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Behind The Scenes

Chen Chen and Kai Williams Show Off Their Screw-Ups

Chen Chen and Kai Williams don’t always get it right the first time around—heck, nobody does. And these two, who make everything from ham-hock-inspired coasters to intricate woven carpets, are totally cool with projects that just bomb. “I think we’re always open to coming back to them sooner or later,” Kai explains. “A lot of our products start their lives as failed tests of earlier projects.” Below, Kai gives us the rundown on some of the design duo’s most memorable botches and false starts. —jane-claire quigley “These photos are, in a way, a material library of failures that we still think have aspects of interest. We don’t know how to turn lemons into lemonade every time, but each of these things represents a process or a material in which we are invested. This is the result of a stalled collaboration with KARA, a very cool bag company. We were trying to make zipper pulls with these insects: the ash borer beetle. During the project, I bred and then gassed 50 or so flies with this CO2 container. Needless to say, it didn’t work out.” “These are some other things we have spent too much time making that haven’t gone anywhere…yet. In the photo is CNC leather I wanted to make into a duffel bag after seeing a lot of laser-cut bags. The failure here is that this specific bag looks like shit. The blue stones were from an attempt to develop necklaces in line with our Stone Age bangles. I like how the U appears bent and not cut, and that the height is the same dimension of the width. Turns out, a stone like this is too heavy to wear around your neck. And there’s no good way to fasten it. Whoops. The shell is a porcelain slip cast of a scallop shell. We had intended to make a saucer. It’s hard to see, but we used a Dymo label maker on the original positive—it’s a relatively easy way to customize an original before a mold. I also like the dichotomy of the crappy label translated into porcelain. Turns out, there’s no practicality here. We wound up making a larger version without the text.” “And these are some things we have bought and haven’t used. Yet. We always have an idea of how we want a material to behave—or a product that we want to make. It just sometimes doesn’t work out that way. The blue and pink iridescent rocks were bought at the Tucson Gem Show. I had intended to encrust something like they were sprinkles, but I haven’t figured out how. The jade-like rings immediately intrigued me because they look so much like meat—still working out how to make them wearable. All of the four powders are natural resins.” “This literally stinks. We got lots of lamb and beef bones from fancy restaurants because they’re fascinating. Bone is an extremely strong, light, natural material that comes in interesting shapes.  We wanted to make necklaces out of resin and bone, but first they had to be cleaned. Chen spent months stripping the meat off the bone, boiling them, bleaching them, and soaking them in acetone. He consulted naturalists and archaeologists. The conclusion? There is no easy way to clean bones. They still smell terrible.” Fruit that holds your plants—these boys made it happen!
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Head to the Valley of Ashes With Chen Chen and Kai Williams

All right, time to bust out your high-school copy of The Great Gatsby (or your Baz Luhrman DVD, no judgments), because that mythological Valley of Ashes? It’s a real place. In Queens. Chen Chen and Kai Williams, the guys behind the home-and-accessories line of the same name, sometimes make the trip to the spot—officially called Willet’s Point—to get a little perspective. “It’s crazy,” says Chen. “It’s seriously like a third-world country out there.” Go on a tour with him and see just what he means. —jane-claire quigley “We discovered this neighborhood when we had our old van taken to a junkyard there, and we were immediately drawn to it. I think our underlying interest in Willet’s Point is that everyone there is making the best possible solutions to deal with scarcity of capital. There’s the right way to do something, and then there are ways that make do with what’s available. That thought process exists in all of our work.” “You find all sorts of ad-hoc solutions people create out of necessity. Once we saw a man in a Dodge Caravan, side door open, with a shoe display inside, slowly cruising down the street, calling out to potential customers.” “This image of the Cadillac in the mud is a common sight. The neighborhood isn’t hooked up to the plumbing system, so when it rains, these giant puddles form in the once-paved street. Each giant pothole becomes a small pond.” “In general, I think it’s surprising for most people to find that a place like this exists in New York City, especially under the shadow of the brand-new Citi Field. Fitzgerald called it a Valley of Ashes, but at its very basic level, Willet’s Point is about being able to imbue something with value using your abilities. That’s pretty inspiring.” These two made the prettiest cement planters we’ve ever seen.
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