Design inspiration at the Stephen Kenn Studio

Great coffee, and great design go hand-in-hand, especially when sustainability, intention, community, and days to rest and reset, are kept top of mind. We chatted with Stephen Kenn and Beks Opperman, of LA-based Stephen Kenn Studio, about how they integrate all of these elements into their design work, travel, and daily routines. 

How did you get in to furniture building, and expressing yourself creatively through this type of functional art?

Beks: Stephen has been working in design since graduating high school. He initially started in denim (creating a few different denim brands with a close friend), then moved into designing bags, and then moving into furniture. The transitions have always been about curiosity – exploring new materials, or a new form, or a new way to tell a story with a product. Stephen always did previous companies with investors, and other partners, as the business management side of things was not his first love. For me. the transition happened later. After 10 years working in health care, I was ready for something new. I proposed we start a design studio together, with no other partner or investor. I would run the business, do strategy, marketing, and sales, and he would do all the design, and oversee production. With a whole lot of bumps in the road, it slowly started to work, and seven years later, we’re still at it!

How did your furniture designs give way to your line of bags, The Remanufactured Collection

Stephen: I was a bag maker before I was a furniture maker, so moving back into bag design was an easy thing. We’d been using vintage military canvas for upholstery for many years, and had stockpiled many bins of scrap material leftovers. Pieces too small to use for upholstery, but too interesting and unique to throw away. My partner Beks kept insisting I come up with something to do with them, and I finally hit on the idea of quilting some pieces together, and then adding vintage hardware pieces that I have collected over the years. It’s been a really fun project. I love that every bag is unique, and not quite like any other, and that the production will always be extremely limited due to us only using scraps, when we have them.

What is your routine on a work day? How does this differ on a day off? Do you have specific routines that stick with you no matter what? 

Beks: We usually get up at 5:30. Stephen goes swimming, I go running with our dog. We are in the studio most weekdays from 8am-5pm. Sometimes later, of course, when it is needed. On weekends we usually spend Saturdays meeting with clients in our showroom space, or sketching new ideas and doing studio projects. We take Sundays off work completely and go to church in the morning, then spend the rest of the day resting, reading, or taking a motorcycle ride in the mountains. We both love routine, but with owning a studio, manufacturing in LA, and running a showroom, there are many times when the routine gets thwarted and we have to adjust.The one thing we almost never skip is our Sunday off. Rest is essential to survival as a business owner, and if we don’t take that one day, we really struggle to work well for the rest of the week.

You refer to yourself as a design studio that creates products for home and travel. How do you create a feeling of home when you are on the road? What is your favorite bag from The Remanufactured Collection to travel with? 

Stephen: We love to bring some home with us when we travel. We bring some of Beks’ whisky collection with us in our Dram Kit (new product coming out in a few months), and we usually bring some good coffee beans, and an Aeropress if we are going to a place we aren’t sure we can find a good cup of coffee. 

Beks: Bringing bags from our own collections (Encounter and Remanufactured) always feels like bringing a bit of home with us when we travel. I like to carry the RE-MFRD Backpack or Tote Bag, and Stephen usually brings his Encounter Collection Backpack in Black leather.

Your craft seems so thoughtful! We have to do you brew your coffee at home? Or on the road?  

Stephen: Well, lately we have been totally in love with our Ratio coffee maker for home use. We love a good Chemex, but the Ratio makes it so easy to brew and (dare I say it?), tastes a bit better than the Chemex batches we were brewing before. On the road, we usually use an Aeropress with a reusable steel filter. We have a great little hand grinder from Snowpeak that is easy to pack and bring anywhere. We usually bring some beans with us, just in case we can’t find something great on the road.

As a designer, what do you look for in a great coffee shop?

Stephen: We love the small, quirky places that just ooze “local spot.” Good design is always a plus, but really it’s about the vibe. Friendly people, a little coffee nerdery, and good music.

Creating community seems to be top of mind at Stephen Kenn Studio! Can you tell us more about the Stephen Kenn Loft, Back Door Coffee Club, and Back Door Cocktail Club? What are your future plans for building/creating community in your space? 

Beks: We’ve just finished our new showroom space, Stephen Kenn Loft. It’s a fully designed loft apartment that will function as a place for us to show our work in a home setting, alongside work by some designer friends of ours like Allied Maker and Humble Ceramics. At some point, we will start allowing potential clients to stay overnight there, to really get up close and personal with the designs before they choose what they want to buy. We’ll also host dinners and cocktail parties there, mostly for the design and architecture community.

Back Door Coffee Club (and Cocktail Club) was a project we started seven years ago as a way to engage with our local DTLA community. We open up the back door of our loft space (where we live), and serve coffee or cocktails to anyone who comes by. Its been a great way to meet people and to foster good community in our city. Los Angeles is a big, wild place to live,and sometimes it can be hard to find a good group of people to invest in relationship with. BDCC is meant to be a place to help people find good community. We’re honored to have the opportunity to do that for our neighbors.

Photos:  Amy Bartlam (@amybartlam)

Web: Stephen Kenn Studio

Instagram: Stephen Kenn, Beks Opperman, and Stephen Kenn Loft