These days, Yunice Kang is thoughtfully watching over some 600 plants. Some — the special ones — are in the home she shares with her partner in downtown Los Angeles. But most are at Sanso, the chic new plant design studio Kang opened in the low-key hip neighborhood of Frogtown, which sits right along the L.A. River, down the hill from the better known enclaves of Echo Park and Silver Lake.
Sanso, Kang will tell you, is the Korean word for oxygen. It's a resonant name, with layers of meaning. Kang was born in Korea, and lived there until she was nine years old. As she gets older, she says, she's drawn back to Korea's traditional ways and traditional craft — and you can see it in the pottery she designs. Oxygen is also what plants give us, of course. And life-giving oxygen, in a broader sense, ties into the larger vision Kang has for Sanso. "Using a lot of nature to create spaces that can be nurturing and also rejuvenating — that's our goal," she explains.
"It's a little gem that feels like it's not even in L.A.," says Kang of her studio.
For Kang, choosing Frogtown was an integral part of achieving that goal. It wasn't a neighborhood she knew well, but she was compelled by the quiet, the proximity to the river — which she calls a "powerful presence" — and the unexpected nature of it all, so close to downtown, but really a world away. "It's a little gem that feels like it's not even in L.A.," Kang says. "It felt like it fit what I wanted."
The businesses who share the same address on Knox Street are like-minded, small, creative ventures, in particular Suay Sew Shop, a custom textile shop whose refreshing mission includes employing seamstresses and tailors age 60 plus who have years of experience at their fingertips. "Because of what we do — we're fabricators and makers in the space that we use — there is synchronicity there," says Kang. They are the first tenants in the new space, formerly a junkyard where cars were dismantled for scrap.
"The space is always developing," says Kang. "That's true to how I work."
The flip from industrial to creative space is an everyday part of Frogtown. It's a neighborhood in transition — and Sanso, all 1,300 square feet of it, is as well. Currently, the custom pottery studio, where Kang employs one full-time potter, occupies the back half of the space, while the plant store fills the front, spilling out onto the patio. The spare, modern shelving and displays are all hand built by Kang and her boyfriend. "It was basically a wood shop in here" she says, of the two months they spent building out the studio before its December 2017 debut.
The pair are about to embark on another building frenzy, to help prep the studio for a series of upcoming workshops, where experts in the field, including one from The Huntington, will share wisdom about plants, planting, and pots. "The space is always developing," Kang says. "That's true to how I work." There's not a lot of planning, and everything is in flux.
Indeed, there wasn't a real business plan behind this, Sanso's first studio — just the belief in her vision, especially on the part of her boyfriend. (He built his own business, Contact Photo Lab, at The Brewery, a robust artist colony on the outskirts of downtown.) Kang's vision came at the tail end of her first career, as a photographer. A personal project showed her firsthand what it takes to be a maker of things — and to make a living doing it, too.
The project was called Made in L.A. "I visited metalworkers, woodworkers, stone carvers, potters," she explains. "And I documented their spaces and their materials and also themselves in the spaces that they were working in." It was her attempt to capture what at the time was L.A.'s nascent craft movement. She was fascinated by the process of turning raw materials into a physical product. "These are artful pieces, but they have a function," she says. "You don't call it art. These are things that have a purpose." She was inspired personally as well. "I realized, oh, if I want to make something, it can be done — and this is how. It gave you the idea, it's possible."
"These are artful pieces, but they have a function," says Kang. "You don't call it art. These are things that have a purpose."
That was 2015. Kang spent the next year carefully curating a collection of odd, rare, and unusual plants, taking long road trips across California to source her product. Frustrated that there simply weren't the type of pots she wanted to pair them with, she commissioned them, from her own designs. With plants in pots, she organically built her brand — through pop-ups at The Brewery, in borrowed spaces, however she could. By the end of 2017, the Sanso design studio was a reality.
Moving forward, Kang plans to reincorporate her photography back into Sanso as it grows. There are workshops on the horizon, and an ever-changing tableau of products, plants, and other design elements. Kang is interested in creating spaces that engage all the senses — to create a visual experience, she says, but also sound, scent, and feel. "All those tactile things," she says. "I want to create a whole space and environment."
If the birth of Sanso was one discipline giving way to another, Kang is now poised to come full circle.