American Design Stories: Chen Chen & Kai Williams
The NYC-based duo shares their insights on American design today
In the American Design Stories series, we ask designers from across the Americas to share their insights on American design today, along with three images that represent the designers’ vision of American design.
To kick things off, we spoke with one of our favorite design duos—Brooklyn’s Chen Chen and Kai Williams. The pair met as students at Pratt Institute and established their studio in 2011. Since that time, they’ve made a name for themselves as an experimental studio that both invents new techniques and materials and diverts common industrial elements into unexpected design applications.
What does “American design” mean to you today?
It’s cliche to the American mythos, but our version of design is quite entrepreneurial. This might be more specific to studios like ours, founded right after 2008. There wasn’t as much of a studio practice scene in America at that time, and because of the lack of state-sponsored arts funding in this country, before we had access to the collectible design market, we funded our experimental projects—which we knew would not sell—by designing, manufacturing, and bringing to market small home goods. We know a lot of peers who did the same, and that brings a more business-minded way of thinking about design. We are often guest speakers to students, and it is more common now that we are asked to talk about how to run a financially stable business—whereas it was taboo to talk about money in art school before.
What is an example of the best of American design?
The SIMS recycling plant in Sunset Park, Brooklyn—just up the street from us. They knew Americans were too lazy to separate their recyclables, so they made a giant machine to do it. After the metals and glass are mechanically separated out, all the plastic is ground up into little bits. A laser scans and identifies them, and tiny jets of air shoot them into their corresponding bins. You can sign up for a free tour. It’s incredible. It’s a great and rare example of how the responsibility for the environment wasn’t pushed out to an individual’s actions but designed systematically.
How can the design community become more equitable?
Pay your interns. Put them on payroll and stop misclassifying them as independent contractors. Overall, the design education system is overpriced, and that’s too big a problem for any one designer to solve. But, at the minimum, you should not exploit student labor. We were privileged enough to go to school and experiment for years without the pressure of debt. If anyone is going into debt studying design with the plan of starting a studio afterwards, drop out now and go get a job at a metal shop. You’ll learn much more.
What are the most urgent topics that designers can and should address today?
While we don’t focus on the traditional ideas of “green design,” we are extremely careful about how we make our objects. We think of our studio as an ecosystem. When we look at any process that creates waste, we see that that waste took time and effort to make. We don’t get municipal garbage service, so it costs money to throw things away. We reuse everything. For example, we made a set of hand-carved HDPE dinnerware for a show at Friedman Benda. It created a lot of plastic shavings, which were basically small, plastic pellets—perfect for molding.
We took those shavings and melted them down with plastic bag graphics to make our Thank You Stools. We don’t avoid “not green” materials, but we use them responsibly. And more importantly, we make waste valuable again. Plastic bags are one of the most recyclable materials if you think of the material it’s made of (HDPE), but because there’s so little material there, the energy it takes to turn it back into pellets doesn’t net you much. In fact, once the plastic bags are processed at SIMS, if no pellet maker buys them, they are landfilled—an even bigger waste of energy. The most valuable part isn’t the plastic but the graphic that tells a story about the location where it was used. This kind of recycling doesn’t work on huge scales, but if we are moving towards more artisanal methods of production, we can do this.
What identity obstacles do you face in your work?
I don’t think in the collectible design market being Chinese is an obstacle, but we also produce and market a line of home goods. There is no hiding even in the name that Chen is Chinese. We are often asked where our home goods are made, and the answer is China—because of the logistical issues of manufacturing on the small scale we do. (It’s hard to do small runs economically in America.) We have friends who are blonde Americans who make products in the same factories that we use, and we often see retailers assume and list their products as “Made in America.”
The trade relationship is a really complicated issue, and nobody is talking about the intricacies. There needs to be support for manufacturing in America outside of weapons, which, with their enormous profit margins, also are a black hole that sucks up a lot of small American factories into their supply chain. The military-industrial complex will drive a lot of the anti-Chinese rhetoric to come. It’s a cycle where anti-Chinese rhetoric begets more military spending, and that money begets fewer factories making anything else, and that begets more products being made in China—which fuels anti-Chinese rhetoric.
What are you most proud of in your work to date?
The earliest work we made—when we had no money and were priced out of traditional manufacturing processes—is still the work that we are the most proud of. We had to be more creative than the next guy. We trained as industrial designers and not as craftsmen in any specific discipline. We couldn’t make a better wood table, but being polymaths we were able to borrow and combine things from different disciplines to make new ideas. That is what set us on this path, and even though we are now often using more expensive materials, it’s still that mindset of crossing disciplines that informs our work.
What gives you the most joy in your work?
The process. There are beautiful things that happen in the process of making something that are more awe-inspiring than the final work everyone sees. For example, when we silver our Geology Mirrors, it’s a five-minute event during which the liquid silver is deposited on the glass. The pool of silver sloshing around is more beautiful than the final work everyone else sees. Watching the seconds tick down on the timer and knowing it is just us that gets to see it—that makes it even more beautiful.
Thank you, Chen and Kai! ◆
Chen Chen and Kai Williams’ work is included in the 2020 Design Miami/ Podium exhibition, America(s). Their collectible design pieces are represented by The Future Perfect.
Inspired by the 2020 Design Miami/ Podium theme America(s)—and all the complexities that go along with it, especially in this moment—Anna Carnick and Wava Carpenter of Anava Projects connected with a selection of outstanding designers with personal ties to the Americas to get their take on “American” design today. Their responses were insightful, inspiring, and diverse: From thoughts on the most pressing issues and challenges facing designers now, to hopes and suggestions for a more equitable future and reflections on their own American design journeys to date. Each story is accompanied by images provided by the designer that embody what America(s) or American design means to them.