Asking the Right Questions in Architecture / Jenny Wu
On August 12th, 2019 we had a cool and interesting conversation with Jenny Wu.
Jenny Wu received her Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University and Master of Architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design. Currently, Jenny is a member of the design faculty at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI_Arc) and Columbia GSAPP. She has previously taught at institutions such as Syracuse University and Renssellaer Polytechnic Institute. In addition to her architectural practice, she also founded LACE by Jenny Wu, a line of 3D printed jewelry, in 2014. The pieces have been widely featured in publications such as Forbes, People, and Elle Magazine. Most recently, Jenny was named one of four design visionaries by Porsche and Dwell Magazine in their "Powered by Design" documentaries, showcasing her pioneering work in 3D printing.
Jenny Wu is a partner at the Los Angeles based architecture firm, Oyler Wu Collaborative, which she founded in 2004 with Dwayne Oyler. The firm is recognized for its experimentation in design, material research, and fabrication, and was the winner of 2013 Design Vanguard Award from Architectural Record. She was recently named one of the four design visionaries by Porsche and Dwell Magazine in their Powered by Design documentaries, showcasing her pioneering work in 3D printing. The office has won numerous design awards, including the 2013 Emerging Talent Award from AIA California Council, 2012 Presidential Honor Award for Emerging Practice from AIA LA, Taiwan’s ADA Award for Emerging Architect, and 2011 Emerging Voices Award from the Architectural League in New York. They published Pendulum Plane in 2009, and most recently Trilogy: SCI Arc Pavilions (SCI-Arc Press) in 2014.
In this episode we talk about her experience attending the top two universities in the United States, Columbia and Harvard. She tells me about how her and her partner Dwayne Oyler started Oyler Wu Collaborative together by basically making ends meet financially only to pay rent and to survive while they felt amazingly motivated to continue working on projects even if they didn’t even a client and she explains how the dedication and hard work has paid off over the years. She talks a little bit about what it is like to have the same partner in life and in work. She also tells the story of how she started LACE, her 3D printed jewelry lane that has grown amazingly over the years. Finally, she gives her best piece of advice to you guys, studying architecture right now or even recent graduates, to learn that school should be the place to study different ideas, you do not need to know exactly who you are now. I loved this conversation, I loved Jenny’s positivism and openness to tell her story with all of you. I cannot wait to hear what you all think!
What was your experience studying at two of the most rigorous and renowned universities in the United States? What did you learn from these top universities that you believe you wouldn’t have learned anywhere else?
What was your experience like out of college? Did you land any awesome jobs? What were your interests then?
Did you interests change as you started to work in the field?
Why did you move to Los Angeles?
Now tell me a little about your firm along with your partner Dwayne Oyler, Oyler Wu Collaborative. Your studio focuses on challenging the typical version of the built environment. How do your projects challenge this notion?
Do you think we as designers and architects must always challenge what is depicted as normal around us?
How and when did you find that connection between jewelry making and architecture?
What were your very first prototypes like? Were they always done in a 3D printer? Did you ever change any of the materials in the beginning?
Are all the jewelry in the LACE collection made by a 3D printer?
What is the process of 3D printing a jewelry set? Let’s say, an engagement ring. How do you print without the supports, what is the process of cleaning, what materials do people like to use?
Do you consider LACE, a line of 3D printed jewelry, a ramification of the architecture field? How do people around you see it as?
Now you are currently a professor at SCI-Arc right? What have you learned through teaching that you wish you knew as a student in architecture school?
M: Hey Jenny! How are you?
J: Good, how are you?
M: Nice! It’s very nice to have you here. It’s amazing to connect. So tell me a little bit about yourself. You went to Harvard University, and before that you went to Columbia. What was your experience studying at these top universities in the country?
J: So.. I’m Jenny Wu. I’m a partner in Oyler Wu Collaborative, we’re an LA based architecture firm. And then I’m also the founder and director of LACE by Jenny Wu, which is a printed jewelry brand. And yeah, just to get started, I did my studies at Columbia undergrad. I was a major in architecture and then I did my M.Arch I at Harvard GSD. They were… At the time, this was in the 90s, so both schools were quite different. Columbia had just started their paperless studios.. It was a very exciting time at Columbia. There were so many exciting ideas and things that were happening at the school so I was very fortunate to see that happen.
M: Really? At that time it was paperless?
J: Yeah! I was an undergrad so I was not in the Grad program. So I was not able to take part in the studios. But seeing that happen was really exciting and I still remember taking classes at working on these machines. Working on Alias and these first generation of software.
M: Wow, that’s amazing.
