We just can’t get enough of Chen Chen & Kai Williams

The Good Guys

By Anna Carnick

No doubt about it: Chen Chen and Kai Williams are having a good time. Their raw, Greenpoint, Brooklyn warehouse studio is enlivened by the constant hum of experimental projects in various states of completion; it seems someone’s always getting their hands dirty—molding, welding, melting, planting, dripping, or sawing. One day, they’re compressing leftover studio scraps, found objects, and pristine woods together into rainbow-colored ham hocks, which they then slice into unexpected, charcuterie-like coasters. The next, they’re casting avocados, melons, and other fruits to create clever cement plant pots, or transforming salvaged, granite countertop pieces into boldly quirky bangles. Their playful energy seems to find its greatest expression in pieces that displace everyday materials from their standard environments. Amidst all their vibrancy and whimsy, though, there's also a clear thoughtfulness and curiosity at the heart of Chen and William's approach.

Chen and Williams met at Pratt Institute, and began working together after school. Chen was born in China and emigrated to the U.S. when he was six. While in college, he spent a semester at Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academie, an experience he credits with cementing his experimental approach; after school he worked for Moss. Born and raised in Manhattan by two architects, Williams discovered his love of material, construction, and design early on; he spent his early years running around worksites and beautiful homes. After graduating, Williams worked for artist Tom Sachs and launched his own CNC fabrication company, Three Phase Studios. Chen and Williams formally joined forces and established their own studio in 2011.

The two spoke to us this past week about their collaborative approach, latest projects, and a few of their favorite things.

Anna Carnick: You met while you were both students at Pratt. What initially drew you to one another?

Chen Chen: My first memory of Kai is from a History of Industrial Design class we both took, but it was a lecture class and we didn't really interact until after school finished. I had a small studio close by, and I would come over to Kai's shop (our current space) to work on larger objects. Kai and I have very different personalities, but the trait we both share is dependability. Our works were very different before we came together, but both had an underlying focus on materials and processes.

Kai Williams: We really became much better friends after school. I think Chen has always struck me as having the rock-solid grounding of knowing who he is and what his responsibilities are. Maybe it's this grounding that lets him be so free in his designs. The first design conversation I remember having with him was about a joke project he called the “Green Design Blog,” which was a collection of toxic designs to parody an overeager green design movement.

AC: About 5 years passed between your graduation from Pratt and establishing your collaborative studio. What was the ultimate catalyst that inspired you to join forces in 2011? 

KW: One thing that is nice about going to school in New York is that everyone stays in New York and you have a big network. Chen’s studio was near mine, and the proximity made working together an easy choice. My business partner had dropped out, and I realized that running a CNC business was soul crushing. Chen had been at Moss for a few years and was looking to branch out. Our first project was actually an attempt to make the slotted chair that we are now launching on L'ArcoBaleno. The project was originally shelved because it's a fairly hard problem; the exotic wood that was the inspiration for the piece is tremendously strong. The first chair was a terrific failure. But it was an exercise in working together—and now here we are back for another try.

Chen Chen and Kai Williams © Judith Stenneken for L'AB/Pamono
Thinking with your hands allows you to react to what is in front of you rather than try to predict what will happen.  AC: Your experiences before the Chen-and-Kai collaborative studio are quite diverse, ranging from studies at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, to launching that CNC fabrication company, to work for other artists and designers. How do you think the breadth of those experiences informs your work together today?

KW: I think every job pushes you into contact with new people, new materials, new ways of working. Every new job pushes you a little out of your own mind, which is a good thing. In terms of specifics, in working for Tom Sachs, I learned that everything is about context. This is an easy one, but also easy to forget. I also learned that mistakes can be the most interesting part; he might come around and smash whatever you were working on if it was too perfect. The CNC experience gave me an appreciation for small manufacturing. The machine I had was the largest bed in Brooklyn and weighed 27,000 pounds. I learned how to deal with shops, how to troubleshoot, and not be scared of big machines.

CC: For me, there was this project assigned at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie where we took an organic object—in my case a snap pea—and, without adding any material, we had to transform it into another shape that looked just as “natural” as the original. You have to listen to the material because it is not inert and it wants to be shaped in its own specific ways. These principles carry through to all of our products.

