Sitting Down with Shin + Kristin Okuda
Image by Brad Holdgrafer
We recently had dinner with some of our favorite people: Shin and Kristin Okuda. Kristin made us all curry in a house filled with boxes, as they prepare to move to a new home.
Drinks were spilled, Shin explains why some jalapeños are much spicier than others—he claims it’s because they’re stressed out—and Kristin tells us about the best local swap meets.
Intermixed in our conversation is the journey of both Shin and Kristin as artists, and what it was like for them to gain the footing that they have a hold of now. At the center of it all is their ability to build worlds and bring people into them.
“Kristin, what brought you to Los Angeles?”
“So I went to school in Boston, and was studying Art History. I had always wanted to live in San Francisco, so I actually ended up there first. I was living with some friends and working at an art gallery. I did that for about two years. At some point along the way, I just knew that I wanted to learn how to make clothes, and LA seemed like the right place to do that” she explains.
Something in that struck a chord with me. My background was rooted in Fine Art—I note how the gallery I used to work at was currently housing some of Shin’s work. It’s weird to think I gravitated towards his work before I ever knew him personally. It feels like we’ve come full circle.
Abraham brings us back in. “I’ve been reading this book: On Being an Artist by Michael Craig-Martin. I’d highly recommend it. It’s really interesting to see him lay out his influences and how he notes how they have evolved over time. It’s incredibly fascinating.”
“Yeah it’s interesting” Kristin begins. “I come from a really rational background. So the idea of being an artist, at least to my parents, was something completely foreign. Art wasn’t a job, it was a set of ideals, to them.”
Something that all of us are familiar with. Kristin hails from Austin, Texas, the daughter of restaurant owners. She notes that her family owned an Italian restaurant, despite not being Italian whatsoever. Only in America.
Photography by Abraham Campillo
Kristin reminisces. “I found out I’m an awful waitress. I couldn’t carry a tray if my life depended on it. But it’s interesting growing up in a restaurant. You see all walks of life from very early on.”
We all started sharing the first jobs we worked. Delivering newspapers, coffeeshops, Best Buys. We had all the bases covered, it would seem.
“I think about the skills I learned from my first job pretty often.” Alex notes. “I sold computers; something that was more competitive than I could’ve imagined. But it really taught me how to talk to people, how to open up the conversation. One of the most undervalued skill sets, and something that I have to be good at if I want to be successful today.”
“I was 14 when I started my newspaper route.” Shin jumps in. “I had seen all these American movies where the newspaper boys would perfectly toss the paper onto someone’s doorstep. I felt lied to when I found out that I had to simply put it in someone’s mailbox.”
I can’t help but think I’d feel the same way.
“Japanese newspapers are so cool to me. The attention to detail. They’re not even trying to be cool. The layouts. It’s all amazing” Abraham explains.
I follow up his thought: “I feel like Japan is still a huge inspiration in modern design. You see it in Fashion and Architecture most prominently I think. Do you notice that?”, my question directed at Shin.
“Yeah of course. I just visited the Schindler House the other day. I was very impressed by the Japanese influence. It’s immediately recognizable. I had heard that Schindler had never even been to Japan.”
“When you’re designing your furniture, do you try and imagine the home that piece lives in?” Alex poses.
“I do. But I also try to imagine the piece in different environments.” Shin begins. “Ideally, you make something that fits in whatever setting it is placed in. Whether it’s somewhere that is super modern, or maybe Victorian. That’s not always achievable though, so I try and keep an open mind to it all.”
You can tell he’s put the thought into his practice over the years. His words are carefully chosen, each one of them intentional, and serving a purpose.
Alex continues on. “When people are coming to you for these very specific pieces, are you ever afraid to try something different or new?”
“It’s tough. And it can be really easy for there to be a miscommunication with a client. Stuff that I might think is fun or interesting or cool, they might not see it that way. I’ve been doing more beds and tables, which has been different and I’m very excited about that stuff. A lot of the experimentation comes through the use of material. A good example would be the metal chairs that I’ve done. Even though they have the same throughline design as my other work, they’re a completely different process because of the materials involved.”
Rowena Sartin Dress Train Silk Pillowcase
“Do you guys ever get tired of accommodating the client?” Kristin turns the tables on us.
An exchange of glances is shared as we decide who approaches this first. Mackenzie wins.
“I mean, it’s the battle, right? We’re always trying to strike this balance between being flexible enough to make something new and innovative and exciting for us, while at the same time satisfying the people who are actually using the service we’re providing them. Which one of those scales gets more weight is always the struggle.”
