The Golden Ratio of Goods
Handcrafted leather goods are trending like modern pottery. Leather in tandem with metal, wood, and paper mixes like chocolate and peanut butter. The leather gives an organic sensation and feel that changes over time, echoing tradition with modernity.
Nestled in LA, 1.61 Soft Goods are among the best in style and design. Wesley Nunn and Diana Wu’s creations are the perfect mix of objects having both the strong feel of leather with the perfect blend of lightness that most leather crafters can’t find. Unlike many who pride themselves on the thickest and brawniest of tanned hide which often pollinates with the ferociousness of Harleys, 1.61 has an elegance with a slight tinge of military design, and cycling.
Their studio exemplifies their lifestyle. It’s a loft that they co-inhabit, but has both a creative and designer feel that’s not afraid to break the current minimalist trend. True to their company name, their decor mixes mid-century and contemporary themes and it speaks volumes about their tastes. It lends itself to their goods.
Wesley and Diana will soon be living in Tokyo. They’ll be up and running shortly.
A video about 1.61
by Eric Nakamura
Photos by George Ko and Eric Nakamura. Video by George Ko
GR: Tell me your names, who you guys are, and what you guys do.
W:I'm Wesley and we just have our own business, 1.61 and we make leather goods, soft goods, and bags.
D: Yup, and I am Diana and do the same thing as him. We're a small company, just two of us, so we kind of share everything. We don't have tasks specific to each other.
W: Yeah. So, we both do everything in the company.
GR: And you guys started, is it like five years ago, six years ago, something like that?
D: Yeah. 2012. Almost. Oh yeah, in April it will be five years.
GR: How did you guys get started? Was there a first product that you guys were working on or did you guys meet outside of that?
W:I started actually in my apartment when I lived downtown. It was a student product actually. I made a modular messenger bag. It had a grid system where you could configure different bags inside the bag to fit what you need. I did a lot of commuting on bicycle, so I just designed some small bags for commuting. That was my first product. It kind of just grew from there. Then it went fully, larger scale and then some other stuff. She was actually in school when I started and then she based a lot of projects off of designing decks.
GR: Wait, so you made your bag, it was just for yourself, right?
D: Yeah. So, we felt like there was no product that looks modern, yet functional. That's why we wanted to start making our own leather goods, but it was just mainly for us. It wasn't for profit or anything.
GR: How about yourself?
D: Yeah, so I helped him with that project and then after that he started making more bags. I think the first actual product was that little hip pouch for commuting. The second one was that backpack that we have. We helped with each other because we have design backgrounds. Critiquing and what not. Not because we were really into leather, but we started looking to leather because of its functionality and how it ages and stuff. From there, I kind of get into leather crafts more than sewn goods. I think, we made iPhone cases and stuff first. Because it was just something that was familiar to us. I started from iPhone cases just for myself to enjoy.
GR: At the time, what did these other leather goods like? It looks kind of western? Is that kind of the vibe?
W:2012 is really beginning. It was really beginning of…
D: Makers movement.
W: Yeah, like makers and people starting their own businesses. Leather goods was more traditional, just western or patterns, designs on the bags or wallets. We wanted try to make something that was more functional, minimal and didn't look like it was...
D: Yeah. Something we could carry pretty much.
W: …from the past.
"We wanted try to make something that was more functional, minimal and didn't look like it was from the past."
GR: But then leather kind of has a long history. Leather has a vibe. Is it hard to all of a sudden break out of that?
D: Yeah. I feel like it was harder at first because we wanted to stick with the traditional methods of making stuff, because there's reason to why they do little tricks because it lasts longer and it’s finished better. We wanted to honor that. We wanted to keep that tradition of leather crafts, but at the same time we wanted to make it look clean. Minimal. With whatever we have, iPhones and stuff. So, to figure that out was trial and error. That's why we were just having fun at first. It was just hobby. We were playing around with it.
GR: Awesome. What is it about leather? Is it the history or is it just the material? What is it about the leather that you like so much?
D: I like leather because it's really easy to get into at first because you don't have to have heavy tooling. It's not that heavy and it's not that hard to cut and stuff, but also it is durable enough to make a lot of parts. Also, we like how it ages. We don't like plastic material that much. There's so many parts that applies well with plastic, but leather, we just love how it ages because something we make is something you use every day.
W:And the versatility too because you can use it in a lot of different ways. You could add artwork to it if you wanted to or you could mold it to different shapes, like bowls, and then you can sew it or just glue it together. It's just a lot of versatility with what you can do.
GR: There's a recent upsurge on leather? It seems like there's a little movement. I see it around and I'm wondering why around there?
W:I think it's just people want to share what they can do. The accessibility of leather. It's really easy to get leather. It's really cheap to get all of the basic tools that you need to make a basic wallet or whatever. It's really easy to share what you can do and craft with leather. It looks really nice.
