Brooklyn-based designers Chen Chen and Kai Williams first met as undergrads enrolled in Pratt’s industrial design program. Upon completing their degrees, each spent the next two years pursuing his own projects while holding down day jobs, with Chen serving as Display Director for Moss while Williams founded Three Phase Studio LLC, a CNC wood/metal/plastics fabrication shop. The two eventually reconnected in 2011, forming a collaborative studio under their given names. Since then, they’ve emerged as a singular voice in New York’s design and art communities, producing a diverse catalog of highly experimental, material-driven products ranging from concrete bookends and marble bangles to necklaces made of bones and vases composed of polyurethane foam.

Periscope visited the pair at their studio in Greenpoint to discuss the finer points of their practice.

Christopher Schreck: I thought I'd start off with the question that seems to trip people up most when it comes to your practice: where does the line fall here between art and design?

Kai Williams: Well, we’re both trained as industrial designers, but we end up making fairly artistic objects. I think there’s something really grounding in that approach: we do often deviate from traditional industrial design practices to explore other processes, but I think industrial design is often like that. It’s about balancing elements from many different fields.

Chen Chen: Right. I’d say that one of the underlying principles we work with is that we try to intervene as little as possible. It has a lot to do with this idea that materials aren’t inert - they can be allowed to do what they will. That’s really a core principle. A good example of that would be these planters we made. It’s basically just three pieces of tile that interlock and become self-supporting. You don’t need to glue it together; just the weight of each tile resting on the next one is enough to hold the structure together. So you’re taking something simple, like three sides of a box, but just by tilting them to the side, you end up creating something totally different. That’s what we’re really interested in: an approach where you’re doing as little as possible, but still creating this larger overall effect.

CS: Didn't I read somewhere that these planters were Illuminati-inspired?

CC: (laughs) Well, not really. We called these the “Third Eye Planters,” because the truncated triangle sort of looks like the imagery from the Eye of Providence or something. But really, the idea for that shape came from this mold we use, which is actually modeled after an Irish brick-carrying basket. We’ve used it to create a few different things, like the planters and the bookends.

CS: Is the process for the bookends equally straightforward?

CC: Definitely. With those, the basic idea is that you put some rocks into this mold, compose it however you want, and pour some cement into it. Once everything dries, you end up with these objects that have three flat sides at 90°angles, which you can then put on your bookshelf. So it’s a super simple idea, the process is really straightforward, but the composition is still different every time – it’s based on the materials you use and the person composing it. We’re really interested in this sort of production method, where the process is always the same, but there’s always variation in the end results.

KW: That’s also really demonstrated by Chen’s vases, which are very ornate objects but also come from a single simple process. The ornamentation really depends on the size of the netting he uses, where he injects the foam, and how the bag is hung.

CC: Right. So basically, there’s a glass vessel wrapped in a netted bag. When insulation foam is sprayed into it, the netting acts almost as a 360° extrusion die, so that as the foam pours out of it, the netting creates a pattern. The form you end up getting comes from the tension of these two materials fighting each other. So again, it’s a super simple process that creates ornamentation without requiring a lot of work.

CS: It’s interesting to hear you refer to that project as being solely Chen’s - it makes me wonder about the nature of your collaboration. Generally speaking, are each of you pursuing your own projects and releasing them under a common name, or is it more of a concerted process?

CC: There are some projects we work more closely together on, but usually it’s more of an organic thing, where one person takes the lead on a project and runs with it. I mean, when we came into this collaboration, we had two very different bodies of work. And it’s not like these processes we use are so hard to do, but there are still certain skills that Kai has that I don’t have, and certain things that I do that he can’t do, so it’s usually easier for one person to run with a project if they have some experience doing it. The workload just sort of naturally separates that way, with Kai dominating one project and me dominating another project. But what keeps it from being two separate individual practices is having each other to bounce ideas off of. You end up working everything out a lot quicker – you don’t get stuck on things as much. And because our work is different from each other, it’s become so that if we both like an idea, then we definitely know there’s something to it, whereas if we ended up arguing about it, then maybe it isn’t actually a very strong project.

