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Frieze Los Angeles 2022

Shin Okuda’s Visual Vocabulary

The founder of Los Angeles-based studio Waka Waka on his distinct design language, which combines Japanese craftsmanship with Memphis Group wit

BY Janelle Zara in Frieze Los Angeles , Frieze Week Magazine , Profiles | 14 FEB 22

Shin Okuda, founder of the Los Angeles-based design studio Waka Waka, makes nearly all of the business’s furniture by hand. Combining his admiration for both the elegance of Japanese carpentry and the wit of the Memphis Group, Okuda’s distinct visual language relies on a basic vocabulary of rectangles, cylinders and circles cut primarily from plywood and rhythmically assembled into sculptural forms: bookcases made from cascading stacks of rectangles, for example, scalloped with rows of semi-circles, or a simple rectangular coffee table that appears to float above the floor. It bears a playful humor reminiscent of the work of Ettore Sottsass or Peter Shire, although Okuda’s work is more subdued: in lieu of pattern, his finishes of choice are either solid blocks of colored lacquer or a simple coat of oil on pale Baltic birch.

The vast majority of Okuda’s pieces are one-offs, the result of collaborative commissions that typically come to him via word of mouth. Having worked as a fabricator for artists including T. Kelly Mason and Jorge Pardo, he maintains close ties to the art world: over the years, he’s made a vanity table for ceramic artist Shio Kusaka, an executive desk for Los Angeles’s Matthew Brown Gallery, and seating for both the Dallas Art Fair and NADA Miami. For Los Angeles fashion retailer Creatures of Comfort, he’s designed interiors, and for A.L. Steiner, he crafted Selexxx: 1995–2025 (2015), the card catalogue and desk piece central to the artist’s 2015 solo show at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles.

Waka Waka design studio, Los Angeles, 2021. Courtesy: Shin Okuda; photograph: Carlos Chavarría

“I never went to art school,” says Okuda, a self-taught craftsman from Kyushu, Japan, who studied literature at Chiba University. In lieu of formal training, he recalls a childhood of building robots and cars from the packaging that his mother kept around the house. He was also his grandfather’s helper when it came to handiwork. “He was making everything,” Okuda says, “even his hangers — they were just pieces of wire twisted into these imperfect shapes.”

In his small workshop in Frogtown, a hybrid residential-industrial neighborhood where Silver Lake meets the Los Angeles River, Okuda is wearing a bright-orange sweatshirt with a floral shirt peeking out of its collar, and matching orange cargo pants with black Air Force 1 low tops. Equipped with the basics, including a table saw, a hammer and, more recently, two full-time employees, he developed his simplified approach to design partly out of respect for Japanese craftsmanship and partly out of necessity. Essentially, he explains, “I design what I can make.”

Shin Okuda in the Waka Waka design studio, Los Angeles, 2021. Courtesy: Shin Okuda; photograph: Carlos Chavarría

The designer came to Los Angeles in 1999, following a brief stint working as a travel agent in Arizona. In 2003, when Pardo was in need of a new fabricator, Okuda happened to be working at the Vietnamese cafe near the artist’s studio, and took the job. “Jorge had a great team of people, a lot of them from ArtCenter [College of Design],” he recalls. After five years of producing Pardo’s art-furniture, he struck out on his own. In 2009, “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Okuda says, but the same year, his now-wife, fashion designer Kristin Dickson-Okuda, opened her own Los Angeles concept boutique. She commissioned a few pieces from Okuda and, to his surprise, “People started buying my work, so I decided to just keep making furniture.” Listening to the radio in the car, the couple heard Felta Kuti singing the lyrics “So I waka waka waka/I go many places” — and a brand was born.

For the last few weeks, Okuda has been working with a Sonoma winery on custom chairs and side tables for their tasting room. Dickson-Okuda, a frequent collaborator, is designing the soft details, including the square cushions, and because Okuda is colorblind, she also designs the colorful pops of lacquer. For the chairs, he came up with a box-like design that echoes the efficient minimalism of the Bauhaus and Gerrit Rietveld’s pronounced geometries: rectangular pieces of plywood seamlessly joined at perfect right angles, connected by perfectly flush dowels that are imperceptible to the touch. Where they’re barely visible on the surface of the armrest, these dowels add a subtle, rhythmic pattern, embodying the precision and attention to fine detail at the heart of Okuda’s practice. Embracing an absolute, intuitive simplicity, Okuda says, “It’s all about balance: Proportion, shape, length, depth — it’s just what feels good.”

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, February 2022 under the headline ‘Shin Okuda's Waka Waka is LA Elegance’.

Main image: Waka Waka design studio, Los Angeles, 2021. Courtesy: Shin Okuda; photograph: Carlos Chavarría

Janelle Zara is a journalist specializing in art and design. She is based in Los Angeles.