Wrk-Shp's Airi Isoda on Attaining and Balancing Multiple Disciplines

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The Los Angeles–based multidisciplinary firm wrk-shp is a family affair, founded by wife-husband team Airi Isoda and Ryan Upton. If you live in the L.A. area, there's a good chance you have experienced their work without knowing it. They designed the lighting for many popular restaurants — such as Guisados in Downtown L.A. and West Hollywood, Mercado in Beverly Grove, and Playa Provisions in Playa del Rey — and more than 10 Blue Bottle Coffee locations dotting the Southland.

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Eater Los Angeles has called the couple's work for Blue Bottle "extremely gorgeous," noting their "sunny window spaces" and use of blond wood, with the Blue Bottle Coffee in Century City also getting a nod in Archinect's list of 10 Inspiring Examples of Wood in Architecture. What may surprise wrk-shp fans is that when the firm was founded in Fall 2011, it actually started with Isoda's fashion line.

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The Blue Bottle in Hong Kong.
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Originally from Tokyo, Isoda moved to the U.S. in 1997 and met Upton while they were both in architecture school at USC in 2005. Isoda transitioned to fashion design after graduating when she saw how the concepts she learned from architecture could be applied to clothing; each season was, in fact, inspired by a different architect's body of work — such as Japanese architect Toyo Ito and Mexican architect Luis Barragán.

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Home objects and furniture were soon added to wrk-shp's offerings, though Isoda mentions, "Whenever we met people, we were always telling them that even though I do clothing and we do products, we're architects at heart." The end goal for the two was to have their own architecture practice, but not in the traditional sense, as they liked working in multiple disciplines.

The Commonwealth retail store in Manila.
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In 2015, an invitation to design a retail store in Manila for the streetwear brand Commonwealth kickstarted the architectural arm of the business. Isoda's focus went from designing her own line to working with Upton to effectively showcase another brand's clothing and sneakers.

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Numerous commercial projects followed for the couple to tackle, with great success, ranging from L.A. clients — the doggy daycare Dogdrop in the Arts District and a Zak. eyewear store in the Fairfax District — to the numerous Blue Bottle Coffee locations in Southern California, as well as outposts in New York, Tokyo, South Korea, and Hong Kong. That's quite an output for a two-person firm in six years.

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Another view of the Blue Bottle in Hong Kong.
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If you walk into one of wrk-shp's spaces, you'll see an emphasis on clean lines, a natural palette, and functionality, with open layouts that are welcoming and easy to navigate. "We try to make the space feel comfortable in many different aspects, even [in terms of] echo sounds or the touch of furniture textiles to the light coming in," says Isoda. "We're always thinking about how people are going to feel."

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Their predominant use of natural fabrics and surfaces helps create that sense of comfort and warmth: "[We use] architectural materials like different wood species, stones, textiles, and natural light. We use man-made materials, too, but we don't try to 'fake' anything to make it look like something else," Isoda notes. "We will use actual concrete, rather than using something printed or made to look like concrete."

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With each wrk-shp item, Isoda says, working with local talent is vital to their design process, from producing unisex clothing to cement tabletops. For their firm's various projects, a workday may call for a trip to Mid City to meet an artisan who specializes in a particular weaving practice, South Central to check on a custom piece by a woodworker, or the City of Commerce to visit a remnant yard where they can view stone slabs for a new commercial project.

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Isoda notes there is an incredible pool of talent and resources to draw from in the city. "It's so interesting because I think our aesthetic is maybe not necessarily like L.A. — vibrant and textured — but we need L.A. to make this aesthetic," she says, adding, "You can experiment more here. I think that's definitely one of the things that we love about L.A."

A wrk-shp disk pendant light in white room.
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While Isoda and Upton have an ease when it comes to curating retail spaces and designing family residences, curating their own home is a different story. "We're going to get judged by this. This is our profession," Isoda says. It's the longest project they've embarked on, having started back in 2017 — a lifetime compared to the three-story Blue Bottle cafe in Hong Kong they designed remotely during the pandemic in a record four months.

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Looking to the future, Isoda mentions they have other dream projects that haven't yet been realized. "We always talk about, wouldn't it be fun to do a hotel? Because you get to do the building itself, of course, the interior, and picking all the different furniture." (Hoteliers, are you listening? Note: Isoda can design your staff's clothing, too. How's that for a full-service design firm?)

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The wrk-shp studio in Little Tokyo.
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For Upton, in particular, a dream "is to have a big enough office where we can actually take a vacation and not feel guilty." Also parents to a young child, Isoda and Upton's idea of a work-life balance is, well, different from most. "I think we never drew that line even before we had a kid. Our work and personal lives always kind of fed each other and inspired each other," she says contently. "I think we probably can't have it any other way. That's how it works."

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