“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.
At the London Design Festival in 2009, Apartamento magazine collaborated with local furniture wunderkind Max Lamb on a show called “The Everyday Life Collector.” The title referred to Lamb’s father, Richard, who had spent more than 15 years surrounding himself with British studio pottery, of which 400 examples were on view. But while age might have given him a leg up in the volume department, it turned out that the elder Lamb wasn’t the only one with the collecting bug: Max, too, admitted to joining his dad at flea markets from time to time and almost never coming home empty-handed. So when we had the idea to start a new column called Inventory — for which we’d ask subjects to photograph a group of objects they found meaningful — we turned to Max first, and he didn’t disappoint. He sent us 10 images of the collections on display in his live-work studio in London, then gave us a personal tour.
When we — and the rest of the design world — were first introduced to her at the 2009 London Design Festival, Faye Toogood already seemed like Superwoman: Having just left her post as a stylist at the UK shelter magazine World of Interiors and cast out on her own, she'd engineered a coming-out party for herself that included a collaborative installation with Gallery Fumi featuring designs made from corn, a Memphis-inspired playroom with an Arabeschi di Latte egg bar, and a temporary shop for Tom Dixon that showcased how she'd begun to transform his brand image. Just seeing her do it was enough to make us feel stressed, and that was before we knew that she was about to reinvent herself again, this time as a furniture designer. Her first collection, Assemblage 1, was inspired by modernist sculpture, British craftsmanship, and her childhood growing up in the English countryside; it gave way to Assemblage 2 in Milan earlier this year, which took a darker, edgier turn. Finally, with Phillips de Pury last week, Toogood unveiled the third chapter in the series, and the most ambitious to date — it's based around her fascination with iridescence, and it took a motorcycle fabricator, a gun maker, and a studio full of assistants in gas masks to complete. I was asked by Phillips to conduct an in-depth interview with Toogood to appear in the show's catalog, and so Sight Unseen received special permission to reprint that interview here. It's lengthy, but it offers a good deal of insight into the mind of one of the most intriguing and ambitious personalities working in design right now.
If you travel all the way from New York to Arnhem just to attend the fashion biennial in this relatively obscure Dutch city, half the size of Pittsburgh, you can expect people to notice. Your waiter will witness your accent — and the fact that you’re not drinking a huge glass of milk with lunch like everyone else — and ask if you came just for the show, and well, did you like it? Your jolly white-haired cab driver will crack a few embarrassing jokes about the Big Apple before waxing poetic about how lovely it is when the festival’s on. And despite Vogue calling the $2.5-million production the “Greatest Fashion Event You’ve Never Heard Of,” it will seem, when you’re there, like Arnhem's gravitational pull has shifted in some small but significant way.