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Heaven Ring, 2016
11th August 2017

Assembly: Q&A with Chen Chen & Kai Williams

From soaking spandex netting in resin with floor scraps to making luxury bookends from stone yard rejects and fine-grain concrete, New York designers Chen Chen & Kai Williams don’t let anything go to waste. As part of Assembly, a showcase of a new wave of American designers curated by Sight Unseen’ Jill Singer and Monica Khemsurov, the duo bring their wild material experiments to London Design fair this September, exhibiting in the UK for the very first time.

After the age of around two or three, it’s generally frowned upon to put pretty things in your mouth. But looking at the nougat-like furniture and accessories made by Brooklyn-based duo Chen Chen and Kai Williams, it’s mighty tempting to give them a chew. It’s something that’s obviously crossed their minds themselves. Known for their playful approach and penchant for scrambling all kinds of materials, the duo’s best-loved – and probably weirdest – product to date is their Cold Cut coasters, which were made by fusing urethane resin and colourful studio scraps into a ‘ham hock’ and then slicing the result.

During Assembly, Chen and Kai will be exhibiting several new products that showcase their material explorations, but with perhaps a slightly more grown up flavour. Recent experiments have included producing a series of small machined metal objects, using traditional techniques to mix slick stainless steel and patinated copper. Another new product sees the pair meld glass with UV stones for a psychedelic take on terrazzo.  

Given that the Pratt Institute grads started collaborating unexpectedly (when Chen came to use the tools at Kai’s small fabrication business), we were jolly intrigued to find out more about how the duo collaborate, creative freedom and their thoughts on crossing the pond to exhibit in London for the very first time. Luckily for us Chen Chen obliged our nosiness with the in-depth Q&A below. 
Swell Vase, 2011
Your practice was initially established as an experimental design space. How has it evolved since?

When everything is made in-house, it’s very easy to be experimental. As we grow we are tapping into more traditional, scalable manufacturing processes and what we are working on now is how to keep the same experimental ethos when we are limited by a single material or process.

You both studied at New York’s Pratt Institute. How did you meet and when did you begin collaborating? 

We both studied industrial design at The Pratt Institute in New York. Kai graduated in 2006 and I did the same in 2007. We were acquaintances in school but weren’t close. A few years after school, Kai had begun a fabrication business in a large space with a lot of equipment and I had a small studio a few blocks away and would often visit Kai’s studio to use tools where we began talking about working together. For the first few months we kept our own separate bodies of work as well as making collaborative projects. Our studio name, which is just our real names together, has its origin there.
Warp Core, 2016
How do you work together – do you have set roles or is everything collaborative? 

We are both involved in the creative process, but one person will organically take the lead on developing a project while the other will offer opinions with fresh eyes at critical points. Once the design process is done, Kai deals with our fabricators and I deal with our clients.

Is such an approach ever challenging? What happens if you disagree on something? 

Having differing points of view is important. That way, when you are both excited about something, you know there is something real there. When we disagree, normally one person will care more and they get to win.
Resin Bench, 2013
What will you be exhibiting as part of Assembly? 

We will be debuting a design for a side table which will feature stones that are UV glued to the glass. The origin of the idea was our vision of a clear terrazzo where you would see the three-dimensionality of the component stones rather than just a graphic surface.
Does it feel significant to be exhibiting to such a largely British audience during the UK’s biggest design event? 

We have done smaller shows in Paris, Sao Paulo and Dubai, but LDF is another animal altogether. London’s design scene is producing the most incredible work and it’s exciting to finally come see it in person. It's also interesting to see how another location or culture brings a different context to your work.

Have you noticed a difference between the American and European design scenes? 

The American independent design scene is very new with most studios founded after 2010. One main difference is there was never much government support for the arts but that is especially true now. Also there are fewer manufacturers in the US to work with. That coupled with the American entrepreneurial mythos has created a scene where in order to support the more experimental work, many studios produce and market a more commercial wholesale line and operate more like small scale manufacturers. Government and private support is also more focused on entrepreneurship. We just took a subsidised business course where half the class were design studios.
Brick, 2011
Your practice is exceptionally material-led. What materials do you particularly enjoy working with and why?

We’re known for making things out of resin and as strange and interesting as the finished result is, there is nothing more satisfying than the process of mixing iridescent pigment into resin and after coating an object, watching drips form and slowly roll off the surface.
Gingko Lamp 1/3, 2012
Your approach is refreshing in its playfulness; the arch marble mousepad and the cold cut coasters with ham hock, for example. Why is it important not to take design too seriously? 

We are having fun when we experiment. And to experiment means to fail 90% of the time so we are often beginning with very common materials which frees us from being too precious with things. The first set of coasters were made from spandex netting soaked in resin and wrapped around a few sticks from my parents’ yard. This irreverence carries through when we step up to more expensive materials like the marble mouse pad. A writer friend once said that they never buy nice notebooks because they felt too much pressure not to mess it up. We don’t take things too seriously because it frees us creatively.

For more information visit chen-williams.com
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