Monday, April 27, 2015

Into the Light: The Style and Vision of Top International Eyewear Designer Blake Kuwahara

In Focus:  This week it’s my great pleasure to introduce you to the blazingly talented international eyewear designer, Blake Kuwahara. 

Blake recently launched his own company, Blake Kuwahara, offering his super-exclusive and limited-edition eyewear designs. His Spring/Summer 2015 collection is now available at just 100 locations around the world (see his contacts at end of story). These are custom designs for prescription lenses, tinted lenses, men and women. Superchic.

Today, you’ll meet Blake, who is based in Los Angeles, and learn about his eyewear, his ideas, his design inspiration, and his plans.

I’m also taking you on an exclusive visit to his very private Sausalito house, to see his collections, his wabi-sabi style, and the chic interiors.

Founder and creative director of Focus Group West, Blake Kuwahara, recently presented his sophomore collection of eyewear at Paris and Milan tradeshows, to great acclaim.

I love Blake’s highly original and elegant designs, crafted in top-quality metals and color-drenched resins and superb materials. Blake, one of the most admired eyewear designers in the world, now takes a conceptual approach. His designs for men and women are classic and at the same time refreshingly modern. In his newest designs he works around the idea of a “frame within a frame.” 

Blake, who is inspired by the precision and daring and complex structure of architecture, aims to create texture, dimension and tension through the integration of two different silhouettes. His stylistic themes include eyewear designs named in homage to architects he admires, like Zaha Hadid, Louis Le Vau (who worked with Louis XIV), and obscure 18th-century English architects, almost-forgotten American 20th-century architects along with Le Corbusier, Tadao Ando and Frank Lloyd Wright. He’s named some designs, ‘Thornton’, ‘Pearce’, and ‘Isidore’.

Come with me and take a close look.

And stick around, please. I’ve got an interview with Blake—and then we pay a visit to his charming and inspiring Sausalito residence, and learn what makes him tick. And click.

Blake Kuwahara has been designing eyewear for over 20 years—but now his name is on the company, and it's a pivotal time for him. Come and take a close look.

It will all come into sharp focus. 

All About Blake Kuwahara and His Eyewear

Blake Kuwahara, a doctor of optometry, has always had a following of designers, architects, musicians, fashion talents and celebs who appreciate the couture nature of his eyewear designs and the customization of colors and styles.

I first met Blake some years ago when he gained international acclaim as the creator and designer of the exclusive KATA Eyewear brand. I still wear sunglasses from that collection. Chic.

The finesse and elegance and originality of Blake’s designs make them very striking. His new designs are even more evolved, more dramatic, more challenging technically. Now his groundbreaking use of innovative engineering and production techniques and his highly curated style are changing the way eyewear design is approached today.

To briefly namedrop for a moment, Blake’s designs are worn by Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock Kevin Bacon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Halle Berry, Robert Downey, Jr., Will Smith, Jeremy Piven, Samuel L. Jackson, Casey Affleck, Slash, and Minnie Driver among many others in the entertainment and design and fashion arenas.

Blake was recently named by Brilliant Magazine as one of the “100 Most Important People in the Eyewear Industry”.

You’ve probably worn his ultra-exclusive designs without knowing he designed them. He has collaborated extensively on eyewear collections for John Varvatos, Carolina Herrera, Isaac Mizrahi, Behnaz Sarafpour, Hanae Mori and Coach.

Blake Kuwahara is also a longstanding member of the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).

Inside the Brain of Blake Kuwahara

Blake said:
“Like many people I know straddle both the artistic and business worlds. I struggled to find suitable eyewear- hence the prototype I designed for myself more than twenty years ago. And recently I felt the inspiration and proverbial push for launching my signature brand- a collection of frames. They are a mash-up of my colliding aesthetics with special attention paid to sculpting and tactility. They are artful but wearable. I use laborious production techniques and a lot of handwork, and an inner silhouette is encased in an unexpectedly fresh outer shape. This seamless fusion of two frames and the juxtaposition of contrasting form and color create a design tension that is thoroughly modern yet comfortably familiar. And, it is a paradox. Like me.”

Blake designs for men and women: Yes, it’s a versatile collection.

MATERIALS: Each is individually crafted out of richly colored Italian and Japanese acetates, with some incorporating titanium. Note the beveled edges, the sculpted shapes, the encased metals, and the dramatically different styles of his work.

COLORS INCLUDE: Black Horn, Syrah, Marble, Noir, Slate, Oak, Black, Clear

PRICE RANGE: $599 - $650 retail


Home, Sweet Home

Welcome, and please join me for a guided visit to Blake Kuwahara’s Sausalito Residence

Blake Kuwahara’s eyewear company headquarters is in Los Angeles, and he has an apartment in West Hollywood. He designs and manufactures in Japan, so he spends much of his life on planes.

On weekends and holidays, Blake escapes to a charming hillside cottage in Sausalito overlooking San Francisco Bay. The house is surrounded by California native oaks, ivy-clad walls, and bougainvillea and roses that seem to bloom all year.

Private, tranquil and meditative—Blake’s house is his perfect retreat. There in monochromatic peace, he displays his well-traveled collections and follows his own style path.

Blake and I recently sat down for a quiet chat. 

DDS: Blake, it is great to talk about your new eyewear and your travels—and let's talk about your house in Sausalito. You travel a lot. And you secretly have a charming and totally private retreat in Sausalito. It's the perfect escape route...a place to do nothing but gaze out the window, or to create new designs in a flurry of creativity.

