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Meet Knowhow Shop: Wood Whisperers and Curbed Young Guns

Justin Rice and Kagan Taylor have spent the last few years doing weird things with wood, and people are taking notice. They met while in UCLA's Masters of Architecture program, where they worked together on a group project creating a skateboard deck with the molded-plywood construction of the leg splint Charles and Ray Eames designed for the U.S. Navy during World War II. Per their project description, the result was "almost completely disassociated with its original inspirations," but "can be read in the lineage of molded plywood construction and traditional and digital craft."

The same forces are at work in the giant-comb bike racks, off-kilter office furniture, and unconventional restaurant interiors they've produced since graduating in 2010 and co-founding L.A.'s Knowhow Shop. The design-build studio's body of work is all about using "unusual forms for very usual things," as Justin puts it, through a mixture of digital fabrication and traditional crafting techniques, with material feedback embedded throughout the design process.

"We don't design without materials," Kagan explains over the phone. "We don't design entirely in the computer and expect the translation to be seamless. We design with real material that has its own quirks." One very legible example of what he's talking about is the patio furniture the pair created for the L.A. location of film editing studio Whitehouse Post. They weren't the first to carve wood to look sort-of like upholstery, but the puckers in the torched redwood panels they used for benches were CNC-milled from exposed knots in the wood. They also created a "client table" for the firm based on midcentury designs they admired, but with a section-cut dividing the bench from the table, so that the detailing on each matches up.

Kagan has a background in woodworking. After high school, he enrolled at Seattle Central College's Wood Construction Center, later working as a carpenter, cabinetmaker, and as part of another L.A.-based design-build studio, before an interest in "scaling craft to spaces and environments" and led him to enroll at UCLA.

Justin attended Texas Tech's architecture program as an undergrad, where he became "more and more interested in the digital side of design." At UCLA, he enrolled in as many tech seminars as he could, where he was using CNC routers and 3D printers to flush out and create mockups of architectural elements. The pair's differing digital-analogue specialities were more pronounced at first, but now their roles depend on how the project or the workday is shaping up. "To be fair," cracks Justin, "Kagan he does know how to use a computer."

Even with a masters, 2010 wasn't a great year to launch a career in architecture. "No one was getting jobs and everyone was getting fired" says Justin. "We didn't want to go out there and fight our friends for jobs that weren't going to be worth it, where we weren't going to have authorship over our own work anyway." They trace their firm's interests and specialties, including curve-bending wood, and applying techniques from tailoring—shaping the wainscoting in Echo Lake Coffee Co. the "way you would a suit to pull away from the walls in key areas"—to one of those UCLA tech seminars they took together. After the Eames Splint seminar came the "splint for a splint" they designed in a follow-up independent study, one of the school projects "we didn't quite get closure on. Continuing that work and that research was one of the goals of this practice."

When the pair founded Knowhow—which is around the corner from L.A.'s Slow Culture gallery, which they later helped design—they were operating on what Kagan calls a "super-diversified model of business." Knowhow's "fabrication lab" took on any sort of work that would pay the bills, serving as a kind of community woodshop to people interested in making their own things. Now, after "honing in on our own architectural agenda," they have one employee who does much of the fabrication work, and the shop is mainly devoted to their own projects. Right now their ongoing projects include a two-headed donation box for D.C.'s Natural History Museum, based on the idea that museum employees' could have secret curio cabinets full of things like deformed animals floating in formaldehyde.

Still, as fabricators, they've made objects for clients like Gehry Partners and Facebook. Much of the fabrication work they take on is for artists, because as Kagan tells it, "artists tend to have interesting problems," of the kind that can "expand our capacity to make things" and the "techniques that we have access to."

Sometimes artists make use of the full scope of Knowhow's design-build capabilities, like Susan Silton, who tasked Justin and Kagan with creating a table that would accommodate 10 volunteers retyping John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, for an installation called "In Everything There is a Trace" at the USC Fischer Museum. They designed 10 individual tables that were all missing a leg, thus requiring the support of neighboring tables, with joints marked by the "physical break of the material and the continuation of the grain across that seam from one table to the other, creating an assembly that is only whole when all tables are joined together."

These days, Knowhow is designing and building more interiors than ever. Justin calls it a "kind of self-perpetuating thing. You do one restaurant and you get hired to do another and another, and then you're the restaurant guys. And that's not necessarily who we want to be." Since the beginning, the goal has been to keep scaling up.

"This is kind of heretical but we're not quite interested in good craftsmanship," says Kagan. "We're interested in pushing traditional craftsmanship methods almost to their limits." They can't wait to get a house order, "or even a backhouse," where you might see the ideas behind Knowhow's off-kilter kids' bedroom writ larger. It might, as Justin's described a very Knowhow picnic table, "wear its domesticity kind of uncomfortably. Or poorly. It's not quite a right fit."

The Pie Hole, the Spice Store, and a door for Mt. Washington Pottery, all created by Knowhow in 2014.