Almost everyone in America has fond childhood memories of playing with Lego—and this sense of joy, connection and nostalgia is exactly what jeweler Emiko Oye draws on in her work. Using colorful, repurposed Lego, Emiko creates one-of-a-kind and ready-to-wear pieces that delight the wearer. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about why Lego became her medium of choice, how she works with a trademarked material, and why her latest work combines Lego and mindfulness. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is award-winning art jeweler Emiko Oye, who is known for her jewelry made from repurposed Legos. Her work has been exhibited all over the world. Today, she’ll tell us about her own jewelry journey and how she came to work with materials we all remember from childhood. Emiko, welcome to the program.
Emiko: Hi Sharon. I’m so glad to be here talking with you this morning.
Sharon: It’s so great to talk to you. I’ve seen your work so often, and it’s great to be talking. I want to hear the whole story. Tell us about your jewelry journey. Did you like jewelry when you were a child? Did you work with paints or acrylics and then segue into jewelry? How did that come about?
Emiko: I’ve always been a maker and an artist. I was focused on fashion when I was growing up. I always thought I’d be a fashion designer. It’s interesting; I was talking to Nikki Couppee a few months ago when we did our talk together for AJF, and we both remembered that we loved costume jewelry from our parents and grandparents. I remember I had a great aunt whose house my parents now live in, and she had this great box of colorful, sparkly costume jewelry that I just adored. I wore it everywhere, and we’d play dress up with my friends. I think that influenced me in the back of mind, now that I think about it.
I did take some enameling in high school and then went to Syracuse to do metalsmithing, although that wasn’t the intention. I fell into metalsmithing from being a printmaking major and a fashion design major, and I thought, “Hey, a great way to get a degree is to make jewelry.” Everyone seemed to be having so much fun in the room next door to the printmaking room. I was like, “I want to do that.”
Sharon: The printmaking and everything was at Syracuse University?
Emiko: Right, I started with printmaking and then I thought, “I don’t know if this is for me. It’s so labor-intensive.” I was doing lithography with big stones. My heart was really in the fashion design program, but that wasn’t part of the visual arts college, which was the college I was in. They hadn’t quite teamed up yet and figured that out. That was after I left. So, I did this double major for a while and ended up falling in love with costume design for the theatre. It was almost like two majors and a minor. I was a crazy person in college.
Sharon: It sounds busy. Design majors spend so much time on their work it seems. I looked at being a design major at one time, and I remember they really warned me about how much time it took. College takes time; that’s true, but they told me how much time it really took. To do all of that, you must have been jumping from one to the other.
Emiko: I was, yes. I lived in the studio, pretty much. I would go from one end of the campus to the other to go to the studios. Then on the side, I was into dance, because I had grown up taking dance lessons. That was a big creative outlet for me. I was part of a dance company, and I combined all those elements together while I was at Syracuse, making costumes and jewelry for my dance performances. I left Syracuse wanting to be a performance artist, which is crazy when I think about it now.
Sharon: Wow! Out of all those, it’s still down to one thing. When did you first become attracted to Legos?
Emiko: That took a while. Right after Syracuse, I decided to get the heck out of Syracuse because the snow was driving me insane. The years I was there had the worst recorded weather in the history of Syracuse. I was like, “No more snow for me. Let’s go to the West Coast.” That’s when the jewelry career started to sink in. I came out here—I’m still in San Francisco—to do theatre design. I did that for a while, and I realized this is also a lot of work and not much money. I found myself doing black box theatre. I stumbled upon the Metal Arts Guild, which is a nonprofit that has been in existence since 1951, and I met a community of great folks. Tina Rath was the president at the time and Julie Turner was the VP. I was like, “You can actually make a living being a jeweler?” I had no clue. That got me going on the path.
I spent 10 years figuring out what my material was, and it was mostly plastics. It wasn’t until 10 years into my jewelry career that I discovered the joy of Lego, which is now my primary medium. I discovered it through working with Harriete Estel Berman. She was recently on a program for New York City Jewelry Week with Jerry Scott –earlier in November, actually—through the book that Susan Cummins helped with. What is it called? “Influx: American Jewelry and Counterculture.” Harriete was a huge influence on me as an artist. She’s the one who put that little seed in my brain to check out the Lego store at the mall down the street.
