There is always a new frontier in LA and currently it might be Inglewood. The revival of the LA Forum, and the start this year of construction on both the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line and the former Hollywood Park (being turned into a mix of parks and residences); these on top of a vaunted arts district are indicators that Inglewood is on the rise.
One designing couple that has firmly committed to the city is Onna Ehrlich and Joel Bell. Onna, a designer of handbags, and her husband and business partner Joel, an industrial designer with his own company JBID, made their home four years ago in a renovated Rudolf Schindler house in Inglewood.
But they ran their design and manufacturing businesses in locations in Culver City and downtown. Now the business is coming under one roof with the launch this week of a design studio and factory on West Beach Avenue. There, together with a staff of around 14 designers and sewers, they will produce their “Luxe” line of handbags, as well as Joel’s products.
DnA spoke to the couple and learned about the hidden treasures of Inglewood, melding influences, and the advantages of keeping design and manufacturing in the same place.
DnA: Tell us about your background, Onna. You are the daughter of LA architect Steven Ehrlich, and Grace Okozala, who met in the mid-1970s when Steven was working as architect and teacher in Nigeria following a stint in the Peace Corps.
OE: I was raised in Nigeria by my mother, a businesswoman. I grew up an Ehrlich and I was always his child and Steven supported me his whole life and even though he wasn’t physically there, he was always there for me. My biological mother passed when I was 16 (in a car accident) and after that Steve said it’s time for you to come here and I met him for the first time as an adult. I moved to LA to meet him and to go to college. I went to Art Center and that’s where I met Joel.
DnA: To what do you owe your creativity: the family genes?
OE: I grew up being creative and drawing and I excelled in drawing and I won a lot of national competitions in Nigeria for my age group. But it was also challenging because it was a culture that didn’t encourage creativity at that time; it’s changed since then.
My mother was different and was very forward-thinking and she enrolled me in art classes and really encouraged it. Also, I grew up seeing Steven’s work and thought, oh, I would like to be an architect one day.
DnA: But you ended up on a different design path?
OE: I had always drawn women in clothing and fashion; and handbags had crossed my path in Nigeria. One summer, my mom enrolled me in a factory, to learn a vocation; I told my mom I wanted to learn about handbags. It was one of those things I forgot about and then years later realized I’d had an early interest in handbags.
But then I moved out here and did my first two years at Santa Monica College and fell in love with Art Center and part of the application process is that they look at your work and place you, and the fine art department was where I was placed.
DnA: Why do you think you are drawn to designing handbags?
OE: What woman does not like a handbag? There is so much satisfaction when we see how excited a woman gets when she picks up a handbag she likes.
However, we started with shoes and that’s a little complicated because you have to worry about the fit, but with a handbag it’s almost like a canvas and you end up with a product that can end up in the hands of many users.
DnA: Tell us about the Luxe line.
The LA Luxe line was a line where we wanted to have fun and not worry too much about practicality, but use more rich leather, lots of textures, and laser cutting. A lot the inspiration comes from my Nigerian heritage while Joel’s is industrial design.
DnA: It’s interesting to hear you say there’s a Nigerian influence as that doesn’t seem immediately obvious in these bags that have a more Beverly Hills feel.
OE: For me it’s the subtle details. If you look closely you see the cutout, which takes its cues from the woven fabric design of Nigeria; at the same time we are keeping it classic, clean, and modern. This should be something you can go into your closet and use years from now. But it’s a global brand and we want to speak to a global audience. You see a clean clutch, and a gorgeous model carrying it; it’s really no different from any other high end product.
Joel Bell: Our mission statement is to have clean and simple classic lines and textures. I like to go on the 20 year principle, if it looked good 20 years ago and still looks good today then it will look good 20 years from now. With handbags we know that people use them for a season and we want the people who buy our products to still pull them out 20 years from now.
DnA: Tell us about the move to Inglewood.
My husband Joel and I started the company about ten years ago; we were working in Culver City and we opened a factory in downtown Los Angeles and to approve something as simple as thread you’d have to drive downtown.
So we knew we had to consolidate everything under one roof. One of our commitments is to keep everything manufactured in Los Angeles. We own our own factory, you will see all the machines, the bags are assembled here. Our LA Luxe line is exclusively made in Los Angeles; some other product lines are made overseas.