CS: Is there a particular scope to the practice? Would you – or do you – produce work outside of the Chen & Kai partnership?

KW: I feel like the whole practice is sort of life-encompassing, and we’re able to pour everything into it. There have been occasions where we’ve done side projects and haven’t collaborated, or where we’ll take outside jobs that we don’t put our names on, but it’s not common.

CC: Yeah. I mean, we spend 12 hours a day together, 7 days a week, so there’s really not much going on outside of this.

CS: So in setting up your practice, artistically and commercially, were there any other design or art studios you looked to as reference points?

KW: Not really, but that’s because I don’t know of anyone who’s done what we want to be doing. There are definitely certain people we respect, and practices we respect, but we’ve really tried to find our own way of doing business – which sometimes works well and sometimes doesn’t. We’re really learning and figuring things out as we go.

CC: Yeah. I mean, I’m sure the way we do things isn’t always the most efficient way to go about it. But the thing is, some people only make wooden objects - their shops are set up specifically for that, and it’s an efficient operation that way. The fact that we’re interested in making so many different things translates directly to how our shop is set up, and so it isn’t as straightforward. That might not be the most efficient way to structure a business, but it is what allows us to do what we want.

KW: And hopefully it also allows for some cross-pollinization to happen between all of those things we’re doing.

CC: Right, exactly, that’s a big part of it.

CS: Do you think of your work as fitting into any existing communities or conversations, design-centered or otherwise?

CC: I feel like if that is the case, it’s subconscious.

KW: Yeah. We’re definitely aware of what’s going on. We’re friends with a lot of other Brooklyn designers, and we see what they’re doing, and we like a lot of it. But that’s more about just being aware of your place amongst your peers. We don’t really try to do anything based off of what we see. If anything, we try not to do those things.

CS: So how do the projects begin? Do you typically start with a concept or form in mind, or does that develop more through experimentation with a given material?

KW: It’s interesting, because the way we work, we do talk and think about things beforehand, but we also do a lot of learning with our hands. We rarely sketch things out. I find that my idea of what the material’s going to do is often pretty different from what actually happens. So just testing things out ends up being worth so much more to us than trying to figure it out beforehand.

CC: Our approach is not really top-down. We don’t have a very specific plan for what the final outcome is going to be. So we play with the materials, and when we see something interesting, we’ll follow through with that and see where it leads us. The end object eventually presents itself. For example, we made this block. We didn’t really know what it was going to look like, or if anything interesting was going to happen. We just threw in a lot of stuff from the studio and cast it into a single object. Then we were able to analyze what we’d got, and pull out sections of it to create new objects. So if something interesting happens – an area where a piece of rope is getting cross-sectioned, for example – we’ll focus on that and create a new piece based on that specific area.

KW: Right. It’s really about studying the results and finding those interesting moments - and that’s an ongoing process. Even looking at the coasters, which was the first project we ever did together – we’re still looking at them and changing things about them. They’re always developing, and that’s been a really satisfying process.

CS: What kind of materials have you been working with lately? Any new mediums that you’re particularly excited about?

KW: We’ve been working a lot with cement recently, which is interesting to us because it’s both inexpensive and fast setting. The thing about working with resins, for example, is that it’s messy, it’s expensive, and it’s toxic – you need to wear respirators when you work with them. With cement, we don’t have to worry about any of that, and we don’t have to be so concerned as much with how other materials might react to it.

CC: It’s great, because especially with the kind of cement we’re using, you can set something up, and within 15 minutes, you’re ready to de-mold. With other cements, if you were going to make one of our bookends, for example, you’d end up having to make a bunch of molds, and it would take a lot longer, but with this material, you can do things quickly.

