Designers, Chen Chen & Kai Williams
Designers, Chen Chen & Kai Williams
WORDS BY: DREW ZEIBA | ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF CHEN WILLIAMS
When you let materials do what they want, you can defy expectation via collaboration and experimentation—Brooklyn-based designers Chen Chen and Kai Williams can prove it. Over the past six years, the co-founders of Chen Williams have created and developed an aesthetic that stands apart from the rest of the design world. No one product is the same—each asymmetrical resin coaster, chair coated in lava-like materials, and marbled bench has is its own. In a modern world where control taught as so vital, we needed to investigate how Chen and Kai are so able to let go. We chatted with the pair in their Sunset Park studio about the makings of a successful creative operation founded on a bravery to explore the limits of design.
You both have relatively different backgrounds, but have been collaborating together for six years now. How does collaboration play out in the studio?
Kai: Frankly, we’ve been doing this longer than anything else in our lives. We have two different aesthetics, but when it overlaps you’ve got something good.
Chen: It’s important to have this push and pull within the relationship because it pushes the products and designs further. It’s also, in a way, an editing process where the bad ideas are tossed relatively early because there’s someone to bounce if off of.
Do you tend to start projects independently and bring them to one another, or do both of you start projects out together?
Kai: You know what, I don’t know how true collaboration works. I think it works more like what we’re doing. In the end, one person takes an idea and works on it for a little bit and another person might jump in and work on it a little further, give it critique. I think that actually trying to work both hands on it at the same time is nearly impossible.
Chen: But, at the same time, that’s more in the design phase. The way we work now, at least for things that will actually be produced, is we’ll both do design, but when it comes to the technical stuff Kai is much more an engineer than me, and will do all the back components and make sure it all fits together.
Your work is known for its unusual approach to materials–both in combining unexpected materieals like resin and wood, and for allowing materials to follow their own rules in generating the work. How do you feel about materiality in your practice?
Kai: I think we’re just interested in materials in general and that they can be used for so many different things. When we started in 2011 there was this heritage wood movement going on and early on we were doing some things to be contrary to that. Now, I just think wood, resin, and all these things have their own characters, so it’s interesting to try and use them for their characters.
Chen: The interesting thing about wood is that in the context that we use it, it kind of anchors all this weird materiality that maybe people haven’t seen before. Just by having a piece of wood in there it gives you context and scale. Especially when most people are seeing the product in image form, it makes it real rather than looking like a rendering.
You tend to return to certain materials in new unusual combinations or develop products, like your Nugget keychains, that are built with leftover materials. How does reuse and revisitation figure into your practice?
Chen: What tends to happen is we have stuff in the studio from one project and it just kind of migrates into the next thing. A lot of our material exploration doesn’t necessarily to lead to anything. We discover what a material does and we let it sit on the shelf. Then we have this pool to draw from when we need an idea. The important part of experimenting isn’t to pull it into some product or application immediately, because it might not work if you’re just trying to shoehorn it.
We’re always trying to create a closed loop. You spend so much effort making this material, and just because you need to trim it off to make a bigger piece, there’s still something beautiful and valuable to be made from it. It’s trying to be economical, of course, but also trying to not produce any waste. These processes are generating beautiful things.