The Art of the Family Business
How did Block Shop first begin?
HS: In 2010 Lily’s life as an artist was beginning to take off, and she moved with her husband to Jaipur to study under a master miniature painter. She met an entrepreneurial young block printer, Vijendra Chhipa, through a mutual friend, and they started collaborating on designs for unstructured paintings, which eventually became our signature oversized scarf. I visited six months later, and the three of us decided to print a few hundred scarves to sell online. We never did any advertising, it was all word of mouth, and before long our apartments were packed with inventory and boxes–pure madness.
LS: After Hopie and I finished graduate school (she for her MBA and I for my MFA) we moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles, where we joined the thriving design world downtown. In 2013 we found a small, beautiful studio we could afford in a hundred-year-old Beaux-Arts bank building, and expanded onto the 11th floor last year. After years of running Block Shop out of crappy grad school apartments it’s still a dream to come to work every day to our luminous space.
Take us through your process, from start to finish.
We sketch our designs in watercolor, then translate them to scale onto graph paper, which Raju, our head carver, carves into wooden printing blocks. We push the limits of the craft by using the largest blocks possible in order to achieve a geometric scale that makes our patterns distinct and modern. Everything is hand block printed, using natural dyes whenever possible. It’s a very manual process.
How did the working relationship with the vendors and craftspeople you work with in India form? What inspired you to work with Indian makers, specifically, and how has working with them extended your understanding of the medium?
LS: I’m an artist, and I was living in Jaipur in 2010 with my husband studying Indian miniature painting. I found my way to Bagru while researching traditional hand block printing with natural dyes. What started as an art project slowly grew into a full-fledged business. It was a very organic process.
HS: The collaborative and familial aspect of block printing in Bagru is what makes Block Shop tick; working in person with our team is why we love our job. Printing in Bagru happens inside people’s home workshops, so there’s lots of debating, joking, and shared work. Arguing about designs over chai in the mornings continues to be our favorite aspect of hand block printing; it’s where the design magic happens.
How do you feel living in California and travel has played into or shaped your work?
LS: Hopie and I are draw inspiration from the art and architecture of our surroundings in Southern California – David Hockney’s obsession with its colors and light; R.M. Schindler and the early modernist architecture of LA; the pastel homestead cabins of the nearby Mojave Desert. And there are unexpected aesthetic parallels between LA and Jaipur which creep into the language of our designs in the form of shape (marble mosaics, Art Deco movie palaces) and color (salmon pink, earthy ochre, faded indigo).
You’re now six years into founding the studio, how has your approach or setup changed, if at all?
HS: We started Block Shop in 2013, and while we’ve had a lot of growth in the managerial and administrative aspects of our business, our design process is the same as it was in the very beginning... same watercolor sketches, same obsession with hand block printing and natural dyes, same community in Bagru. We are an extremely analog design company. Our influences, inspiration, and interest in pushing the boundaries of block printing have evolved, but we continue to design in the same geometric language we started with.
What’s been the most exciting and/or challenging part of running your own business?
HS: Exciting: 1. Our twice-yearly trips to India. Our team of master printers, carvers and dyers are like family at this point, so it’s really a homecoming. I see Vijendra’s kids more often than my own cousins. The design possibilities are bursting at the seams here inJaipur. We dream of block printed robes and kites, massive woven floor pillows, painted ceramics and even brass cutlery. We have to reign in the excitement with each new trip. Challenging: Bootstrapping. Growing thoughtfully and deliberately, but holding out on raising money.
Tell us about the philanthropic aspect of Block Shop.
We make heirloom textiles that have high social benefit and low environmental impact. We donate 5% of our profits towards community healthcare initiatives. These initiatives always stem from community needs assessments (i.e. identifying gaps in currently available healthcare via interviews with our printers and their families). Our first initiative was a mobile general healthcare clinic and eye care clinic, which included providing glasses for 78 and cataract surgeries for 8 members of our community. Our second initiative was providing reverse osmosis and UV water tanks and water filters in the homes of all 18 members of our printing co-op. Our third initiative is monthly health education programs for the women and children in Bagru.
As sisters, what’s the best part of being able to work with each other?
HS: We both design, and we both run different aspects of day-to-day business. Working together as sisters is so refreshing because there’s no political maneuvering or diplomacy required, we’re just straightforward with each other.We get on the same wavelength through music. We get really into 1960s Bollywood classics like Kishor Kumar when we’re printing with our team in India—everyone sings along–so now we love to listen to that when we’re designing in LA. When we’re designing, we get into a zone of passing the sketchbook back and forth, a kind of Mobius strip of a design process, and then building on it and ending up with something beautiful. It’s extremely productive and sisterly. It actually makes the day-to-day work environment quite peaceful; Block Shop work is like our haven from life’s other stresses. Of course we’ll get into run-of-the-mill sister spats from time to time, but we always come out on the same team.
What's next? What are you currently working on?
HS: We’re working on a wild table linen line, launching this Spring. Also excited about a new line of Alexander Girard-inspired quilts.