Photography by Claire Cottrell
When we first connected with Shu Hung and Joe Magliaro, it was in 2012 through their store Table of Contents in Portland, Oregon known for its seasonal themes, collaborations, and experience in forward thinking taste. As one of the first stockists and supporters of Building Block, Shu and Joe's space represented to us the possibility of a seamlessness between work, life, art, design, and fashion. Access to these worlds in the precious pre-Instagram era (enter exasperated voice of age "this was blog-days!") meant taking the time to cultivate a community through genuine narrative and exchange of interests between friends. The idea that a store could extend the retail environment into a dialogue with other fields rather than be only about commerce is still a reference point for us after almost a decade. And although TOC doesn't exist as a traditional brick and mortar retail store anymore, it maintains its integrative spirit as a design studio and framework for the couple's ideas.
Flash forward to 2020, where we have a conversation with Shu and Joe about returning to live in New York, where they are now in their creative careers, and why the act of collecting can open up possibilities.
Can you explain a bit about what you both do (occupationally)?
SH: I work for a company called Fast Retailing which owns clothing brands like UNIQLO, Theory, Helmut Lang and JBrand. My title is Global Creative Director and I’ve spent the last few years building a creative team based in New York. We’re a group of people who come from different creative and design backgrounds and work together to solve problems for the brand. I focus most of my time on UNIQLO and work on everything from campaigns for new store openings to design research to leading some pretty high-profile collaborations.
JM: I try to maintain a pretty open practice that includes writing, curation, object-making, spatial design, and creative direction. Some of this work is presented through Table of Contents, which at various moments might operate as a store, a design studio, an exhibition, an event, and then maybe all or none of these.
You’ve lived together in Berlin, Beijing, London, and Portland. What brought you to NYC and how has living in NYC been for the two of you?
SH: We each graduated from college in the late 90s and moved to New York soon after. We lived together here in ’04-’05 before making our way to the cities you mentioned. After almost a decade away, I think we both felt it was time to return to New York. Many of our close friends still live here and it’s been wonderful to be near them again.
JM: New York somehow always remained the center for us despite the long absence. We would visit a few times each year to maintain our sense of connection.
After having lived in so many places, what makes you feel most at home?
JM: In 2003 I lived on Forsyth Street in Chinatown. Next door, in the street-level window of an old industrial building was a two-foot-tall piñata-like paper sculpture of an owl. It sat there on its side, deep in dust and a bunch of debris that was hard to make out behind the dark glass and metal safety mesh. Whenever Shu and I had a chance to return to New York, I made a habit of checking in on the owl. When we moved back in 2016, it was still there, although it’s not anymore. The space was recently cleaned up and now features some kind of art—I assume it’s the work of whomever has rented the space. Anyway, it made me happy that the owl hung on until I returned. New York has always been a place where I have a kind of psycho-geographic response to my surroundings. The city changes all the time, but I like being able to call on my built-in Wayback Machine to situate myself when I’m on the street. So maybe that—and of course being around friends—that gives me a sense of being at home.
SH: It’s taken awhile to acknowledge this about myself but I really do love having a routine. Small things that create consistency amidst the chaos of travel keep me sane and productive. I also tend to seek out friends in places that I travel to, and find that spending time with people I know in foreign cities gives me a sense of connectedness to the place.
We like to think that Building Block started with a library of materials rather than with a fully realized product. The compulsion to gather things, scraps, samples, reference materials, whether useless or useful at the moment, has always been at the root of how we begin to conceptualize something new. Neither of us could have guessed that a series of rubber, wood, and leather pieces compiled at a Tokyo Hands would result in various bags let alone lead to developing a brand! You both have a notable library of books, chairs, materials, and objects that are meaningful to you, I wonder if you also have a similar compulsion to collect. What would you say are a few themes that run through your personal library/collection of things? Do you have a favorite place to go treasure hunting?
SH: We’ve definitely given in to the compulsion to collect and build archives of sorts over the years, but actually, for the past few years we’ve been doing some pretty significant editing. The reality of space in New York demands sensitivity to anything extra.
JM: But having a strong library is still super important. I think of collections as tools that can suggest an array of possibilities. I definitely appreciate Achille Castiglioni’s method of beginning with a principal design component and transforming or building upon it to develop something new. I’m terrible with 3d design software, so the quickest way for me to get from an idea to some kind of prototype is to start with a physical reference—something to get a sense of shape, scale, texture—and to build from there. So we’ve maintained various libraries—lots of material samples. And I guess we have a fair number of specific forms like vases, paperweights, pencil cups, shoes, stools, chairs, rocks, plants, books, that sort of thing. But I don’t think we collect too deeply in any one form. It’s more about finding good examples of things that either put a specific material or shape to good use, or that do a good job of conveying a particular idea. I’m always interested in what you might call post-functionalist design—so anything that does a good job of challenging rigid genre distinctions is something I’d be looking out for—whether it’s an art exhibition in the form of a publication, a mug covered in spikes, a chair floating on a glass sphere, or a replica of shoe that costs more than an original pair.
SH: We look in a lot of different directions when searching for good examples. Tokyu Hands is a fantastic spot! We also love Modular in Berlin. And we often check out flea markets and vintage malls. Thrift shops can be good—especially spots that arrange their inventory by material. I love the indexing of everyday objects into categories like plastic, glass, ceramic, metal, wood, wicker.
Do you have a current obsession or want to share any new discoveries that you’ve been brooding over lately?
SH: I’ve been rediscovering the joys of movie theaters lately. I had forgotten how pleasurable the experience of watching a film in a cinema could be. From art house to cinemaplex, New York is full of terrific small- and large-scale places to watch moving images. The best is when a film isn’t available on a streaming service and it “debuts” again in a movie theater. We recently watched a documentary about Pauline Kael at Film Forum that was made all the more entertaining by the side commentary of the other moviegoers in the crowd.
JM: Vermouth and Amari (P. Quiles Rojo is my go-to for mixed drinks or an aperitif, and when I can find a bottle, Amaro Camatti is one of my favorites for a minty after-dinner drink). Black and white cookies are a long-running obsession of mine. They’re generally bland, dry, poorly executed. But I’m convinced they don’t have to be. Since moving back to New York, I’ve eaten dozens of black and whites at delis and bakeries all over the city, but I haven’t found one that I love, so I’ve been working on making my own. I’m hoping to find a place to share them soon.
What about your life now, would be most unexpected to your younger self?
SH: That I engage in daily meditation. My younger self didn’t believe there was time or any need to train the brain!
JM: Getting excited about baking cookies.
What’s your favorite thing about being your age right now?
SH: There’s a comfort to being an age where you’re not afraid to strike up conversations with strangers. I went from actively not wanting to engage with people to determinedly trying to make connections with them.
JM: Arthur Schopenhauer said something like, “The first forty years of your life make up its text; the next thirty are just the commentary.” When I was younger, I may have worried that he was right, but now, I feel pretty confident that experience allows us to keep rattling off new pages for as long as we’re willing to devote time and attention to the project. In one of my favorite interviews, Felix Gonzalez-Torres asks Ross Bleckner, “How long did it take you to make those new paintings?” And Bleckner replies, “All my life.”
Shu and Joe own iphone Slings in Vegetable Tanned leather