Blake Kuwahara // Bold Interview

At this year’s Bold Optical Fair, the amazing eyewear brand Blake Kuwahara will be exhibiting for the first time. A great time to ask the man himself some questions! About his own brand, his design work for his company Focus Group West, and what makes him tick in his personal life.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    Hi Blake, I consider you a personal friend, but introduce yourself a bit to the readers who might not know you yet.

  • Thank you- likewise! I grew up in a creative household- my mother and grandmother were both artists, but I took a more academic path and got my undergraduate degree in Psychobiology from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and my Doctorate of Optometry from University of California, Berkeley (CAL). I was still able to nurture my creative side in college by interning at an interior design firm and working as Creative Director for both a CAL and UCLA publication. After 3 years being in private practice, I realized wasn’t suited to being in a dark room for eight hours a day seeing patients and needed a more creative outlet.

    By complete chance, an LA-based eyewear company, Wilshire Designs/Liz Claiborne Optics, was looking for a Creative Director. Although I had a passion for eyewear, I had no practical experience designing eyewear. The owner of the company, Dick Haft, thought that I had the aesthetic foundation and that he could teach me the technical aspects of design. I took a chance by leaving my practice to start a whole new career, and they took a big chance on me! Dick also gave me the opportunity to start my own brand, KATA Eyewear. I really owe my entre into the design side of our industry to him.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    You were born and raised in Los Angeles, a city that is “notorious” for having some amazing eyewear designers. Where you in contact with any of them from the beginning?

  • I knew Alex Vance from BADA since we shared the same European agent, and Gai Gherardi and Barbara McReynolds of LA Eyeworks were one of our first accounts. I’m ageing myself, but this goes all the way back to 1992!

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    You studied optometry, so your connection to the optical industry is obvious, but for some reason, you had more fun being in the front of the store than working in the lab in the back. Was it the eyewear, the people, both?

  • I loved working with my patients, but the constraints of being in a dark exam room for most of the day and a rigid patient schedule just wasn’t for me. I naturally gravitated towards the fashion/retail side of our practice more than the clinical side.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    What made you decide to go and design eyewear yourself?

  • When I got to the point that I knew I wanted to pursue a different career path, I was exploring everything from interior design to window design. It was just by sheer luck that I came across the ad from Wilshire Designs that I ended up designing eyewear.

  • MaartenMaartenEditor TEF Magazine

    Does your background as an OD still influence your design work?

  • Absolutely. I take a very pragmatic approach to designing because ultimately, frames hold prescription lenses and need to fit properly. I want to make sure that the frames are ergonomically correct, have the proper fitting values and optical centration, and are properly engineered and balanced. This is just as important to me as the aesthetic side. Frames can’t just look good, they have to fit well.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    You did amazing work with Kata and several licensed brands like John Varvatos and Carolina Herrera. Do you still design for other brands than your own or are you now solely focused on Blake Kuwahara.

  • Aside from Blake Kuwahara Eyewear, I have a separate design company, Focus Group West. We’re a design collective and have been together for 12 years. Besides me, there are two other eyewear designers, two graphic designers, two architects, two public relations agents, and two project managers. We do everything from create brands (the design concept, product design, marketing, etc.) to discrete projects like logos and displays to retail spaces.

    As Blake Kuwahara Eyewear grows, we are being more selective about taking on new outside projects, but we do continue to design for others.

 

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    To me, there is a strong Japanese influence in your frame designs. Can you tell me how Japanese culture influences your work?

  • I’m 4th generation Japanese-American. My great-grandparents immigrated from Japan to the States at the turn of the last century. My mother’s parents were both born in the US. Although I was raised in Los Angeles, I think there’s still a strong Japanese sensibility to my aesthetic. I appreciate things that have a “soul”, worked by hand, and are well-crafted. Japanese also tend to be very precise and understated. I think that economy of design also influences my work.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    Your “frame-within-a-frame” design is exceptional. What inspired you to create that and how difficult it must be to actually have that manufactured?

