“It’s not like it’s a science,” says Brooklyn designer Chen Chen as he’s mixing up a batch of cement in the Brooklyn studio he shares with collaborator Kai Tsien Williams, attempting to explain why he can’t offer an exact set of measurements for replicating his concrete bookends. They’re fitting words to have chosen, though, coming from him: The Shanghai-born, Wyoming-raised designer had two chemists for parents, and yet it seems like his entire practice has revolved around losing control during the design process rather than maintaining it. Since he joined forces earlier this year with Williams — a fellow Pratt grad who also runs the design fabrication business Three Phase Studio — the pair have spent most of their time together choosing offbeat materials like expanding foam and studio scraps and experimenting for weeks to see what kinds of unexpected effects they can elicit from them. Their breakout project this past May, designed for Sight Unseen’s Noho Design District pop-up shop, was a set of drink coasters made by wrapping bits of neon resin–soaked rope, animal bones, and offcuts around a wooden core, then slicing the whole mess open to see what might lay inside, with the results being different every single time. Granted the pair now profess to be working on an extremely functional storage system that, while modular and customizable, otherwise has the exact opposite ethos, but so far, it’s their work’s freewheeling and slightly bizarre quality that has so captivated the New York design scene. While the Metamorphic Rock Bookends you see here are technically a design of Chen’s, from just before he teamed up with Williams, we still thought they were a great example of the typical Chen-Williams methodology, so we asked for a lesson in how to make them, and Chen kindly obliged.
Between the two of them, Julie Ho and Nicholas Andersen had designed clothing, jewelry, movie sets, music videos, and Martha Stewart shoots, plus dabbled in painting, drawing, pattern-making, sewing, and crocheting before teaming up creatively in 2008. Ho had even been a studio assistant for Tom Sachs, making foam Hello Kittys with a medical scalpel (and slicing open her hands almost weekly in the process). So it took a particular kind of alchemy for the pair to decide that — out of all their talents and interests — they would devote their days to making paper party decorations, the kind you'd expect to find in a dollar store.
The brief itself was simple: Design and build something to sit on. It was the execution part that was hard. From April 16–21, four sets of young American furniture designers each took a turn in the open studios at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, each with a single purpose: to build and assemble a chair from start to finish, between the time the museum opened at 9AM to the minute the last straggler was ushered out the door at 6. The designers could use any materials they chose, and they were allowed to make preliminary design studies or prototypes before arriving at the museum, but the bulk of the construction work had to be executed on the museum’s 6th floor — in full view of school tours, visiting tourists, families, and itinerant design geeks who wanted a peek at the action. But the exercise wasn’t some reality show–like competition to pit designers against each other or to see whose design would reign supreme. The event was part of The Home Front, a museum project curated by Surface editor Dan Rubinstein, who spearheaded the whole thing in order explore in-depth the business of being a designer in America today.
Because they spend their lives under car hoods, or between walls, or tucked inside backpacks, most industrial or utilitarian materials are purpose-built without any consideration for aesthetics. The people who engineer these materials get paid to make them perform well, not look pretty; when one of them gains crossover appeal, it's usually either by happy accident or a general shift in perception — the pendulum of culture swinging back, as it has recently, to a fervor for all things mundane and overlooked. Yet if climbing rope suddenly feels just as relevant in galleries and high-end fashion boutiques as it does strapped to a harness, enforcing the border between life and death, the reasons are obvious: it's cheap, it's durable, it has built-in visual interest, and the same vibrant color combinations that assure its visibility on a mountainside render it irresistible to designers and artists. When we first noticed how many of them were making climbing rope a core part of their practice — from Proenza Schouler to Stephen Burks to the artist Orly Genger, who often use it to play with notions of high art vs. low — we decided to launch a new column called "Material" that quite simply tracks an unconventional material's appearances throughout multiple disciplines in the visual arts.