Building Block

Building Block

Chen Chen + Kai Williams

Photography by Sean Davidson

New York-based friends and designers Chen Chen and Kai Williams are known for their eclectic range of avant-garde furniture, functional products, and decorative objects. Their process relies heavily on experimentation and responding to mixed materials they find compelling.

Akin to how Building Block's early designs were culled together from scraps of wood, leather, and industrial rubber cording from a hardware store, C+K's work is known for diverting common industrial materials into unexpected and often beautiful applications. From marble jewelry to mirrors made with stones to three-legged bowls, it’s easy to see how spontaneity + humor are embraced and embedded in their approach to both life and work.

Below, we take a tour of Chen and Kai’s Brooklyn studio where they show us their plasma panel, coveted Covington Slab Slaw, and talk to us about how there never was a business plan from the start :).

Can you describe the path that led to the work you do now?

Chen: We never intended to start a business together. There was never a plan. We find things we respond to, materially and process wise and try to pull some kind of product out of it. It's about discovering something beautiful and showing it to the world.

Kai: Our studio name is Chen Chen & Kai Williams because we had always intended it to be a short term collaboration. My previous business idea before that was a CNC router business. I was terrible at it. Our transition from production was slow. Along the way we transported studio job pieces in my Previa, built sets, made thousands of cement planters, did some restaurant interiors. That is to say that our business evolved into what it is over the last 11 years. And maybe that is the reason why we juggle wholesale, studio practice, with a little food art on the side.

What informs your material choices?

Chen: We studied industrial design which is such a broad field that they can only train you as generalists. The perspective of a broad but shallow base of knowledge is what allows us to mix together so many different materials and techniques. My dad, who is a chemist, calls what we do recreational science. There is something fleeting about knowing just enough about something that you will attempt things an expert will not.

Kai: I love going down late night Wikipedia holes. We make a lot of tests to get to a finished piece. It helps to use relatively humble materials so mistakes don't hurt so badly.

You guys have been doing this for 11 years! You must have the best stories. What’s a lesson you keep learning over and over?

Chen: It took us a long time to understand how and where to show certain work. We did the AD Home show one year and didn't sell a thing. It was a collection of furniture made with aluminum and black truck bed liner. Everything else there was dark wood and brass. It doesn't pay to be contrarian all the time. We refused to use brass for a long time because we thought it was a cheap trick to get someone to buy a design but then we realized if we couldn't use brass in an interesting way then we weren't being good designers. Recently though, we released our lighter holder and bottle openers in brass and it doesn't do as well as the stainless steel version. You never can predict what will sell.

Kai: Every good project turns into a disaster at some point before coming back around. I’m eternally optimistic about how long some will take, and get burned every time.

A few tips you’d give someone wanting to launch their own design business?

Chen: Make small things. You can air freight it and get it in 3 days and store all your inventory on one shelf.

Kai: Invest time in taking good photos. Some ideas can take years to mature, so don't be afraid to stick them on the back burner.

Tell us about your relationship to your wallets :)

Chen: I'm a back pocket wallet guy. I sit on my wallet all day. It's probably the one article on my body that I have a nagging sense of presence of at all times. It's never 100% comfortable but that's the point, to know it's there. This wallet doesn't have stitching or edge paint on the bottom of the fold which is what I wear through normally.

Kai: Of the two of us I do more of the metalwork and my hands are oily most of the time. That really shows in the patina of the two wallets.

On the subject of age, what are some things that have changed for you since the start of CC+KW for the better? for the worse?

Chen: I don't work as many hours. I think rise and grind culture makes you romanticize spending long hours at work. All it means is you're not planning things right.

Kai: I mean... When we started we had a guy living in a mahogany canoe back of our studio. And we had no idea what we were doing. I still don't but at least I have a list of things that I need to do.

What about your life now, would be most unexpected to your younger self?

Chen: I don't think we even thought about being in business 10 years later. We didn't even think about a year out. When we started, I thought, "If we run out of money, I'll just move home."

Kai: I have a 5 month old. I never expected to have children. I still get up in the night and am surprised that I do.

How do you feel, at your age, right now?

Chen: Somehow like time is moving faster and not moving at all. I work with our bookkeeper and I'm always surprised the month is over already. I forget how old I am all the time.

Kai: Feelin’ fine.

Any personal "rules"? Professional "rules"?

Chen: Don't forget to get the money.

Kai: Forget the money.

Chen and Kai each own the Simple Wallet in Vegetable Tanned leather. Find more on their site and also in this video interview.

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