J: Just can’t image how far we have come since then. And then Harvard was a very different school. It was intellectually really exciting and I met my partner there. But very different philosophy of how they teach architecture and overall about the things they do there. So, I think for me it was kind of like the perfect balance. And I actually think that the biggest influence we had was moving to LA. Actually for me was moving back to LA, because I was from, there originally.
M: I actually was going to ask you, why did you move to LA… Again. (laughs)
J: (Laughs)... Well you know when you grow up.. And maybe it might be true since you’re in Miami, that you take things for granted and you think all places have great weather. That it is always sunny and perfect. But when you’re away for over ten years you realize it is not quite like that. I had this very rosy picture of what LA is. Also we were very interested in the people that were practicing here, and Sci-Arc seemed like an amazing school. I also felt that when we were in New York we were doing a lot of interiors, and we just wanted to expand and actually work on buildings. So we thought LA was the right move for us and it turned out to be exactly the right move for us, we absolutely love it here.
M: And LA is probably like Miami in the sense that it started as a very small community but now it is very developing… And it’s really exciting to see, at least for me, what is gonna happen in Miami in the next 10 years. LA is probably ahead of Miami in that sense. But it is very nice to be in that circle of creatives and designers that are starting something new in LA.
J: Yeah, absolutely. I think that we feel lucky everyday that we get to teach at Sci-Arc and be with other really interesting practitioners. It keeps us sharp and we’re at a place when, especially when you’re in New York, you feel like you have to be a certain size company before you get larger projects. And I think in LA there are more types of industries that allow for younger clients and younger architects. So it has been a great place for us to start an office.
M: Yeah, I see… So tell me what were your interests like when you were just a graduate out of Harvard. Do you believe that your interests have changed from when you were at school until now?
J: Well, I think that whenever we start a lecture we often look back and the seed of what Dwayne and I’s common interest were and I think both of us (my thesis project at Harvard and Dwayne’s drawings) … We both had this obsession with lines, and that kind of started an exploration for the first half of our career. Where we developed a series of projects that were line-based. And I think that also has to do with the fact that we were in LA and also Sci-Arc and the fact that we were able to fabricate and build the work that we do. And that has allowed us to build this research-based projects and keep developing these ideas. Over the last 15 years we started with line-based projects, like lines and surfaces, then line, surface and volumes having a dialogue with each other.
M: So you guys have been building this firm for over 15 years now….
J: I would say loosely, first we moved to LA in 2004, but I was working for other offices and Dwayne was teaching. I would say we have been in LA for 15 years but our office is about 12-13 years old.
M: And was it hard… Or easy… Well… It’s always hard to start up a studio. But what was your experience starting up a studio with your partner.
J: Well, there’s two parts to that question. One is the difficulty of starting any business, especially an architecture business in a city you don’t know much about. And the second part which I’ll answer later is to do it with your partner which is for work and life… (Starts laughing)
M: (Laughs) Yeah
J: The first part of the question is… What I liked about being in LA is that you can be quite unconventional about how you practice… And we were able to… When you move to a new city and you start an office, it’s not like clients will just come especially if you don’t have a body of work.
M: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly
J: What we did is that we thought “we can’t just wait for projects to come…” And we were less interested in just working on a lot of competitions because we felt like we were working on a problem and an issue… And we wanted to keep working on our research instead. Maybe for us starting for a small scale was better, and we started inventing our own projects… The first was to design and build our own office. We decided to invest $2,500 which was like a one-month rent in LA, but it was like $20,000 worth of labor. But we built our own office and that got published. And we were like… “Well, that’s an interesting way to make a project happen fairly quickly.” The second project we did a project for my parents… Then of course, you ran out of family members and you ask yourself “What should I do after this?” And you needed to be creative, and that’s when we started approaching galleries… And we kind of pitched it as… “Either we split the cost or you just pay for the materials and we put in our own labor.” And this was all to get work out there.
M: Really? That’s so interesting, it’s like you were just marketing yourself.
J: Yes! But in a way we all had to invest something… Like if you’re working in a competition you have to invest in that time to design something that probably won’t get picked because you don’t know who the juries are and what they’re looking for. And I think for these, we felt that if we could make it happen, then it would be more likely to happen. So we did that and later on we started to get more confident and realize that the fabrication process is also a great way to expand the way we design. We start to learn about how to put things together in unconventional ways and how ideas of assembling might re-inform how we design something. So it becomes a back-and-forth relationship between fabrication and design. So then we started doing that every summer… I mean we still do that now… In the beginning we did a lot more, in the beginning we did 2-3 projects a year. But now we’re mostly working on larger building projects but we pick out 1-2 projects in the summer to build.
