Designers Chen Chen and Kai Williams are undoubtedly pioneers of the Brooklyn design scene, both leaving full-time jobs to launch their own studio in 2011, and with their lighthearted and intuitive approach to object making they have managed to stay at the forefront of the movement. We spoke with Chen about the entrepreneurial spirit, escaping within New York City, and making the big bucks.
You met while both students at Pratt and after graduating worked independently of each other for five years. What ultimately caused you to join forces?
We had studios close to each other. Mine was rather small so I would often come over to Kai’s studio to work on larger projects. We started collaborating on projects together, and when the lease on my studio was ending it just made sense for me to move into Kai’s space.
You have a diverse and varied body of work, ranging from the playful and colorful Cold Cut Coasters to the profound Metamorphic Rock Bookends. Is there a singular piece that you feel most embodies the Chen Chen and Kai Williams aesthetic as a whole?
I think the product most associated with us is our Cold Cuts Coasters, which are made by combining various materials together into a loaf and then slicing it. A lot of what we are interested in is creating our own composite materials and showing everyday things in a way not normally seen. The coasters do both, as they combine a bevy of everyday materials, like wood and fabric, and then show them together in cross-section.
The Stone Fruit Planters are your first foray into a more accessible product line. Do you see yourselves expanding in this direction?
I think affordability is an important aspect of design. It allows you to reach a much wider audience. It is also a more difficult design problem to solve, especially since these planters are being produced in our studio in Brooklyn and not in a factory in China.
It’s no secret that Brooklyn has a thriving design scene—do you feel a part of this community, and do you find inspiration among your peers?
Absolutely. When we first started our design practice there was a smaller scene. I think most of our peers at the time were working at design firms doing more hardcore, nuts and bolts industrial design. It took us a few years to decide to start out on our own. I think there’s a very strong entrepreneurial spirit here. It really impresses me that a lot of companies now are being started by designers straight out of school. Especially impressing is that there is not much institutional or governmental support of young designers, like there is in Europe.
Where do you see the studio in five years?
Making the big bucks.
Favorite place to escape within the city?
Willets Point, aka The Iron Triangle, is currently in the process of shutting down. It will be torn down and replaced with a convention center. It was a third world country in the middle of Queens, a mess of auto body shops lining unpaved streets that weren’t connected to the sewer system. If it rained, there would be smelly ponds for days afterwards. We discovered it when our van was taken to a junkyard there. When people don’t have money to do things the right way, they find interesting ad-hoc solutions to their problems, and Willets Point was full of those things.
Chen Chen and Kai Williams Stone Fruit Planters are available at poketo.com and at the Poketo Flagship.