AC: Your work is also really varied, ranging from playful, vibrant pieces like the Cold Cuts Coasters, to the rawer Shank series, and the grace and subtle beauty of your new bench and chair. To your minds, what connects your work overall thematically? Or in terms of techniques?

KW: We really like working across materials and audiences. Unfortunately, having a large range of tools is problematic and inefficient. We have woodworking, metalworking, stonemasonry, and resin-working tools in our shop. None of them get along. The metal tools get gummed up with wood dust. The stone tools spray water everywhere. The resin hates water.

I don't love all our projects in the same way, but I love aspects of them and I love the freedom to go in any direction. It would be torture to come up with an idea and not be able to do it because we were fearful of it not being a certain style. Strong themes that we work with are satisfaction in the process of making, specific appellations of control, and love of materials.

CC: Although our body of work may seem disjointed in a way, there is always the underlying philosophy of allowing the object to be itself. As Bruno Munari wrote in Design as Art, “There is no such thing as a personal style in a designer's work. While a job is at hand—be it a lamp, a radio set, an electrical gadget, or an experimental object—his sole concern is to arrive at the solution suggested by the thing itself and its destined use. Therefore different things will have different forms, and will be determined by their different uses and the different materials and techniques employed.”

The studio door © Judith Stenneken for L'AB/Pamono
We're very different, so when we do agree on an idea, we know there must be something there.  AC: Each time I visit your studio it's a real joy; someone's always getting their hands dirty—twisting, mixing, pouring, molding, and more. How integral is the notion of being "hands-on" to your design approach?

KW: The design process that everyone is taught is to make sketches on paper and computer renderings before actually making the object. For us, just making the thing is almost always faster and more informative. Thinking with your hands allows you to react to what is in front of you rather than try to predict what will happen. The further you take a project towards completion the more you learn about it.

AC: How would you describe your collaborative work process? Is the work divided the same way each time?

KW: Generally the process starts out with an idea or a material that one of us comes up with, and then we will hash it out together. Nothing is off the table during the discussion; a lot of outlandish ideas get thrown out. Having someone to bounce ideas off helps you work through things faster and prevents your mind from getting stuck on any particular thing. We're very different, so when we do agree on an idea, we know there must be something there. One of us will naturally assume control over a project and work on it, while the other will critique and offer alternate ideas as an outside voice seeing the project from some distance.

AC: Has that process changed over the past few years as you've worked together more and more?

CC: I think we are a lot more streamlined. We're also a lot smarter about what we choose to do. The main thing that has changed is that there is much more demand on our time now.

AC: What inspires you?

KW: There are just so many things to be inspired by: Manufacturing. Friends. And every time we pick up stone at SMC Stone, the strange things they carry blow our minds—like a bootleg stone Mickey Mouse mailbox or an onyx telephone pedestal. I also just got a catalogue for a demolition derby supply store in the mail—there are so many strange parts. Wikipedia—did you know that the black paint on the Model T was asphalt based?

CC: Willet's Point is a very inspiring place to go. In The Great Gatsby, the Valley of Ashes is based on Willet's Point. It's a few blocks under the shadow of Citi Field, and it looks like a third world country. It's full of auto mechanics and you can get anything on your car fixed in a few hours for a fraction of what a normal garage charges. It's not hooked up to the sewer system, so after it rains, giant putrid puddles cover the unpaved streets. It's places like that where you see ad hoc human ingenuity at work everywhere.

AC: Where would you like to see Chen Chen & Kai Williams a year from now? Five?

CC: We have basically torn down the whole business every year—physically and organizationally—and rebuilt it. In January we move studios, and we'll do it again; it keeps everything fresh. The Stone Fruits have allowed us to expand into a more volume business, which is a different ball game. We know there is a lot of demand for this product line, so we'll be working to scale up the production to meet it. At the same time, we'll be moving into larger furniture pieces as well.

AC: What's next for you?

KW: We will launch a new website in the next couple weeks. And Design Miami is coming up fast. We did our first collaboration with Tai Ping Carpets, and it's the first time that we have been so hands-off in the manufacturing process. It a strange feeling, but I think it will turn out really well.

  • Text & Interview by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.
  • Images by

    • Judith Stenneken

      Judith Stenneken

      Judith is a German-born, NYC-based conceptual media artist.