“Yeah, I feel the same way.” Shin reaffirms. “I want the person who orders my product to be happy with it. To want to live with it.”
“And I guess at the end of the day, even though your name is on the product, you’re not the one keeping it.” Alex concludes.
I can’t help but notice all the books that the two of them have collected over the years. I’m sure more are packed away as they get ready to move. Equally important to them making great work, is the ability to stay inspired and continue to learn new things.
“Where are you looking to next with Waka Waka? You just finished your first decade as a studio practice. What do you want to dive into next?” Abraham inquires.
Shin gathers his thoughts. “I’ve been wanting to do a concept room for a little while now. Or maybe a hotel room seems really interesting. Something along those lines.”
“Are you just waiting for the right client?” I ask.
“No. It could be the right or wrong client. I’m just waiting for anyone.”
A break of laughter fills the room.
“It would be cool.” Shin continues. “I could do all the hard furniture, and Kristin could do all the soft stuff.”
Something we haven’t touched on yet: The dynamic of Shin and Kristin. While Shin works on furniture through Waka Waka, Kristin works on Iko Iko: A concept space focused on experience through design. She helps elevate the furniture made by Shin, with equally artistic cushions, covers, and everything in between. Or soft stuff, as Shin explained. Each accessory piece is intentional and beautifully crafted, a throughline for the both of them in their practices.
Iko Iko Cord Covers
“Have you guys ever thought of combining your studio practices?” Abraham leads.
“Or do you think there are benefits to keeping them separate?” I followed up shortly after.
Shin and Kristin exchange looks. Kristin starts: “Yeah, definitely. We have kind of just been waiting for the right location to house everything together. I’ve been working on an accessories section for Shin’s pieces. Trying to appeal to people who already have some of his work.”
It’s a brilliant system that they’ve set in place. There’s beauty in the fact that the two of them have complete control over the narrative of this work. This way, they’re helping prevent people from putting some accessory over the furniture that it was never designed for. You wouldn’t put a Matisse in an Ikea frame. The same could be said here.
As conversation drifts in and out, Alex comes through with a question we’ve all been wondering. He starts: “I grew up with no older creative mentors. Anyone older in my life worked on a farm. As you guys continue your artistic journeys, are you at rest with who you are and what your practice is, or is there something still looming for you?”
A tough question to ask. Even harder to answer. As an air of silence began to form, I was reminded that vulnerability is always rewarded. Kristin was the first to break through the silence.
Rowena Sartin x Waka Waka High Split Pant
“We were always searching for mentors. Searching for a mentor because that helps answer a question that you might not be able to answer on your own. Or at the very least, it gives you a guide. But it’s tough when there aren’t any mentors around, as you probably found out quickly. Shin was the first one to say to me: “You make your own world.” That really helped me. So much actually. I would always question everything I’m doing: What do I do? How do I fit in? Why am I not selling more? After hearing what Shin said, I stopped focusing on finding my own corner, and shifted my focus into making one, and making people want to come into it. And that has always been very helpful to me.”
Abraham is the first to respond: “I always find it so interesting to see artists reach a point in their careers where they like what they do and they’re happy with what they’re making. You can always see it. The passion. They never become stagnant, even after they develop their own style. I’d say, after seeing and experiencing both of your guys’ work, you easily have a defined style. And you’re still making new things, appealing to new people. It’s amazing to see. It’s what gravitated me towards you two in the first place.”
Left Image: Claire Cottrell
Right Image: Abraham Campillo
As the night starts coming to an end, I couldn’t help but ask the question that nobody had touched yet: “So how did you two meet?”
Shin had gotten up to pour us another drink, almost as if he knew what was coming. As he sat down he began the story. “I knew that we connected, at least on an artistic level, almost immediately. I went into her store one day and thought: “Wow, this place is really weird. Guess I have to come back again.” So I go a second time, and it’s even weirder. “Guess I have to come back again.””
We couldn’t help but laugh at Shin’s master plan. Alex reminded us that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, in the race towards Love. “Trust the process.”
Kristin chimes in: “I had recently made this list of qualities. What kind of person do I need to be with? Oh, this sounds so embarrassing. But like 30 minutes after I made the list, Shin had come in. I was always alarmed because he always came in with one of his girl friends. I remember showing him this amazing book on a radical way of Flower Arranging, because his Grandmother was an Ikebana teacher. I remember that day vividly. It was so hot outside. I was drinking a beer at like 4 because I didn’t think anyone would come in. He asked me to dinner after that and I obviously said yes. It was that simple.”
It felt really special to hear Kristin and Shin revisit these moments. It reaffirmed so much as to why we do this: To grow as a community and share life with each other.