Sharon: Do you remember what the seed was? Did she say, “Look at alternative things”? What did she say?
Emiko: I do remember. I was working with recycled plexiglass. There’s this great warehouse here in San Francisco called Skrak. A lot of companies bring their refuse there, and the public can bring odds and ends. I was digging through the plastic bins and doing production work at the time, so I was spending a lot of time cutting and polishing plexiglass pieces. Harriete thought I was nuts, and she said, “Not much return for all of this labor you’re putting into it. If you’re doing these plastic pieces, why don’t you check out Lego?” She said that because her son, at the time, was really into Lego. He was of Lego age and there was Lego all over the house. It was on her mind, and that’s all it took. I went there. The Lego Store had just opened up in the mall, and it was like going to the promised land. It was around 2007, and they had this huge wall, the pick-a-brick wall, where the whole back wall is full of clear bins of all the colors, like in a candy store.
Sharon: I want to stop and ask a couple of questions. What is black box theatre? What do you mean by that?
Emiko: Black box theatre is smaller productions, usually community-run. They call them black box because the whole theatre is painted black on the inside. It’s small community groups doing shows, not big city-run productions, but smaller works that eventually make their way up.
Sharon: And when you say you were doing production work, going through the plastic bins—which sounds like a lot of fun—what do you mean? When jewelers say they’re doing production work, it means they’re doing something they can give to a manufacturer or another place that can do multiples.
Emiko: That is an aspect of it, but I was doing it more as a bread-and-butter fashion jewelry business. I like to toe the line between one-of-a-kind, bigger conceptual works that would go to a show, an exhibition, a museum or gallery, and I also like to tinker around in ready-to-wear for anybody down the street. Bracelets, earrings, simple things that are more accessible to the broader public. That’s what I mean by production jewelry.
Sharon: But the work you do is one of a kind. You do it all yourself, right? Even if there are smaller pieces, my impression is that you’re doing it all yourself.
Emiko: I am now. I used to have assistants when I was at the height of doing more ready-to-wear work, just because I couldn’t keep up with the volume of it, which was a great problem to have.
Sharon: Yes, but you’re not sending it out for anybody else to do; it’s all being done in house.
Emiko: Right, yeah.
Sharon: I’m curious, from a business perspective, were there any trademark issues with Lego? Did you have to overcome any obstacles there?
Emiko: I was fortunate that Lego is such a welcoming company in terms of how people use their product. Right away in the beginning, I asked—I think I was talking to people that were working in the Lego Store back in 2006. I was like, “Hey, do you know if Lego has any problem with people using their product to make other products to sell?” and she said, “No, not once you buy the product, as long you’re not being a direct competitor to Lego.” If I’m not trying to make my own tower sets or castle sets and sell them, they’re really welcoming to use it. The only caveat they have—and they did approach me when they found out about me—is that I don’t use their trademarked name in my own business name. So, I can’t use Lego; I can’t say “Emiko Lego Jewelry” is my company.
Sharon: You use their logo—not in your name, I understand—but isn’t it on some of your ads or your website? I thought I saw it associated with you.
Emiko: I have collaborated with Lego. I was very fortunate to serendipitously make a connection with Lego. It was actually at LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for the “Beyond Bling” show, the Lois Boardman collection, because I had a piece in that show. We went to dinner afterwards to celebrate, just my husband and I, and we ended up sitting next to these employees from Lego, from the headquarters in Denmark, that were shooting a rock video with this teenage girl band. We had a conversation because I was wearing this huge, big piece. Normally I wouldn’t wear it out to dinner, but I was wearing it because of the show. We struck up a conversation, and all of a sudden I’m collaborating with the Lego Corporation.
Sharon: Wow! Did you consider the trademark issues before you started, or did it come up in the course of what you were doing?
Emiko: Because of my early contact with them and them saying, “Hey, you can’t use our name in your business name,” I was able to find out there was no issue trademark-wise for me using the work, unlike Disney or Mattel with Barbie, anything like that. I know there are huge issues with those brands, for sure, and I’ve had some people I know run into issues with those companies. I was like, “Oh, I don’t want any part of that problem. Let’s make sure I don’t have that kind of problem.” Lego is very welcoming to the public being imaginative with their products.