We looked in Inglewood and found this space and bought it and put both of our companies in here and it’s very exciting.
DnA: It sounds like this is not a sweatshop. How do you find your skilled sewers?
OE: It’s a specific skill to sew leather or assemble a handbag. It’s sort of a generational thing; you are not finding them in the younger generation so when you have a really good sewer you hang on to them. Our space is extremely far from a sweatshop. It’s a huge 4800 square feet space and from my office I can look back and see everyone working, our entire staff of sewers, cutters, designers, creative team, and people in charge of logistics and shipping.
Our factory workers sit on Herman Miller chairs; we are family, we all sit down and eat together.
DnA: This is your high-end line. Do your lower-cost lines get made by lower-skilled sewers where labor is cheaper?
OE: Our classic line is not made in Los Angeles because the type of volume that we need is very difficult to achieve in high volume here. Our Inglewood space has capacity for a run in the 300s per week — but we manufacture larger runs overseas.
DnA: You are kicking off with fanfare; the launch Thursday will be attended by the Inglewood Mayor James Butts, Jr.
OE: Launching the LA Luxe line and our new factory is a way of shining a light in Inglewood and the creativity taking place here.
DnA: So where is the creativity to be found?
OE: I think at the moment there are several pockets where there are several things happening; you have a North Inglewood residential area where people live in beautiful homes;you get that nice ocean breeze that you get in Santa Monica and Culver City and on a really, really clear day when you drive to the Marina you can see the ocean.
Then there’s the newly opened LA Forum. Then there’s the industrial area where we are, close to City Hall, and then there’s an art district, spread around on La Brea and other streets.
JB: For us Inglewood is a great place. We love this side of LA; it is where Culver City was about ten years ago and there is a lot of urban renewal happening here. Before we were running between Inglewood and LA and Culver City but I don’t think we could have found our building there and not had a bunch of other companies trying to grab it as well. So we felt very lucky, that this is a hidden gem and people are starting to recognize it for what it is.
DnA: Inglewood has a reputation for crime and poor schools. Have you found that?
OE: We feel completely safe; we live in this little pocket that nobody really knows about and right across from us is a fire academy and it’s so safe. It’s true that schools are not great; but I have been told that they are working on it; a lot of young families and people with children are moving in so something will happen.
DnA: Joel, you are an industrial designer, raised in Pasadena and schooled at Art Center College of Design. What products do you design?
JB: I have designed many different types of products, medical equipment, fitness equipment, we’ve done home-goods, we’ve done things like water bottles and electronic equipment, really any type of equipment from furniture to handbags.
DnA: Handbags seem quite different from electronic goods and furniture?
JB: It’s true that I now know more about fashion and fashion accessories than I ever thought I would being a product designer. But you find the fun in designing anything. So it could be a pen or a computer or a telephone. There’s always that fun aspect. Handbags are a challenge in getting a great look and feel, especially in LA, where there is a lot of competition, but at the same time we are kids in a candy store because of all the leathers available here. Everything you need to make a handbag is here.
DnA: And you work on the bag company and your other products?
JB: It’s a juggle and though I wouldn’t call it multitasking what Onna and I learned at Art Center is to be able to work in different areas in spurts. So I might spend time on a meeting with a client then get a chance to have a coffee and take a break to discuss buying a new machine or where to get our zippers or we will have periodic conversations with a junior designer to make sure they are on task with the factory. It’s not really multitasking; it’s bursts of small tasks.
DnA: What are the rewards of keeping this a husband-wife business?
OE: I couldn’t do this by myself; it is such a team effort. We were dating right out of college and Joel has worked and funded the company while I worked fulltime developing the company. It’s very rare because not a lot of couples get to work together for so long and believe it or not when we get home I still want to chat and have so much to talk with him about.
JB: It can be difficult to be a designer; if it was easy, everybody would do it. I feel very lucky to be a working designer in Los Angeles and to have clients and do work and be a business owner and work with my wife every day.
To follow the launch of the business: #OELALUXE Hashtag for event; all photographs by company photographer Miranda Brackett except image above right, of Onna Ehrlich holding “Sade” red leather, fringed bag; photo by the company’s Creative Director Jill McDonald. For more on their companies, check out Joel’s work here; and Onna’s bags, here.