Design Disruptors: Chen Chen And Kai Williams

Running an experiment.

Chen Chen And Kai Williams
Photographed by Maria del Rio for Lonny.

No one ever said experimentation was easy. Just ask Chen Chen & Kai Williams. The New York-based design duo jumps right into their projects, oftentimes never sketching them out, and works with some pretty non-traditional materials in the process. The results?  Boundary-pushing furniture, objects, and art that are anything but expected.

Give us the short story on how you got your big break in the design space.

Kai: "Chen and I were trying to make a bangle that could be cut to size in a store like cold cuts in a deli. That proved pretty impossibly dusty and needed hours of finishing — but after a bunch of experiments they ended up being our Cold Cut Coasters. We experimented later with that idea, turning them into our Moon Bangles. But it really helped outline the way we work." 

Chen: "We made those right before design week in 2011. I had been working at the design store Moss and one of my co-workers had gone on to run the Phillips de Pury Design Store and we had friends at The Future Perfect so right off the bat we were showing our work at the highest level design shops in New York."

What do you offer that other brands or sites don’t?

Kai: "We don't start with a sketch. We start building immediately. I think that leads to a very different kind of design. We work in plastics, stone, metals, wood, glass — all made in house.  I have an, er, problem with buying strange materials online.  So we can do some very different stuff."

Chen: "One of the reasons we started working with plastics was we didn’t want to do the walnut and brass thing. There was a lot of people doing that well, we didn’t feel like we had something new to add. Now that aesthetic seems antithetical to what we’ve become, but when we were beginning it could have been a possible path."

How do you define success?

Kai: "The closer you get to something the less good it feels.  I’m pretty positive in life but in finishing a project or getting press I only see the flaws. Success is when you go to install something and you’ve remembered all the parts." 

Chen: "We started this business when we were 26 and 27 and have just been making it up as we go. We’ve been invited to participate in some incredible projects and shows and I think there’s this constant feeling of 'Who us?' We’re just happy to be invited to the party."

Chen Chen And Kai Williams
Photographed by Maria del Rio for Lonny.

What’s one thing about the design industry you’d like to change?

Kai: "It’s really small.  And Americans don’t really buy design unless it is in disguise. We will get there eventually. "

Chen: "It is changing. When we started in 2011 there were only a handful of independent design studios in New York. That number has exploded. It’s also never been easier to manufacture something."

There’s no need to be too precious with your ideas. Either improve them or cut them loose.

In a space that’s so saturated and driven by trends, how do you make your work feel timeless and unique?

Kai: "We don't really look at other designers and try not to focus too hard on trends. Product development takes so long anyway the trend will have passed.  Mostly it just comes from being insular."

Where do you go for inspiration?

Kai: "Wikipedia holes? It’s also impossible to go to the Metropolitan Museum and not come out inspired. Chen and I both go to industrial trade fairs in our spare time."

Chen: "We work bottom up. Instead imagining something, drawing it and making it, we start making things and react to them. This way you only need a vague seed of an idea rather than a spark of inspiration."

What advice do you have for people trying to enter the design space?

Kai: "A more specific version of 'don't be afraid to try.' Don't be afraid to launch a project. Most likely it will need more development but you won't know what that is until you do it.  Or more likely, no one will want it and you can forget the whole thing ever happened without having invested a ton of work."

Chen: "Yeah,  Very practical advice for those people who aren’t ready to start a business outright, get a separate credit card for your project. It’ll make your life a lot easier later."

See the full list of Lonny’s design disruptors here.

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