Finding Design Inspiration in Beauty and Mortality


This article is part of our Design special section about water as a source of creativity.


Chen Chen and Kai Williams grabbed attention in 2011 with consumer products made from trash.

They were recent graduates of Pratt Institute’s industrial design program, and they swaddled pieces of rope, scraps of wood and other discards in spandex that they soaked in resin, creating a ham hock-like form that could be sliced to create variegated drink coasters that a writer described as “one part terrazzo and one part mortadella.”

The coasters were an example of the way the designers like to work, not by sitting at a computer and opening a drawing program but by manually messing with materials. The designs were also a provocation — a celebration of ugliness or at least, as they saw it, “almost a rejection” of traditional ideas about beauty, said Mr. Chen, as he and Mr. Williams led a tour of their firm’s sprawling, light-struck new studio in the South Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn on a recent afternoon.

Today the designers, both 39 and founders of CCKW, still begin their creations with hands-on tinkering. But the pieces in their new furniture and lighting collection are made of materials more widely considered beautiful.

Elegant sconces feature spun-brass shades evocative of rose petals. Chairs have legs and seat frames of richly hued walnut, with gnarly whole walnuts helping to bolt leather-strap backrests onto swooping tubular-steel frames. More walnuts — this time sliced so that their intricate innards are revealed as crisp cross-sections — are attached to the undersides of the beveled-glass tops of coffee tables, like specimens captured on microscope slides.

“The pieces might be visually incongruent but there is this underlying connection to nature,” Mr. Chen said.

The nature theme emerged after he and Mr. Williams moved into their new space, a former produce and grocery warehouse, bringing with them the power saws, kilns, clamps and other tools that they use to manipulate materials.

The partners had been working on the sconces and chairs in their previous Brooklyn studio, about 30 blocks south, but they had been thinking about them as separate, unrelated projects.

Soon after the move, though, Mr. Chen went for a walk in the Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark a block from their new workplace. As he strolled by stately trees and dignified stone monuments, he began contemplating the natural cycle of birth and death, and he and Mr. Williams soon realized that their disparate designs — the petal-shaped light fixtures, the walnut used in the chairs — sprang from nature, too.

Rounding out what they are calling the Sacred Tree collection are side tables covered with glazed ceramic reliefs of skeletons and leaves — figurative decoration that is a departure for the duo, and a more literal expression of the life cycle.

The designers conceived the items in the collection as production pieces, not one-off art pieces. They have been searching out specialized firms to make the parts; they and their staff of two will then assemble the furnishings and fixtures in the studio. There may be subtle variations in the wares because of the natural materials and the hand assembly.

“This line of work is all about designing a process,” Mr. Williams said. “Each thing can be slightly different. It’s the process that is the product for us.”

Pieces in the Sacred Tree collection, ranging from $2,300 to $8,300, can be ordered by emailing sales@cckw.us.



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