M: Wow, nice… And in the beginning were you guys also working other jobs or was this a full-time thing that you’d spend all your time on?
J: Well… I had a full time… We both had full-times when we were in New York. And then I worked for another two years in LA while Dwayne started teaching at Sci-Arc. And then after two years I transitioned to teaching. So we were both teaching full time and then practicing in our own firm at the same time.
M: That’s so great, that’s very inspiring.
J: But also just to say that, the whole investing in our own work only happened in the first 3-4 years. And then after 5 years, we said “Well.. For now we have to fully cover our projects and not lose any money).” And then that happened for another 3-4 years, and now we’re lucky to say that we only take projects that actually make money.
M: That’s amazing! But did you ever feel unmotivated in the beginning to keep on working when you weren’t really getting a paycheck out of it?
J: You know.. Your motivation is different at every phase in the career. In the beginning we were just so motivated to show people what we can do. So no, we didn’t feel unmotivated… Of course it’s not great when you feel that you’re a starving artist kind of thing.
J: But, at least at that time, early one, it was just the two of us and we made sure we could survive, and that’s where the teaching came in. Now we just felt like it was going to pay off at some point, and it did…
M: Okay, and now for the second part of the question… What is it like to work with your partner in life and in… The work field.
J: (Laughs) Yeah.. You know, I think that it is not for everyone. But for us it is the perfect combination. I’ve seen other partnerships that it doesn’t work so well. I think that for us, because I met Dwayne in Grad school and we were classmates… We were such different designers that we called ourselves a collaborative because we felt like we were collaborating and it’s not like we’re just one person. Over time though we have grown to build this practice together. I think it’s amazing to figure out a person to do that with… We have our own babies but this is also our baby.
M: Right, now… You said that the collaborative… It focuses on challenging the typical notion of the built environment. How do you think your projects challenge this notion?
J: Well… I think that we often go into a project first asking different questions… For example, if we’re doing some projects with the city, designing a green-way bikeway, how do you rethink the idea of public space? What is the version of the bridge? Just trying to think about the question. Also when we did this big project in Taipei, which is a high-rise building… What do you think about housing differently? Over there everything is pretty cookie-cutter, you stack one patio on top of another and they look the same all the way from the bottom to the top. But the question was how to create a variation on something that wants to be the same. So there’s a lot of things that we’re trying to think about -- What is the norm, and how do we challenge that?
M: Do you think us as designers must always challenge what is depicted as normal around us?
J: For me, yes! (Laughs) I think it’s so easy to be comfortable. And I think a lot of times… We look around and we start to see things that kind of repeat themselves. I think that there are many types of designers, and for the kind of designer I like to be it makes sense. And also for someone that is trying to push the discipline forward, that’s the question we have to ask all the time.
M: Yeah, and I’m guessing that is also one of the main focuses on your studio at Sci-Arc. Sci-Arc is basically based on challenging what is normal around us and re-imagining things.
J: Yeah, absolutely.
M: How did you start teaching? In general, in Syracuse, at Sci-Arc… Did you always find teaching as a career you were interested in pursuing?
J: I think that it always made sense to me as something I would do in the beginning in order to supplement the office. At first it was out of necessity, we wanted to make sure we could even pay rent the next month, so we needed something more steady. But I feel like at this point, we teach because we absolutely love it and because we think it adds something to our practice. Of course teaching is hard… You feel very exhausted at the end of every…
M: Yeah! Mentally exhausted (Laughs).
J: Yeah! Like I’m literally out… I always tell my students “ You know, you talk to use for 15-20 minutes and then you basically extract everything out of us.” I feel like at the end all my creative juices are out.
M: How many students do you get per studio?
J: It depends on the studio, but it is about 10-12.
M: Mmm, okay… Yeah that’s not bad, but with the rhythm of Sci-Arc I’m guessing it is extremely mentally draining.
J: Yeah, because it’s like… We never teach any studio the same every year. They’re always changing it up. So you don’t get too complacent at a school like Sci-Arc, which is something that I think it needs to be.
M: Yeah… What is something that you have learned through teaching that you wish you knew as a student in architecture school. Something that you say “Yep, I should have known that before” now that you’re a professor.
J: I don’t know if there’s some “If I have known this…” But I do think that especially at a school like Sci-Arc, it is important to explore. And sometimes you feel like you have to find yourself and know who you are within the school right away. And school is a place to explore different ideas and different styles, ideologies… And I think afterwards you have a lot of time to figure out who you are. So I do think that people try to figure out who they are before they get out. I think that before, you can see the seed of what you want to be, but it starts developing after you leave school.
