“Everything happens behind your glasses,” Gai Gherardi says with a grin. “It’s such an honor to make something, design something that a life is going to happen behind.” She nods her head, proudly. She wears bright yellow glasses and is in a shiny checked rainbow shirt. She has on deep red lipstick and has tall bright white hair, which functions as a mohawk/cockatoo plume mashing.
She sits behind a small table that has a display of FRAMED: Greg Gorman for l.a.Eyeworks on one end and a collection of vintage Swiss army flashlights on the other. A wall of colorful glasses is behind her. Some stand on their temples, others rest upright on their frame fronts, a few are stacked atop of each other. The glasses appear posed for a family portrait behind one of their mothers, Gai. After all, she and business partner and BFF Barbara McReynolds designed them: they are the two women behind Los Angeles institution l.a.Eyeworks.
We sit in their Beverly Boulevard location, a futuristic retail space that is almost entirely white with very high ceilings and elaborate walls. Gai mentions that it is designed by Neil Denari as we begin our conversation. She also is sure to mention that her story is intertwined with Barbara’s: their histories and the history of l.a.Eyeworks are inseparable.
The two met in high school. Gai’s family had just settled in Huntington Beach after having a very mobile childhood (she mentioned she had attended twelve schools before getting to high school) and Barbara is a Southern California native. “She and I met when we were fifteen years old,” she says. “That was really when I began to live in the same place. It was the longest I had lived any place. I went to one high school and that was really where my friendship with Barbara began.”
“It was the sixties. My first job was at this great folk club there called The Golden Bear,” she continues, elaborating on the lifestyle that shaped them. “My first night there was with Lenny Bruce. He had a two week run and they closed the building down every time he performed. I learned a lot: it’s where I went to college. It was an incredible experience.” She worked at The Golden Bear’s ticket window for some time. The place became her and Barbara’s community. “I had to beg to be able to have that job,” she says with a laugh. “My dad even tried to bribe me by paying a dollar more an hour for me not to take the job.”
At that time, everything was relatively free. Life in 1960s Southern California was incredibly fluid. “You were doing what you were doing. If you wanted to get in your car and go to Mexico, you got in your car and went to Mexico,” Gai says. “And, if you were staying for a weekend but wanted to stay for three weeks, you stayed for three weeks. Life was that way! At one point, Barbara and I decided we wanted to go to the Colorado River to go camping. We went for a weekend but ended up staying four months, camping on the rocks. At one point, we were forced off the road and over a cliff by a reckless driver and we lost our car. But we really didn’t mind. We kept camping by the river. That’s how it was then.”
“We just figured things out,” she says, painting a portrait of their lives. The two attended Orange Coast College, dropping in to take classes whenever they wanted to. “One summer, we decided we wanted to hitchhike to New York to meet a friend but, frankly, we needed a job to earn enough dough to do that. Barbara got a job at an optical shop in Lido Isle. One day she called and told me, ‘Oh my god, this is SO much fun! It’s so incredible. I’ve got to get you a job here!’ I told her okay and we did it. We went to work for a gentleman named Ed Rose who owned the optical shop. He had the Lido Isle store and one near UC Irvine. With about five days of training, Barbara stayed at the Lido Isle store and I was sent out to the shop in Irvine.”
“It was extraordinary,” she says with a surprise, as if experiencing the joy of discovering her profession again. “Barbara would work three days a week with me. She had a higher position because she had been there longer…like a month longer! She was teaching me everything she knew. We started holding draft resistance meetings at the Irvine shop and we helped guys dodge the draft by making them really huge, fat, minus-15 lenses that made them ineligible for the military.”
Glasses became like paid community service. It was intimate and special for them. “The second that Barbara and I put a pair of glasses on someone and had that interaction of ‘Here I am, here you are’… It was just a very magical, splendid experience. It was something very deep and incredible for us.”
“It was the gateway to the dialogue that we wanted: this ability to communicate with people in a public space and, often, in intimate ways,” Gai explains. “There are a lot of vulnerabilities when your vision is compromised and when you’re looking in mirrors in public. This is all really heady now in retrospect but, at the time, we were breaking it down like, ‘Wow: this is a powerful thing and it’s great.’”
Barbara and Gai eventually made the money they wanted to hitchhike to New York for a few months. While they were away, Ed from the optical shop left them messages at home letting them know that business was extremely good at the Irvine store when they were there: they were doing something so special that he had jobs for them, should they want them, upon returning.
“We came back nine and a half months later and, sure, we needed a job and we both went back to work for him,” she says. “He was incredible. He really did mentor us, even encouraging us to become licensed opticians. And we did it because it seemed so important to him. Barbara was very interested in psychology and any interactive sociology, botany, etc. She really is a scientist at heart. I thought I’d be an architect. I paid my dues making surfboards and waiting tables. And Barbara did lots of things along the way as well. We ended up with licenses and got job offers at other places. So, it was time to move on.”
“That’s kind of how it began,” she says. “Neither of us came from families with money so we thought we’d save up and open a store. It took lots of years and, finally, Barbara was working on the road as a representative for a French optical lens company called Essilor. They pioneered and introduced the first multi-focal lens in the United States called Varilux. She was working all over the country introducing people and laboratories to this lens. And that’s when it really became clear to us what we wanted to do.”
Gai was working at an optical shop in Laguna Beach and Barbara at Optique Boutique on Sunset. The store, owned by Dennis Roberts, was the cutting edge of fashionable glasses. Their clientele were celebrities, influencers, and even included Elvis. Barbara would commute every day from Huntington Beach but eventually moved to LA. “Both of us opened up shops for other people along the way and did other things in and around optical stores. We always had it in our pocket that, as soon as we could save enough dough, we’d open a store.”
