “When we fight, it’s about personality differences, the same things we’ve fought about all our lives. But our sense of humor has evolved in the same way, and when it comes to our aesthetics and our goals, it has always been about making our own world.”

For now, Building Block offers only a few carefully considered and sought-after bags — all made with such unexpected elements as rubber tubing, wooden balls, and brass rods —  but the sisters have plans to draw even more on their shared background in industrial design and are considering expanding the line to furniture and other items. But only if the ideas are exactly right, and their standards are exacting. “I think attention to detail is super, super important. I get really emotionally upset when things aren’t done with care,” says Nancy, a self-proclaimed perfectionist. But don’t they say perfection is lonely? No matter: whoever said it definitely didn’t have a sister like this.

Last month, Kimberly and Nancy moved into a live/work studio on the east side of Los Angeles, just down the street from me, where they bicycle indoors and serve visitors homemade avocado ice cream. Here’s a tour of the amazing world of Building Block.

Su Wu is the proprietor of I’m Revolting.

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Kimberly’s yellow BMW 2002, and the freight elevator that opens into their second-floor unit: “From the start, we made an agreement that we wouldn’t get sidetracked with outside influence, like the market or too much of what people want,” Kimberly says. Nancy agrees: “It’s a very selfish project, and I think that’s okay. It’s kind of a dream.”

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The sisters’ apartment is owned by the furniture manufacturer Modernica, which also stores its vast library of iconic modern design pieces in the same complex. “We get to walk around in it because that’s where we pay our rent,” Nancy says. But living next to a treasure trove was not what got the sisters to sign their lease: “Parts of the Vin Diesel movie XXX were filmed here,” Kimberly says. Says Nancy: “That was a major, major selling point.”

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Nancy: “As kids, we used to sit and draw for hours next to each other, not talking to one another. I was obsessed with drawing factories. I’m obsessed with production. That sort of stuff will still make me stop in my tracks and my jaw drop.” Kimberly: “She drew conveyer belts.”

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Ideas and samples that didn’t quite make the cut: “Some are pieces we like, and they could do well on the market, but it’s not up to par,” Nancy says.

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Details of their work desks. Nancy: “I love taking existing elements and mishmashing them and seeing if it works. Just being able to control that, and to do it over and over.”

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A view of Kimberly’s bedroom, including a Hans Wegner Papa Bear chair and ottoman, a Building Block “Cable + Outlet” bag, and a plant that a friend described as being like “from a nightmare.”

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A set of marble bookends from the Pasadena City College flea market.

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The top of a bookshelf in Nancy’s room: “The artists I admire are the ones where you can tell this person has created their own world, and they’re really content with it. And I think that’s what we’re starting to do.” Kimberly: “I used to come home from school to find Nance locking herself in a closet and building Lego sculptures.” Nancy: “It was a private thing. I needed to do it by myself. I don’t know if that has anything to do with anything except that I sound crazy.”

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Speaking of crazy (but adorable!): Nancy wearing a head massage helmet that speaks in both English and Chinese.

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Nancy on Boners: “My friend gave me this book. It’s a collection of wrong answers from grade-school tests in the United States in the 1930’s. And it’s actually illustrated by Dr. Suess. I love how it’s just a list of facts that are wrong, but only by a couple of letters or a mismatch of words, like how thin our truth is.”

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Back in the days of MS DOS, Nancy had a particular affinity for the Rube Goldberg-inspired game “The Incredible Machine”: “There were all these different elements that you could arrange in space, and they would float. And then you would push “GO” and gravity would take place. So, you could construct a ball to hit a teeter-totter to light a match. I remember the end was always some morbid thing, like to make the boy fall off the ledge, or the boy would be burned with a candle or eaten by alligators. Oh my god, if I could play it now. And I remember specifically setting it up and calling Kim over, and she would come and we would watch it together.”

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A small selection from Nancy’s lighter collection: “I just like lighters, and fire in your pocket. There’s one I got at the flea market shaped like a camera -- you hold it up to the light, and it has red film inside and a slideshow of naked babes. Its so sleazy and amazing that it exists. And I have this ST Dupont one that was made in Paris and has a patented ‘ding’ to it, and a certain weight. And the hot dog is from Taiwan.”

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The unifying elements of the things they collect: “Slightly hobbly, desperate proportions. Irony and humor. Things that have idealistic shapes and forms. And grounded by human touch. You can tell they were made by somebody,” Nancy says. “Someone skilled,” Kimberly adds.

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A bowl on Kimberly’s bedside table.

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Part of their pottery collection, including a planter Kimberly loves for its resemblance to a gingerbread cookie.

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Kimberly was looking for a bathroom in a mall in Kyoto when she locked eyes on the little figurine that now sits by her bed. Nancy: “There was all this luxury stuff around and she saw that.” Kimberly: “He’s so perfect! His stance. You can tell someone just kneaded him into reality.” Nancy: “She went to buy it and said, 'I’ll take this cat,' and the store owner was, like, 'Oh, actually it’s a monkey.'"

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Kimberly and Potato, whom Nancy brought home with her very first paycheck. Kimberly: “Nance clarifies things for me. She knows what I’m thinking.” Nancy: “I know she has these amazing genius ideas.” Kimberly: “It’s like this filter, these floating words and phrases and thoughts, and then she funnels it down into a very put-together sentence.” Nancy: “She’s just a little bit more twisted than everyone else thinks.”

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The sisters’ notebooks, which include sketches for future collections, quilts and shoes, alongside instructions on how to make the perfect eggs: “We’ve always been interested in the same things, but slightly different, and parallel,” Nancy says. “We move at this pace where maybe’s she takes the step forward, or maybe I take a step forward, and we end up next to each other, never really touching.”

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Nancy: “In school, we always wanted to something together, but the timing just never worked out. It’s just not something you could ever plan. It’s something that has to happen on its own.”

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Kimberly: “We’ve never worked together before, but in our heads we’ve always been working together.”

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Kimberly: “We try to keep things minimal for Building Block. No excess. But it’s not like we don’t like stuff. It’s something aspirational, that every single piece we put out – we have to love it. The world is already so full of stuff.” Nancy: “And maybe it’s not someone else’s perfect but it’s our perfect.”