I'm on the road almost 75% of my time so it really is a blessing to have this place to come home to. I'm perched on a hill overlooking Richardson Bay with views as far as Sonoma and Mt. Tamalpais on one side, to Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge on the other. I'm visually isolated from my neighbors, and the only real noise I hear are from the family of deer that live in my backyard.

DDS: I love your aesthetic. You've modified the house over the years, but always the same pared-down style, the collections, the monochromatic approach.

I've always fancied myself as a minimalist, but I also love to troll flea markets wherever I am, so slowly what started out as a blank canvas became layered with things that I've collected over the years. My grandparents also lived all over the world—Bangkok, Saigon, Laos, Bolivia, and Yemen to name a few places, and I have several of the pieces they've brought home. I tend to gravitate towards things that are simple but have a soulful look and patina. I love that interplay between simple shapes but complex and nuanced color.

I prefer to live with a very neutral color palate. It's so much more soothing and in keeping with the natural landscape outside. Plus, colors would compete with the water and the trees outside.

DDS: When did you first acquire the house and what appealed to you about it?

It was about 20 years ago. I had just flown in from Sydney and saw an open house sign on our way home from the airport. At the time, my partner and I were renting another house in Sausalito and were looking to buy. I wanted to stop to see the house—he thought I was nuts since I had just been on a 14 hour flight—but we made the detour, and was immediately smitten. The house was a complete wreck, but that was part of the charm. It hadn't been touched since it was built in the 30's, had horrendous wallpaper in the kitchen, and cheap bookshelves along side the fireplace. But the view sealed the deal!

My original plan was to do a gut renovation, but I decided to keep the spirit of the original house instead. The kitchen was remodeled, but I used old limestone pavers to keep the old-world feel, the craftsman style fireplace mantel was replaced with an 18th century one from France I found at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, and old reclaimed French clay tiles were used in the mud room.

A friend from France, Patrick Bornemann, painted the exterior using lime mixed with pigment to give the house a true Mediterranean feeling I planted a couple of olive trees in the front and soon I could start imagining myself somewhere in Provence.

I did take design liberties with the basement floor. It was just raw space when I bought it, but turned that into a more modern, minimalist space with painted concrete floors and lots of white.

Sausalito is tranquil to begin with, but finding a house that was hidden from the street and sheltered from the wind, makes my home even more of a special retreat. The front of my house is completely secluded and the back faces the Bay, so I don't have any window coverings in the entire house except the bathrooms. I wake up with the sun when I'm at home. 

DDS: The house used to be more cottage-y and now it feels more loft/Japanese. What's your way of evolving a style?

I'm more of a small-house kind of guy. But, that does not mean that the house has to feel small. The sixteen-feet ceiling in the living room with the exposed rafters contributes to that loft feeling. And, as much as I like flea market finds, I didn't want my place to look shabby-chic. Being Japanese-American, I am drawn the simplicity of Japanese design and the wabi-sabi philosophy. I've tried to bring that spirit into this house. I like to group objects in vignettes based on color, texture or form. They don't necessarily have to be the same type of object or from the same region of the world, but they do need to relate visually to each other. 

DDS: What are your criteria for the pieces you add? You are often traveling so there is always a temptation to collect?

Shopping is one of my hobbies no matter where I am. In particular antique stores and flea markets. I don't really have any one particular thing that I look for, which is one of the reasons I have so much stuff! Generally, things that have a simple form, but have a timeworn sensibility and soulfulness catch my eye.

On the other hand, I collect midcentury modern pottery when I'm in Denmark. They have these remarkable charity shops all over the place where you can find vases and table wear from the 60's and 70's for just a few dollars. I keep those in my house in West Hollywood.

DDS: what are your most treasured pieces?

My most treasured pieces are the ones that either my grandmother gave to me or remind me of a special place or time.

And one of my most surprising and lucky finds was here in Sausalito. I happened to see an antique Goyard steamer trunk on the sidewalk in front of a junk shop that was closed. I couldn't imagine that they would just leave it there unattended. I came back in an hour and asked how much it was. He quoted a low price so I immediately bought it and took off. I don't think he knew what it was. It has all of the interior compartments and drawers.

DDS: Do you design there?

I try to use my place in Sausalito as a retreat from work, but I do design there. The dining room doubles as my office. I have a large French farm table that is perfect for laying out my drawings and material swatches, and the view is a nice distraction.

DDS: Diana Vreeland said, 'Style is consistency'. Your house has looked great for twenty years and the style has evolved slowly and with great precision. Consistent and cohesive. That's style. Thank you so much, Blake. I love it.

Blake In Sharp Focus

Blake has a Doctorate of Optometry from the University of California, Berkeley and a BS in Psychobiology with Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude distinctions from UCLA, Kuwahara went on to first work as an optometrist in a private practice in Manhattan Beach, CA.

Drawn to the more creative side of the optical profession, Kuwahara left the clinical arena for design—creating eyewear for designers Isaac Mizrahi and Hanae Mori as well as for iconic brands such as Converse, Liz Claiborne, and Jones New York and many others. He launched his eponymous collection expressing his own distinctive aesthetic sensibilities in Fall 2014.


Blake Kuwahara eyewear images courtesy Blake Kuwahara. All designs copyright. Images used with express permission.

House images here are by San Francisco photographer Philip Harvey, courtesy of Blake Kuwahara, and used with express permission.

Portraits: Mark Squires

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