Sharon: Wow, that’s great. What’s your advice to somebody like you, a jeweler or an artist, who’s going to be working with a branded product. What would your advice be to them?
Emiko: Definitely do some research online to foresee if there are artists that use that material. See if they’re willing to talk to you about their experience with the company, or try to find out if that company has issues with people using their products.
Sharon: For them to say, “You can use it; just don’t be a competitor” is really remarkable.
Emiko: And I had a really remarkable experience with them last November. They flew me out to London for this meeting because they were thinking about making Lego jewelry. I know they’ve been thinking about this for a few years now, but they hadn’t quite figured out the right way to do it. They tried it, I think, in the 70s or 80s without much success, so they wanted to bring me in as a guinea pig and help me get my jewelry out into a bigger market—that maybe wasn’t a traditional jewelry market—to see how it would work. They would back me and say I was sponsored or endorsed by Lego as an experiment to see if this jewelry thing would take off if I had more backing. Then Covid hit.
Sharon: So it’s to be continued like everything else in life.
Emiko: Right, but it was interesting that they were willing to work with someone. They were really excited about what I was doing, so I felt great about the endorsement by Lego.
Sharon: I hope the success of that continues once we get back to whatever normal is going to be. I know you’ve also exhibited your work all over the country and the world, and your work is exhibited in museums. Can you tell us about the highlights?
Emiko: Sure, the highlight reel. When I was first starting out, the focus was to get exposure. I learned through Harriete that getting into exhibitions meant you got some press in magazines and books and got good images, so I really went for it. I had other jobs in the industry that helped me learn how to be a better artist and businessperson, but getting into shows was my focus. I was lucky that I took good photographs of my work. That was a wall I had to scale to get into shows.
A pivotal show for me, when I first started using Lego, was called “Touching Warms the Art.” It was in 2008 at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, which sadly is no longer in existence. It was curated by Namita Gupta Wiggers, Rebecca Scheer, and Rachelle Thiewes. It was groundbreaking for the time, I think, because it was one of the first shows that incorporated audience interaction. Think about going to a museum and you’re not allowed to touch anything. You have to always stay six feet away, sort of like Covid standards. Don’t infect the art work. But this one, they wanted the artists to make work that could be interacted with. It was an interesting challenge, and that was what clicked on the light bulb for me to use Lego. I thought, “This is a material the public is supposed to play and interact with.” I spent a few days there watching the public interact and—
Sharon: I’m going to interrupt you for one minute. I want to ask—I couldn’t get the first names of the curators you mentioned.
Emiko: There were three curators, and it was Namita Gupta Wigger, who is a curator and scholar, and then two artists, Rachelle Thiewes and Rebecca Scheer.
Sharon: O.K., I’m sorry, go ahead.
Emiko: Seeing the public reaction to my work was the clincher for me. I was like, “This is it.” Because it was Lego material, I think it attracted people even more than just looking at my work. They were putting it on and being transformed. They took digital photos of everybody wearing the work and put it up online, so people could go home and see pictures of themselves wearing these extravagant pieces of art and then have conversations with their friends about it. It was introducing the public to this idea that jewelry can be something different and wearable. It can give you a different sense of who you are and bring something different out in you.
Sharon: It was a different conversation point.
Emiko: Yes, for sure. It was wonderful to have my piece in the “Beyond Bling” show at LACMA, as I mentioned before, and it’s now in the permanent collection there because of the Lois Boardman collection, because I met other collectors, and, of course, meeting Lego. I had my own solo shows, the first being at the Museum of Craft and Design here in San Francisco. Shortly after “Touching Warms the Art,” they thought it was such a fantastic concept that they wanted me to do something similar with my own work here in San Francisco. That was super exciting, and it really pushed me because I only had a few months to put it together. It was like creating a whole collection. That was my first royal jewels collection, which I think is some of my more iconic work.
Sharon: I’m sure people are floored by seeing this toy made into such interesting pieces—the jewelry, the earrings, the hairpieces. I’m saying hairpieces because we both know people who automatically put earrings in their hair or do something else with them.