  • Many of my friends are in creative fields: architects, photographers, designers of all sorts. We all have a creative side to what we do professionally, but we also have a business side as well. We were all looking for eyewear that suited both sensibilities. One day I was shopping and saw this antique Chinese wooden stool encased in a clear block of Lucite. It was a “stool-within-a-stool”. I though this was brilliant. It was taking something familiar on the inside and making it fresh and new by changing the outside. I thought this was a perfect way to express my concept. The manufacturing process was extremely difficult to master for a number of reasons.

    The frames and temples are made from two separate components: the inner frame and the outer frame. We have to ensure that there are no bubbles and no separation between the frames. Also, acetates of different colors and structures have different shrinkage rates so we have to calculate that when combining two different materials. Certain colors can also bleed when combined. The curing time alone to ensure stability is over two months. So, there are a lot of factors that go into just the manufacturing of this collection!

 

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  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    What are your favourite materials to work with, and what makes them special?

  • With KATA, I was working primarily with metal and co-injection molding. When I launched Blake Kuwahara Eyewear, I wanted to explore how I could bring something different using handmade acetate. Each material has different advantages and disadvantages.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    Can you tell me what makes your frames stand out from the crowd?

  • I think that the true mark of a brand is that you can identify it without a logo. I like to think that we have created a unique aesthetic that is identifiable at first sight and that even blindfolded you can tell by touching and feeling our frames. My overall aesthetic is distinctive but understated, artful yet wearable.

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  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    What’s your creative process like?

  • Whenever I see something that sparks my interest- it can be from a magazine, while traveling, from a flea market, etc. I take a picture and put it in a folder on my phone. When it’s time to put a collection together, I go through my folders and start combining ideas. From there the rough sketches are made into design drawings and then technical CAD drawings before being made into prototypes.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    I assume you get asked this a lot, but what inspires your designs. Is it technology, architecture, materials, or more personality driven, like a face shape or the personality of the possible wearer? It’s a combination of all of those things.

  • There are practical considerations like size and shape to make sure that the collection is well-rounded. There’s also an intuitive component that comes into play since I’m designing over a year in advance of the launch. So, it’s not about what someone wants now, but what will they want a year from now. And, there’s the personal component of what do I and my friends want to wear!

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    After designing over three decades, do you recognize a certain trend in your own work? Or do you “reinvent” yourself again and again?

  • People have said that they see my “fingerprints” on my work regardless of the brand or when it was designed. I take that as a compliment. I like to think that there is an overarching aesthetic and through-line to what I design. Having said that, I also want to explore new ideas and concepts that may not have anything to do with what I’ve done before. The Grey Label from Blake Kuwahara Eyewear is a good example of that. It has a very different concept and construction, yet there is still design continuity with my core collection.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    Can you tell me something about your work at the edCFDA?

  • I was only the second eyewear designer nominated to join the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and that was over 20 years ago. We now have about a dozen members but are still underrepresented compared to apparel and jewelry designers. I thought that if we had critical mass by forming a subgroup within the CFDA, we would be recognized as an important segment of the fashion industry and have a larger voice.

    So, my first calls were to Gai (from LA Eyeworks) and to Christian Roth to bounce the concept off them. They were both very enthusiastic about the idea and from there had calls with every eyewear designer in the CFDA at that time. It took a year or so for us to formalize our group, but with the support of the CFDA and industry leaders like Marge Axelrad (Editorial Director, 20/20 Magazine) we formally became the Eyewear Designers of the CFDA (edCFDA).

    We are still the only subgroup within the CFDA. Collectively, we have organized eyewear showcases, have participated in a number of panel discussions, designed limited-edition eyewear for the Fashion Target Breast Cancer Foundation, and have spearheaded a new talent search together with the Vision Council of America to help emerging brands to participate at Vision Expo at no cost. Most of us have been in the industry for a long time, so it’s our opportunity to give back and to bring more awareness to eyewear as a legitimate fashion accessory.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    After all your adventures with so many brands and your own name brand, do you see any other projects in the future?

