Three women found in the ancient sites of Peru the seeds of their future business…
Like Penelope’s Stories, our designer, KUI believes in storytelling. When they talk about stories, however, they talk specifically about the conceptual inspiration behind each of their creations. Each collection has a theme, and begins with an inspiration board that is populated with whatever is relevant to that theme: signature colors that dovetail with industry color trends; locations that have inspired them; arresting images; symbols; and just things, be it seashells, or birds, or flowers. These are then framed within a ‘story’ that adds depth and inner meaning to the collection as it evolves.
KUI’s own story, however, began in Peru. Yuki, Yuko and Ai Ito share a love of the decorative arts and a passion for the inspirational potential inherent in color and design. The idea for their business has its roots in a visit to Cusco and Machu Picchu. Perhaps the marriage of the artistic traditions of South America and Japan sounds surprising and exotic. But Peru boasts the second largest Japanese population in South America, and both cultures pride themselves on their ancient artistic heritage, vibrant folklore, and refined craftsmanship.
Cusco itself is a place where two cultures meet, a World Heritage site where massive Inca stonework and elegant Spanish colonial architecture stand side by side over narrow cobblestone streets, and the subtle scent of mate de coca, the tea famous for helping alleviate altitude sickness, wafts from teashops and food stalls. Inside La Catedral, the cathedral in the central Plaza de Armas, the art collection clearly illustrates how intertwined these cultures are: the escuela cuzqueña (Cusco School) combines a 17th century European devotional painting style with the color palette and iconography of the indigenous Andean people. Twin this with the mystical vibes of Machu Picchu and you have fertile territory for a hungry imagination and the spiritually receptive.
Given the origin of their story, it should also come as no surprise that a fundamental spirituality underpins the philosophy of KUI, for whom quality of life is very much a reflection of one’s state of mind. They are acutely sensitive to the power with which the senses can be touched in multiple ways by the actions of nature. The whisper of a breeze, the lapping of waves on a beach, the play of crystalline sunlight on water are things that resonate internally. KUI believe that this kind of inner serenity can be captured by something beautiful—a piece of jewelry with a unique alchemy of color and texture—that in turn stimulates similar feelings for the wearer.
Color theory, too, is interwoven in the philosophy of KUI. For them, color is part of a holistic process: a combination of the abstract—their unique artistic approach—and the physical—the color, pattern, and texture that work together in a single piece to evoke a particular sensory response. KUI work with Miyuki beads, tiny glass beads that come in rainbow shades of color, and are known for their ability to emulate fabric in the seamless way they can fit together. Miyuki beads, made in Japan, China, India and the Czech Republic, are known for their brilliance, size, and uniformity of shape, as well as for their color.
KUI’s desire is to bring a little of old tradition and ethnic sensibility to the chic, urban environments of big cities like New York. But they also have deep commitment to the environment, for which we need to take responsibility, now, and for future generations. The three founders are deeply respectful of Nature, and see each of their creations as a way of giving back. Where possible they work with recycled products: from the raw materials used for their jewelry—like the vinyl beads that come from recycled vinyl records in Africa—to wrapping materials and office supplies. Their personal concerns dictate much of their focus: they are working to limit the amount of metal used in their products in response to concerns about the depletion of natural resources and the impacts of mining; they support the WWF as part of an effort to preserve endangered species and ecosystems; and conscientiousness about the amount of travel in today’s global marketplace means that they use the Myclimate carbon offset program, supporting two climate protection projects: solar lighting in rural Ethiopia; and energy-efficient cooking stoves in the Siaya region of western Kenya.
People are just as important to KUI. While Man poses the greatest dangers to the environment, he is also capable of extraordinarily refined craftsmanship. KUI find skilled artisans by networking within the design/artisan industry, and train them specially to work with the tiny, delicate, fragile beads that are the principle element of KUI creations. The work demands patience, attention to detail, and consciousness of the high standards of quality that are required by the founders. Their next goal is to provide opportunities to people with disabilities by training them in the artisanal crafts that are necessary to their business.
KUI is a blend of commitment to design aesthetic, traditional processes, and innovative thinking. Their work illustrates how two very different influences can be successfully combined to produce something that has a natural and effortless kind of beauty. But like many beautiful and valuable things, their work is deceptively simple, and defined by far more than creativity and talent. In one pretty beaded earring is a complex mix of vision, patience, an eye for color, a feeling for harmony, an appreciation of subtlety, and a deep respect for nature. Not that simple at all.