KK: It is interesting, though, because we really love getting into all of these different processes, but in the future, we want to move more into having other people do some of these things for us rather than do them ourselves. Particularly in terms of mass production, which we’re getting really interested in, we’re looking into sourcing to outside factories. We’d still do the main work ourselves, but in the future, parts of the process will happen outside the studio.

CS: In looking through your catalog, it seems like there’s this tendency to offset minimal presentation with ornate, even vaguely psychedelic graphic elements. I think that alone is interesting, because the balance can get pretty subtle, but I’m really struck by how often those ornate elements are inherent to the materials themselves – the way you exploit the speckled surfaces of granite, the swirling patterns of marble, and so on.

CC: Definitely. I think one of the things we’re both really interested in is finding variation in the materials. We try to show how versatile they are while intervening as little as possible. So with something like stone, the patterns you get are going to be different every time, and that’s part of why we’re so interested in working with it. It’s also an interesting material for us because when you look at something like granite, it’s actually a mixture of different ground-up elements. We’ve been making our own composite materials and combining things in different ways, but with granite or marble, you realize it’s already a composite material – it’s like a natural head cheese, in the same way that we’re making a head cheese with our coasters and bricks.

KW: It’s also important to say that ornamentation isn’t always our end goal. It’s something we enjoy, but it doesn’t always happen, and that’s fine too.

CC: Yeah. Because you know, a lot of the time, even when the results are ornamental or messy in appearance, the process itself is really minimal. There’s always an effort to pull it as far back as you can. To us, it’s more about the minimalism of the process than looking at minimalism as an aesthetic or an outcome.

CS: Among your most recent projects is the set of shanks you produced for the Peradam book. Where did the idea for that project come from?

KW: (pulls a makeshift machete out of a nearby closet) So this was actually the first shank. It kind of came about out of necessity a few years ago, when the space next to our studio wasn’t a park yet – it was a vacant lot with a ton of overgrowth. But we wanted to make our way out to go to the water, so I made this machete and hacked away.

That’s really the most important idea with the shanks: that they’re functional tools. It kind of calls back to the earliest tools – after maybe a rock, there was the sharpened blade. It's one the simplest things you can make; it just needs to have a sharp edge and place for you to hold it, and that’s it. But once you've done that, it can serve all kinds of functions.

CC: I think people get excited about the word “shank” because they have these associations with prison and weapons and all of that. But I think that’s missing the point as to why shanks are interesting. It’s about human ingenuity. Because true, this blade might not be as perfect or keep as well as a knife you buy at Ikea or whatever. But the point is that you’re taking found materials and figuring out how to give it a purpose. The interesting thing about those prison shanks really isn’t that they’re weapons - it’s that people are making them out of nothing.

CS: As you were putting them together, were you doing any kind of background research for reference points?

KW: We definitely did some Google image searches, but I don’t think that there were really any direct influences in what we ended up making, because we really tried not to copy anything we saw. We just tried to work with what we had in front of us in the shop.

CC: That was definitely a big part of it: having an excuse to use all of these weird metal parts we’ve collected for the studio – like these rusty mending plates we found in Venice, or a metal stop from a CNC router. We had all of this stuff sitting in these bins, and we didn’t want to throw them away, but for a long time, we didn’t know what to do with them. So that was a good outlet, to be able to use these things that we thought are kind of cool but had no real use for.

CS: That seems like a major theme in your practice: finding new applications for used materials – which is especially interesting when we’re talking about studio scraps, the bits left over from other projects. The whole thing becomes self-generative, self-referential.

CC: Yeah, exactly. The materials definitely flow between projects, where the scraps from one project will get saved and then used in another. For example, we had netted fabric left over in the studio from making those vases, which then made its way into the coasters – and that was great, because it turned out that the netting created more surface area, because it absorbs the liquid resin faster than a solid sheet of fabric. It also gave this nice cross-sectioning to the surface. So that was a happy accident, but it really made the piece better. You can’t plan that sort of thing, but it’s something we always embrace.

Interview published in Periscope Magazine Issue 1, September 2014