Emiko: The fact that it reaches a broad range of people and cultures astounds me. And, of course, there are all the kids. It’s like they know; they have radar for Lego. They can sense it across the room. Then, of course, the parents enjoy it, because it reminds them of their kids or growing up themselves. Grandparents like it. It’s multi-generational and international, too. People come up to me and tell me their personal stories. Bottom line, it’s about connection for me.
Sharon: You also were chosen to do the pin for Art Jewelry Forum, AJF, a few years ago.
Sharon: How did that come about? That’s a lot of exposure there.
Emiko: That was a tremendous opportunity. I’m so grateful I had that. That was another point that catapulted my business, because it gave me that extra push to have assistants and be organized enough to keep them and keep them busy. It helped push my business further. We made all these pins; it was an insane amount of pins. It was a make-your-own pin, in a way. We created a base that was magnetized and then put on a few parts. We included a little bag of Lego accessory parts that people could play with on their own. When I travel around the world for different shows, or when I travel for pleasure and go into jewelry galleries or art galleries, people recognize me because of that pin, which is fantastic.
Sharon: We should explain to people that Art Jewelry Forum used to do an annual pin. They did it for three to five years, something like that. I don’t think they do it anymore. An artist would submit their ideas, and you were chosen for that.
Where do you want to take your business from here? Do you see yourself continuing with Lego? Are there other things you’ve thought about? Do you think you’re going to get tired of it at some point?
Emiko: No, there’s always so much for me to explore with Lego. They’re still producing new pieces and new colors, and it keeps me on my toes. I have shifted gears from doing ready-to-wear as a primary focus. I had a chunk of time when I was doing the craft circuit shows, the ACC, the American Craft Council Show, the Smithsonian Show, local shows, and then working with galleries to sell the work. I decided I wanted to focus more on limited edition pieces, one-of-a-kind pieces, series that had more of a narrative and a story to tell. The last couple of years, I’ve been focusing on what I call “2 Be Seen.” It’s a series. I think of it as mindfulness in art. Knowing that I enjoy the connection that Lego helps me create with the public, I wanted to layer on another story. Yoga, restorative yoga, and meditation have been a powerful part of my life, especially in these last few years, especially this year.
Sharon: You teach classes, don’t you?
Emiko: I do. I’m a certified yoga instructor. Restorative yoga has been a lifesaver for me, mostly because it’s this slower, more inward practice, where you’re not striving for anything. I feel like I’ve spent all my life as a type A person, like a chicken with its head cut off, which has helped me get to where I am. I wouldn’t do it differently if I did it over, but it was pushing me beyond my limit. At some point I was getting ready for a craft show, and I was like, “I can’t physically do this anymore.” It was literally killing me, and the job was starting to ebb out, doing this multitude and quantity of work.
So, I came into my work and said, “O.K., how can I weave in what I appreciate about my yoga practice, and let go and get more in touch with what I really want? How can I do that?” I thought I could tell a story through the Lego, bring people into this world I’m in and share tools with them. Mindfulness and nonviolent communication have been a strong focus for me the last couple of years. I’ve been using the Lego and doing this eye series, depicting people that are important in my life, people that have different stories to tell, and bringing that to the public for people to relate to. It’s so they can start to go inward and think about how they can find empathy and compassion for themselves and for others. That’s so crucial right now, being in a country that’s so divided. How can we come together and learn to listen to each other and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, so that we’re not just seeing everyone else as the other?
Sharon: Wow! I can see how that could transform your life, in terms of calming and adding to the creativity you have, when you can stop and let the ideas churn in you.
Emiko: Exactly. It’s leaving some space so something else can come in, because I was going nonstop. Working 18, 20-hour days for 20 years takes a toll.
Sharon: It sounds like a great combination between a creative outlet and a mindfulness outlet, or a spiritual, emotional, calming outlet. It sounds like a great combination. For everybody listening, we’ll have photos of Emiko’s work on our website as well as links to her website. Emiko, thank you so much for being here. It was great to talk to you.
Emiko: Thank you, Sharon. This was a joy.
Sharon: That’s all for today’s Jewelry Journey. Don’t forget we’ll have images posted on the website. You can find the podcast wherever you download podcasts, and please rate us. Please join us next time, when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thanks so much for listening.
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