“And eventually that time came. It was really Barbara who said it was time. She was living here and so was I. We were looking at Melrose which was the road you took if you wanted to get somewhere fast. It was the cross town street, loaded with upholstery shops and paint shops, electronics, etc. Our dear friend Lee Lyon told us he knew someone with an electronics warehouse on Melrose and that they’d be leaving soon. We went there and we knew it was our place.”
The two got a loan and built out the shop themselves, with assistance from Gai’s dad and a like-minded architect (David Richards) who lived in Barbara’s apartment complex. The space tapped into an undercurrent of clean, manufactured surfaces, machined components, and industrial materials. Along with an adventurous neighboring shop, Industrial Revolution, the look became a trend that put Melrose Avenue on the map and accelerated throughout the 80s.
“It was a celebratory moment,” she explains. “We didn’t consciously know what the movement meant but we knew we wanted our store to be like an art gallery But what did that really mean, though? It meant we had to get rid of all of the crap. Our store wasn’t going to have ficus benjamina and horrible old cabinets. Those were places where someone with bad breath showed you glasses. So what we were asking was “Can’t there be better places? Why does it have to look like this? Why does this have to be such an underwhelming experience? There needed to be breathing room and space between the objects so that not only are you seeing repetition, but the spaces in between – that’s where meaning could be generated.”
To achieve this, they went very clean with their shop. They wrapped one shelf around the entire store and put their time, money, and focus on the details, details like a “rubber band red” Pirelli floor–very representative of that industrial moment. With “basically spit and vinegar” and incredible drive, Barbara and Gai brought their store to life.
Building the store helped them establish themes and means of presentation that they still carry on to this day. A good example of this is their using storefront windows as a Barbara Kruger/Lawrence Weiner like political platform. “The minute we started construction, we papered out the window. It was Barbara’s idea to put up a sign that said ‘Changing The Face.’ So, we put up a huge sign that said ‘Changing The Face of L.A.’ About halfway through construction, we changed it to ‘Facing The Change,’ reversing it and putting it back up. That caused a lot of commotion. It seems so innocuous now, but optical vendors would come to us and walk away thinking, ‘Oh, those girls on Melrose…I don’t know if they’re going to make it.’”
Products came next for them and, for obvious reasons, they were as particular about making products as they were about building a space for them. “We had a few rules,” Gai says. “We weren’t going to buy anything with logos on it. And, at the time, the world was overrun with temple arms that would go down and come up: drop temples. Those were our two rules: no logos and no drop temples. That didn’t leave a lot to buy in 1979. In fact, it left very little because it was the era of Drop Temple Logo Heaven.”
“What we really wanted to sell were reduced, archetypal frames like stock issue National Health and U.S. Army types of glasses. We dug in the closet of discarded notions because of their neutrality. The idea of putting the same frame on a woman and a man, and having them both look amazing, was so liberating. We knew instinctively the first thing we had to do was get the hardware, and all of the gender expectations, off of the face. Once we cleaned that up, it just all unfolded for us.”
They decided to improvise, and using white wayfarers and pale-colored glasses, they began laying down their ideas. They sandblasted them, they hand-dyed them, they bent them: they did everything within their means to manipulate and reshape eyewear. As these transformations caught on, they sought and found a European optical maker who could take their designs and put them into production.
“That’s how we began. That’s how we made our own style and started manufacturing our own goods,” Gai explains. “The first design we made was called The Beat. We ended up making thousands of them! We made over a hundred colors, we made The Beat One, Two, Three, and Four: so many iterations of Beats! As we launched The Beat we started to have ideas for an advertising campaign, which at first, were really cool illustrations by artists like Gary Panter and Renee Bendixen. But to be on Melrose in 1980 was like being on Kings Road. The street was on fire with diverse and gorgeous faces: it felt like everything was about to happen! It was a mix of punkers and New Wavers. It was a fascinating moment. Our friend Gary Johns and his wife, Roseann Kurjian encouraged us to think about an ad campaign that celebrated the face and all the nuance of it. Out of that moment grew our tagline and our well-known portrait campaign.”
In all of this, a question remains: how did they become “l.a.Eyeworks”? When did that name come to them? “Naming is incredibly important to Barbara and me,” Gai begins. “We name every single frame we design. It becomes a part of the family when it gets a name and it lives together with us. As for “Eyeworks,” that was the first time the combination was put together: we did that! And we didn’t want to call it Los Angeles, but we wanted it to have a feeling of place. We loved L.A. and L.A. was cool.”
“And hey, somehow we made it!” she says with a smile, taking a breath after tracing the brand’s long, natural evolution. “Sometimes we made it flying by the seat of our pants, but we made it with our own hands and the support of so many unbelievable people! We’ve interacted with our city and partnered with artists and have always brought our community into what we do.”
For the future, Gai doesn’t see straying too far from the path she and Barbara are on. They aren’t going anywhere any time soon, either. “We want to keep being relevant and vital. We have lots of designs to make and we want the culture of l.a.Eyeworks to continue. Barbara and I are optimists. We’re focused on the future. l.a.Eyeworks is not a heritage brand.”
For more on l.a.Eyeworks and Gai, check out their website, stop into their Beverly Blvd and Melrose locations, follow them on Twitter, and Like them on Facebook. They’ll be releasing three new artist-designed cleaning cloths by Jim Iserman, Susan Silton, and Kori Newkirk very soon, which is very, very exciting. l.a.Eyeworks was also recently recognized as one of Optical’s Most Daring Retailers by Vison Monday magazine for their window program. For those of you overseas, they’ll be debuting their newest collection at SILMO Mondial de l’Optique in Paris from October 4 through 7 and, for those in London, a few eyeglasses designed by Barbara and Gai will be on view at Fashion | Space | Gallery as a part of their Framed! exhibition.