This week on Creatures Features, we sat down with Chen and Kai in their studio space to talk their design process, favorite projects, and their latest ventures playing with food and drink (a brewery may or may not be involved).
In a Sunset Park warehouse and up stairs that are “not up to code” sits Chen and Kai’s five-year-old office. Caviar Sconces are sprinkled throughout and a line of Yes, No, and Maybe Mirror fixtures lines the central window (notably missing an AC unit in June). To anyone else the shelves of miniature molds and minerals would look like scraps, but to Chen and Kai they’re the start of a pendant light, accent table, or yes, even a Cheeto maker.
Creatures Features: Tell us a bit about yourselves. How did you meet and how did your collaboration start? What were your first impressions of each other?
Chen: We went to Pratt for industrial design and I was a year behind Kai. We were in History of Industrial Design together and Kai sat with his crew and didn’t really speak much, so I was a little intimidated by him. Seven years later we were friends and I would often go over to Kai’s studio to use tools which lead to us talking about things we wanted to do together.
Kai: I think the best part of going to Pratt was that it left you out in Brooklyn in 2006. We could afford to stay living in the neighborhood. Chen and I both had studios in Greenpoint so collaboration was inevitable.
CF: Initially you worked in nearby studios in Brooklyn in the early 2010s. What changes have you seen in the area’s art and design scene since then?
C: There wasn’t much independent design going on then. Part of the reason a lot of studios started around 2011 was there weren’t many jobs. We started the same year as Fort Standard and Bec Brittain and it’s also when The Future Perfect expanded into its space on Great Jones. It was a strange Big Bang year when all this pent up energy in design was expended.
K: In 2010 we knew of no established studio we could look to for guidance. We started working together with no plan. The model of existing in multiple categories of design has become more common in the last decade.
CF: Many of your pieces are the result of a closed loop of materials. Can you explain this process for us and maybe give us an example?
C: We make a lot of things out of cast resin composites. When we trim things during production, those trimmings are expensive and labor intensive bits that are beautiful on their own. We save them and either use them in the next casting, which means each new piece contains the history of a previous piece, or we chop them up and make Nugget Keychains. It’s a way to be waste conscious but also make our work accessible.
K: The city doesn’t pick up your garbage in an industrial space so waste costs money. We have for years kept boxes of cement drippings from our stone fruit planters that we are now only addressing.
CF: It’s great that you try to keep the scraps, though. Especially now, maintaining that closed loop is so important.
K: I mean it’s such a luxury for us to have enough space to do that. When we move we’ll probably throw everything away, but it works for now.
C: Yeah, it’s like with everything. If you can find a value for the waste material it’s so much easier than to recycle it. A couple of years ago, when Bloomberg took over the city, they stopped doing glass and plastic recycling because they couldn’t make money doing it. You have to figure out a way to make it worth something.
CF: How much of a piece do you plan and how much evolves naturally as the materials interact?
C: Materials aren’t inert, they want to do something and it can be called smart design or it could be called being lazy, but it’s always easier to let it do its thing.
K: Often the materials we use are non-standard and have huge learning curves. So before we start, we test. It’s almost impossible to sketch before you understand the material. So generally our first sketches are 3D models in the actual material.
CF: How do you figure out what materials you want to work with? With Creatures, a fabric guy comes in and we choose the fabric we want. Is there a “stone guy” or someone who provides materials?
K: In terms of that, if you are up in Greenpoint there’s a place called SMC stone which I highly recommend. The front room has offices but just keep on walking back and they have crazy faces made out of this beautiful onyx. And then—all the way in the back—they have a little woodland scene with a bridge and a tree and a running stream through it all made out of stone.
C: I’m really surprised no one has tried to pay them to shoot in there because it is such a bizarre space. It’s really tacky, like a Chinese stone Disneyland.
K: There are places like that, but we’re also buying garnet or whatever it is and maybe it sits around for a couple years, but eventually it will become something.
C: I don’t think it’s hard to find materials. I think it’s difficult to edit down how you want to use them. It’s very easy to have mission creep. You end up buying all this crap that you never use.
CF: So what makes you decide how you want to use the material then—is it the natural way that the material is or how they interact?
K: I would say you don’t want to spend too much time playing with materials because it will just take over, but all of these [models on the shelves] are just little tests. This is just a test with glass and zinc and glass marbles and we thought it was cool enough to make larger lights out of. But sometimes they aren’t cool enough.
C: Yeah, that is still a very early-on test, but first we tested with one proto and looking at it, we said, “This looks ugly. This part looks nice. How do we get it to look more like that?” For the Brittle Star, this was a very early on test where we were on the beach and we’d just done a clambake and we had the fire, so we just melted some aluminum.
CF: With that in mind, what’s the weirdest/most outrageous process you’ve gone through to create a piece?
K: Early on we tried to use bones as a material. To clean the bones without boiling and damaging the structure Chen ordered some flesh eating beetles. They arrived in an old salsa container with instructions to feed them a hot dog immediately because they’re hungry from traveling. They live in Styrofoam and you can hear the creepy squeaky sound of their feet on the foam.
CF: Where in certain pieces can we see your individual aesthetics or influences and, conversely, the result of your collaboration?