M: Yeah, I think so as well…. Now, tell me about the connection between jewelry and architecture. Where did that come from?
J: It’s a funny story… And actually it has a Miami angle to it (Laughs).
M: Oh God! (Laughs).
J: I was about 5 years ago… I started doing a lot of public speaking and I thought, “Oh, I want something to wear when I go out and speak.” So, I started designing some pieces for myself to wear, and I didn’t really know much about jewelry, but I knew how to 3D print. So I started doing some prototypes and I started wearing it out. And I remember that I was in Art Basel in Miami one december, and at that time I wore one of my necklaces and literally… Just walking around Miami I was bombarded with people asking me “Where did you get that? How do I get it?” I would be sitting at lunch and people would just ask away.
And I think it’s also the fact that 5 years ago and even now, people are not very aware of 3D printing, the general public. And people kept asking to buy it. And I thought, you know, maybe there is something here. I need to think about potentially exploring this as a business. So, I spent about a year prototyping, working with 3D print companies. Because you realize that this process is so different from the traditional way of making jewelry. And it is also a real business, I didn’t want it to be an amateour thing. So figuring out how to produce something that is not gonna break, that is wearable, durable, something people wanted to wear, not just look at.
I would say that even now we’re still learning about the business and involving the brand. Even working on things that our customers have asked us like a wedding collection that we launched. And just rethinking about --- the same questions I was talking to you about, like always asking different questions. We asked ourselves, “What is it about wedding rings that is not out there?” How do we rethink what wedding rings are like and the relationship between the engagement ring and wedding band, why don’t they fit together well? You know, so things like that… Start to use our learning from architecture and apply it to the jewelry.
I actually think that as we work on much bigger projects now, it is always nice to have these small projects like the jewelry where we can produce something and people wear it and we can get an instant reaction where people are very excited.
M: What about the materials? What materials have you used?
J: So when we first started most kind of plastics… And nylon, were the common materials to produce in 3D printing. But we found out over a year that they were quite problematic in terms of durability. We didn't want to produce something that looked cheap. More or less, we kept a couple of things that are in nylons, which are like earrings because people love how light they are. So we kept those, but the rings we stopped producing them in the nylons. We still kept producing the necklaces so that it is soft on the skin. But we have moved toward working in the metals, and we have a steel collection that is stainless steel and bronze. And then we have the precious metals, where we can basically produce anything from platinums, gold, and silver. And then we 3D print a wax that then gets casted.
M: Wow! There’s a lot of work that goes into it I’m sure!
J: A lot! (Laughs)
M: You started how to make it right? You were the first one to do a prototype and then try it on, but how were you printing without the supports?
J: Well, each one of those is a kind of 3D printing technology, most of them don’t have support, or have minimal supports compared to the normal printers. Some of them are nylon based and the wax is kind of washable. So none of them have supports either (laughs).
M: Wow! That’s amazing. Now, you obviously consider LACE as a ramification of architecture right? How do people around you see it?
J: I mean… I see LACE as architecture on the body, and I think that people really like that and understand. When you think about the earrings they’re just a subtle twist that we work and think of lines. Jewelry is just the assembly of lines that are twisting into each other. Working on the edge conditions to create the edges, and I think people appreciate that and understand that, that they can see the details in the jewelry comes from our sensibility in architecture.
M: That’s amazing. I love how the concept of lines has always been there throughout all the work you have done! Okay the final question, and I know you mentioned this a bit, but what is a piece of advice you want to give a student? The most important thing for you.
J: There are many. But I think that when you’re in school it’s really all learning about how to think of design and architecture. And all that learning will translate into all aspects of your life, potentially outside of architecture. I would try to get as many of those different perspectives as I can because if you end up being an industrial designer, and interior designer, or something else, all the things you learn in architecture school will translate into what you do later. Maybe sometimes students also have anxiety of the practical aspects of learning everything about the profession, but those will come and you will get to learn that, but in school you should focus on really absorbing all of these different influences and find who you are.
M: Thank you! Thank you, that’s really amazing advice. Thank you so much for sharing everything that you know, how you started… It’s honestly incredible where you are now, you’re an inspiration. Thank you a lot.
J: I really appreciate that, and great work on The Archiologist, these different platforms are so great for students to see what’s out there and get a sense of different ideas.
M: Yeah! And with this podcast also, you know they can learn from successful people think about what they’re doing, how they started. Because sometimes as students we see these people as unreachable and it’s amazing to learn from them.
J: Yeah, I get it. Well, thank you for having me and thank you for inviting me to talk.