D:I think it was all timing. Everything just started to collide. The fact that there's Etsy and the fact that there's online resources that you can Google, and you can YouTube, and you can find out how to do things very easily nowadays, and people start to put all these things together and they're like, "Oh, I can make these by myself." I feel like that's the beginning of it.
GR: It seems like leather is also associated with motorcycles and you happen to have a motorcycle. For yourselves, is there a reason?
D: I think so. I think everything we do is out our curiosity. We like outdoor things and that's why we like natural materials rather than like plastics.And then like natural patina things and leather happens to have that too. Everything happens to connect to each other.
"We like outdoor things and that's why we like natural materials rather than like plastics.And then like natural patina things and leather happens to have that too."
W:Yeah. You can find leather, different types of leather or leather in general all over the world. It's very, it's like a universal language. People from all over the world are making leather stuff. It's kind of cool. Instagram you can see people from Czechoslovakia or Russia making pretty cool stuff. Before 2012, I don't even know when Instagram started, but before 2012 it's not something that you would be researching, or you know, at least for us.
GR: There's a huge range of styles and products.
W: The country it comes from too. The leather products from Japan are made by craftsman. It's really big craftsman culture there. Stuff is really expensive for handmade leather over there just because their level of quality is so much higher, versus Russia where it might be higher, but you could probably get it cheaper just because…
D: Yeah. Everything is cheaper.
GR: What about Mexico? Is that like a historical, long-term place where things got made?
D:Yeah. I think it is. Especially from LA. A lot of things are imported in from there. There's a disconnect in the design part of it because it's people still make things traditionally. A lot of people are interested in their products, but at the same time, it's not exactly their design language. I think that's what we're trying to have a market. Someone who's looking into something that's more of their design.
GR: I think that's what attracts me to your stuff is that it's, I suppose, it's your golden ratio name. The 1.61. You're actually using a very modern design ratio, because a lot of that stuff is western. It looks like rope. So, you're going to put rope on leather and then make it look like something else.
D: And that's a good point because back in the days if you want to start a leather craft that's always where you start. Books and everything, that's what they told you. But now that there's Instagram, YouTube and stuff, people can search themselves and kind of like mimic it. Mimic what other people are doing. I think that's why there's a makers movement and so much information out there.
GR: How did you guys get to that golden ratio? The 1.61 name? Even me, when I first heard it, I was like, "What does that mean?"
W: I think, because our stuff isn't really based on decoration, it's more based on proportion. How things are fit together and just the size of things. So, that they look nice without having a crazy color or a picture, something printed on. That's where the golden ratio comes from. It's more, it's beauty in proportion rather than decoration.
D:Yeah. And it's something that you use every day, we wanted something that's really subtle. Because you see a lot of golden ratio in nature, and then you don't think about it, it's just pleasant to your eyes. We wanted to do that with our products.
"Because you see a lot of golden ratio in nature, and then you don't think about it, it's just pleasant to your eyes. We wanted to do that with our products."
W:Something just blends into your life.
GR: Are you actually measuring it out to be in that golden ratio or is it kind of happening naturally at this point?
D: It's happening naturally. We don't exactly force it. If it's right to our eyes and it is right. For that, we make a lot of prototypes and figure out what's the best products, but we don't exactly say oh this has to be exactly one to 1.61.
GR: What's going to happen. You're moving to Japan. That has a different commuter culture, I guess. Do you have any anticipation on how your work might change to fit that society instead?
W: I think it will change in materials and then also process.
D: And size and stuff too.
W:Size. Yeah. Size especially. It'll probably be smaller, more compact. I don't know, probably trying to minimize stuff. The amount of things that you have to carry. That's what I see at least.
D:Yeah, and just, it's the culture that you ride trains and public transportation. Something that caters to that more to that culture.
GR: Wait, so that means your bags are going to get smaller?
D: I think that's possible. And then functionality. More pockets or something like that.
W:Or something modular. Maybe not smaller, but something where you don't have to carry everything all at once. Where you can pick and choose what you want to carry. As far as the size of the bag.
GR: And also, I guess there's way more bikes there. You've gone there so many times, right? Are you seeing people using kind of the bags that you put on your bikes and things like that there?
W:Not really. I'd say more messenger or even people carrying tote bags when they ride their bike or backpack.
D:Yeah and people are not big on bike racks. Here, people like to put bags on the bikes. But there are so many bikes there and sometimes they get stolen. People don't put stuff on the bikes. I think it's still someone carrying it and still gets on the bike.
W:But I mean, people express themselves more with bags. A huge bag culture there. Also, what they wear and how they present themselves. Everyone carries a bag. It's really rare to see people not carrying something.
GR: Are you going to make a Japanese man purse? Or is your stuff usually unisex, right?