  • There are always things that I’m thinking about in terms of new concepts and brand extensions. But, I need to think about the time and energy it takes to achieve the output for new initiatives versus enjoying other things in life. It’s about prioritizing what’s important at this stage in my life and balancing that with other pursuits outside of business.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    Everywhere I go, I seem to always run into you. Is traveling an important part of your life?

  • Like I’m sure with you, traveling was definitely a big part of my pre-COVID life! I think most people involved in the design side of our business would agree. I was in Asia every 4-6 weeks and in Europe every two months and traveling domestically in between. That pretty much stopped during the pandemic.

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  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    So what is this I hear about you and the flea markets? Is that your go-to happy place?

  • Wow- the word’s gone out! Yes, I love a good puce! Whenever and wherever I was traveling, I would always find a flea market to go to on the weekends. I don’t usually go with any one thing in particular in mind to find. I just love strolling them. I’m attracted to things that have “soul”, patina, and a story. Flea markets are definitely my weakness!

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  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    I read about you seeing the city of Paris in a different way while being there with your partner. I have visited it 20 times during Silmo’s and never saw it like I did when being there with my fiancée. You are from LA yourself, but what other cities have a special place in your heart.

  • It’s always best to see a city through the eyes of someone who lives there. I’ve never been one to visit all of the “touristy” spots and prefer out-of-the-way places. My first date with Patrick was getting on a bike and riding through the neighborhoods of Paris. It was a completely different experience. Tokyo is also very special to me for the culture, food, architecture, and vintage clothing stores. Interestingly, I used to hate Bangkok because I found it to be too chaotic, but I’ve now embraced that. I really miss the street food and antique markets there.

  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    I saw some photos of your house in Sausalito, which looked amazing! Did you do most of the interior design yourself? Can you tell me something about that project?

  • I split my time between LA (West Hollywood) and San Francisco (Sausalito.) My place in West Hollywood is mid-century modern and in a high rise building above bustling Sunset Boulevard. My home in Sausalito is very different. It was built in 1930 and has a Mediterranean aesthetic. I was only the second owner and when I bought the property, it needed a lot of work.

    It’s been a slow process but a labour of love. The design intent has been to keep the overall charm and aesthetic of the original house but modernize it. The bottom floor is a bit more industrial with cement floors and exposed beams. The house has an amazing view of the San Francisco Bay and is quite tranquil. It’s where most of my flea market finds end up!

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  • Maarten WeidemaMaarten WeidemaEditor TEF Magazine

    What do you do when you’re not at work?

  • Pre-pandemic, travel used to occupy most of my free time. Now that I’m spending time more time at home, I’ve actually taken up cooking, and I’m taking advantage of all of the great hiking trails just outside my house. As much as I like nesting, I can’t wait to be back out traveling again!

About Blake Kuwahara:

Kuwahara, the founder of the multi-disciplinary design agency, Focus Group West, first gained international acclaim as the creator and designer of the exclusive KATA Eyewear brand. His groundbreaking use of engineering and production techniques together with his highly curated eye reinvented the way eyewear design is approached today.

Read more about this awesome American brand which is made in Japan on TEF Magazine or visit their website.


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Author: maarten weidemaAfter being a freelance eyewear designer since 1999, TEF founder Maarten Weidema now solely writes about his fellow designers in the optical industry. His passionate mission is to promote independent eyewear to the international optical arena, backed up by a large group of bloggers and journalists from all over the world. He has recently been awarded "International Optical Personality of the Year", "Leading Innovator in Optical Social Media Marketing", "Social Media Marketing Company of the Year" and received several awards for "best eyewear blog" for his efforts to promote independent eyewear to a community of 517.000 eyecare professionals.

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