Chen Chen and Kai Williams, of the experimental design duo Chen-Williams, spend a lot of studio time playing—producing items that, for a variety of reasons, will never be sold in stores. "Some [pieces] are too strange," Chen says. "Some are a little raw and don’t have the polish of a piece we could say is a ‘production piece,’ [some] are made with found objects . . . or materials that don’t have a supply chain period."
Now, with the launch of Chen-Williams’ online store, much of that creative ephemera will be available for purchase. Though the shop will sell some of the duo’s staple products, it will mainly showcase one-of-a-kind or limited-edition pieces. The site’s inaugural sale is devoted to shanks: homemade knives made from debris collected around the designers’ Greenpoint, Brooklyn, studio. The project, dubbed the "Shank Shack," is an attempt to sell 30 shanks—priced around 75 dollars each—in 30 days. "They are not really high-quality knives," Chen says. "That wasn’t our goal. It was about form exploration. On each piece, we needed two base elements, the blade and the handle, and it was a really interesting exercise to see these elements in [found materials] and then to bring them out." The designers also see the project as an homage to the long history of handmade tools. After all, as Williams points out, "The first tool that came to be, besides a rock, was a knife."
The shanks—and the store itself—provide a unique glimpse into the designers’ creative process, which is defined in large part by experiment and chance. Chen and Williams share an insatiable curiosity about the ways different materials interact—how polyurethane foam oozing through netting creates visible tension, or how animal bones, when broken, reconfigured, and coated in resin, transform into mysterious organic shapes. In making their products, the designers typically use simple processes that achieve unpredictable results. "When you leave something out of your control, you get to learn from every single time you make something," Chen says. "Something unexpected will happen and you can figure out why that happened and maybe use that or not." Williams, in particular, finds inspiration in researching obscure crafting techniques and dangerous science experiments. "I’ll be eating lunch," Chen says, "and I’ll look over, and Kai will be watching some video about how to make a backyard refractory furnace."
Chen and Williams, both graduates of the Pratt Institute’s industrial design program, struggled to find time to produce their own designs after graduating. Chen, a 2007 alum, worked for three years at Moss, the former Soho gallery and store owned by the renowned design purveyor Murray Moss, first as a display technician and then the display director. Overseeing Moss’s constantly changing showroom, Chen became well versed in the work of high-end designers and display aesthetics. "[Murray] juxtaposes things that are like 30 or 40 dollars next to these, like, unique [Paolo] Venini pieces that are thousands of dollars," Chen says. "There are no rules basically. You can do anything—there’s no set way of doing anything."
Meanwhile, Williams, who had graduated in 2006, bounced around for a couple of years, interning at a graphic design company, making models for architects, and working as a personal assistant for the artist Tom Sachs. In 2008, he bought a 27,000-pound CNC machine—the largest, he believes, Brooklyn—and with a business partner, he founded the fabrication company Three Phase Studio, which created wood, plastic, and metal pieces for architects, galleries, and other studios. It was time consuming and tedious work—especially given that the machine requires data to be run through three different computers, each of them at least 15 years old.
By early 2011, Williams was spending most of his time fabricating pieces for others, while Chen had managed to complete just one piece of his own in three years. His Swell Vases—made from injecting expanding polyurethane foam into resin-coated nylon netting—were displayed at Moss in February 2011. The two had kept in touch after graduation; Chen’s studio was just two blocks away from Williams’s CNC practice. "Kai and I knew each other for a long time," Chen says. "We knew each other’s personalities and dispositions. I trust Kai, and he trusts me, and we’re not going to fuck each other over. And that’s the most important thing."
Since quitting their day jobs and teaming up in the spring of 2011—Chen officially moved into Williams’s studio in April—their output has increased tremendously. The pair may be best known for their Cold Cut Coasters, which debuted at the Noho Design District during New York’s 2011 Design Week. The coasters are made by wrapping spandex and other fabrics around a piece of wood, strands of elastic, pieces of bone, and other objects, coating the whole collection in resin. The conglomeration—which resembles a colorful ham hock—is then sliced with a chop saw, creating one-of-a-kind cross sections. The layered aesthetic has become something of a trademark for the designers, reappearing in necklaces, bangles, rings, and plastic bricks, which they plan to assemble into larger furniture pieces.
Chen and Williams are also working on a series of furniture that references past work in a different way, creating shelves and other pieces out of spoil boards—the panels of wood designers place underneath whatever material is being cut on a CNC machine—which Chen and Williams still use once in a while, mostly to do jobs for friends. "The spoil board gets these marks from cutting things, so you get the past history of your patterns," Williams says. He noted that the pieces become "self-referential but less about the material and more about the history of what we’ve done."
As they continue experimenting, Chen and Williams are confident that they will have no problem filling their online shop with imaginative tangents. "Making numbered editions is something we are really going to explore further in the future," Chen says, "because having a set goal that you hit is really satisfying."
Check out the shop here.