W: Yeah. With our tote bags, we try to make them unisex so that the portion doesn't feel too feminine. When a guy is carrying it, it doesn't look weird.
D: That's like a new area though we'll be getting to more.
GR: I read that you're dying the leather yourselves. Is that all true or are you buying already dyed leather.
D: We still have some items that we dye ourselves. At first, we were dying every single product that was needed to be dyed. But now we pick and choose what's appropriate and what's not. Right now, we do still dye some of our stuff by ourselves, but not everything. We do enjoy it actually.
GR: How do you do that? Is there a bucket and you just put some color in it? Ink?
D:Yeah. But we had to practice a lot to figure out how to do it and make sure it does not dye other parts and stuff too.
W:Yeah. And it's even. Getting it even is really difficult.
D:That was one of the beginning parts. Before we start selling anything we were just having fun with it. Like, "Oh, how can we do this?" and stuff. I think that was really important for us because it was something fun and we still have that feeling toward our product. We're having fun with the stuff we're doing. It's like experimenting and stuff. We do enjoy dying leather.
GR: Since you're kind of a company that brands yourself using leather, do you ever run into vegans that get upset?
W:Yeah, not really upset, but people are like, “is there an alternative to leather?”
D: It's like, I'll buy it if it's vegan and stuff. But it's funny because he's vegetarian and then people are like, how does that work? What we tell people is that leather is a byproduct of meat, if no one eats meat, we wouldn't have leather so we're actually using the product that was going to be thrown away. We're doing well for environment here.
"What we tell people is that leather is a byproduct of meat, if no one eats meat, we wouldn't have leather so we're actually using the product that was going to be thrown away. We're doing well for environment here."
W: And the type of leather is, I don't know, it's better for the environment. Eco-system. The way they tan the leather we use, which is vegetable tan, they use natural stuff, or more natural stuff. Versus chrome tan, which has a lot of waste and chemicals. That's what you usually find in car seats. Cheaper leather bags.
GR: Where do you get your leather?
W:We get our leather from downtown, but they get them from…
D: South America.
GR: What's the difference in this case? A cow is a cow?
W: I'd say how they're treated actually. Cows in Argentina are not as nicely treated as here, so they'll have more scars and bug bites. Hides here you get more square footage just because you can use more. There's not a big gash or a huge brand or something like that.
D: European ones are like the nicest.
W:They're treated like people there. It's like perfect. The whole hide is completely perfect. No blemishes.
D:And it's colder, so there's less bugs. Less bug bites and stuff. It's interesting that you learn about the cow's life from the surface of the leather.
GR: Back to your guys' work. How do you divide your work labor? Does one of you come up with the design? Or does one of you do the stitching or cutting?
D: It's funny because it really depends on product. We really share evenly.
W: I'll do all the bike stuff. And all the sewing goods, like backpacks and hip pouches. But then you'll do a lot of the sewn leather stuff. Machine sewn leather stuff.
D:Yeah. Then, as far as new products, each of us comes up with something and we just exchange opinions and make it better together. That's definitely a group effort.
W: How we come up with new products, it really reflects our stage in life too. Right now, we've been traveling a lot so looking more into travel products. Passport cases or something that will carry all your documents because we don't have something that will carry your ticket, your passport, few cards and foreign money. That's something we're looking into designing.
GR: I saw that, did you also have a one for notebooks?
D: Yeah. Those organizers and stuff goes back to the question you were asking earlier, when we move to Japan, that's something we will do more, I feel like.
GR: Even the best stationary here is made in Japan.
D: Right. Yeah. Totally. We like to bring product that gives you a little piece of mind to everyday life. Organizers and stuff. For that, we do exchange opinions, but also, we do ask some of our friends that use more of these products and tell me how they feel.
"We like to bring product that gives you a little piece of mind to everyday life."
GR: You both sounded like you went to design school. Is it the same school?
W:We met at Long Beach State and that's where I finished in product design.
D: I didn't finish at Long Beach and I transferred to Art Center College of Design. That's where I finished my product design, but we both have product design backgrounds. That's one of the reasons why we start making things for ourselves. We just always like to use our hands and make things.
GR: Cool. And everything you do is in this studio?
W:We'll outsource cutting for somethings, but everything is made here.
D: Mm-hm. Everything is made here.
GR: When somebody orders a bag or something, is it already made or are you actually making it right then for them?
W:We unroll the fabric and cut out all the pieces and then put it together.
D: Yeah. Made to order.
W: A lot of people want a little bit of customization. We used to make stock some stuff, but then they'd be like, oh, we want initials here. Small stuff like that. Or an extra pocket or a laptop sleeve or something. We can do that if it's all made to order and it's not a big delay.
Checkout 1.61 here.
The music in the video is Beethoven's Op. 54 Sonata.
Played by George Ko, CEO of Giant Robot Media.