Make a Metamorphic Rock Bookend, With Chen Chen

“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 Chen & Kai Williams methodology, so we asked for a lesson in how to make them, and Chen kindly obliged.