C: Before we started together, our work was aesthetically different, but both were process oriented. I think that’s what made our partnership work, and why we have such disparate types of output as a studio.
K: We have also begun to split work by material. Chen now handles the stone. I handle the metal. In our new Geology tables that line is apparent.
CF: Have you had any conflicts throughout your partnership? How are those resolved in your work?
C: At this point we understand that our conflicting instincts work together. In general Kai’s preference is for something less practical and maybe purer and mine is to pull it back and make it a little more commercial. We understand it’s important to make both the weird thing and to make the commercial thing. It’s complimentary.
K: Chen has a tendency to overbuild and I have the one to under build. The place we meet is generally correct. It’s important to have conflict but it’s also important to move on. We make a lot of fast projects as a studio. More projects help you not get caught up on any one thing.
CF: How many pending projects do you normally have at the same time?
C: Oh jeez. There’s too many! Too many. And also, the learning curve for these is super steep. It’s a year and a half worth’s of experimentation. We made these protos in December of 2016 and this [the Brittle Star] was shown in March of 2018. It is a very luxurious way to work, but we feel like there doesn’t need to be a very linear path for something. It’s whatever we see in the application. It’s much harder to draw something and know what it’s going to be. It’s easier to play with it.
CF: Many pieces seem to involve a quirky name or play on the material. Why is it important to you to incorporate humor into your work?
K: Humor is part of our personalities, it would be strange for it to not show up in our work.
CF: What are your favorite Chen Chen & Kai Williams’ pieces so far? Why?
K: The Caviar Sconces. They really came together out of so many parts and skills we’ve accumulated. The main material is steel shot which is used for sandblasting and we mold it in silicone, a technique we learned for our Stone Fruit Planters. The lenses are made by a trophy company and we had them in studio from a candle holder project. The LEDs are typically used for car mods and are called Angel Eyes. The sum really feels greater than the parts.
C: I think the Caviar Sconces are emblematic of where we want to be aesthetically as well. The body of the pieces is very loosely made and although complex visually, it’s generated through a simple process. At the same time that looseness is combined with extremely tight technical parts. My favorite thing is that even though the LED ring is physically touching the glass lens, the way the lens bends light makes it invisible.
CF: What materials are you particularly drawn to at the moment?
K: Food. There are so many complex interactions. And all the materials are food safe.
C: And stones. We finally have an excuse to take all those beach rocks home.
CF: There was an Eva Hesse documentary that discussed how she used a lot of resin. It’s not going to last for another hundred years, but it’s expensive art. The materials that you use—how long will they last?
K: That’s something we think about a lot. Earlier on we were using more resin and I still love the material and it will last a long time, but it has a lower perceived value than making something out of stone. But in a way they’re kind of the same thing. This is a mix of different stones and binders, so we’re trying to move away from that as a thought, but I don’t know.
C: I feel like everything has a lifespan. These stones [referring to the Floating Stone Table] are glued with UV glue which is eventually susceptible to moisture. It’ll probably be fine for decades, but eventually the bond will probably fail at some point. It comes with the territory of doing experimental work. Anytime you mix materials you’re going to have some issues with wear. Even in natural stone, if it’s going to fail it will shatter along a crystal vein.
K: It might take 100 years, but it will happen.
C: Yeah, anytime you have two different materials meeting there’s going to be some kind of weak spot.
K: It’s an interesting question. Is Eva Hesse responsible for that? I mean probably she’s responsible to let people know that it might happen, but in a way not unless it’s an engineered project that’s designed to last a thousand years.
C: I was talking to another designer about this who just did a high-traffic project in Times Square and basically, instead of putting any kind of coating, they just painted it because they said the most durable finish is someone going out there any repainting it every month. You just have to maintain your work, I guess.
CF: Would you want to do a large installation like that you just mentioned?
C: We’re thinking of more sculptural works, but at the same time we’re more into exploring this material concept of using the stones and glass.
K: I think there’s a performative aspect that's interesting to us, too.
C: Yeah we made this Cheeto-making machine. We made Cheetos during Design Week. We’re really interested in the mechanics of food production.
CF: So what projects are you thinking of doing with food?
K: All of our ideas are very process-based. And food is the ultimate in immediacy.
C: The thing is, I feel like the type of person that is attracted to each individual field, their patience level is somewhat related to it. Architects, their projects span years. And we’re already doing things that are pretty immediate—making something in hours is already pretty short—but when we make the Cheetos it’s instantaneous. There’s this satisfaction of immediacy that’s not available in the other things that we do.
CF: What’s next for Chen Chen & Kai Williams? Any current projects we can hear about?
K: Well we visited a brewery this morning.
CF: Was that just to get drinks or is there a project happening?
C: We have all this cornmeal that we’re using and we’re exploring what else we can do with it. Obviously one use for corn is you can distill it for liquor or eat it. Also thinking about that kind of equipment—we don’t know if it will come to anything. It is something we’re interested in.
K: When we were at the brewery there was this stack of barrels that was at least 4 or 5 barrels high and all the barrels were stacked onto the bottom barrel in terms of weight.
C: Yeah, there was no structure. The barrels were stacked to the ceiling and it was kind of incredible.
K: Just thinking about the whole thing—the barrels in tension from the metal band and then the expansion from the wood—it’s just a really weird object for us and I think we’re interested in that, too.