I have long followed the work of Chen & Kai, the unstoppable design studio based out of Brooklyn. From designing paperweights for the Whitney Museum to ready-made art ashtrays for Bushwick’s Fisher Parrish gallery, Chen & Kai are well-beloved in the design world. But what interested me most over the years is their consistent and under-explored obsession of incorporating food into their work. Inherently, designing for the home has a distinct relationship with food. What your kitchen utensils look and feel like, the centerpieces, all affect the performativity element of dining. But Chen & Kai have made an ode to food at every turn they can. There was the marble beauty of their Cold Cut coasters back in 2011. Then, at the 2015 reincarnation of Mission Chinese on East Broadway, former executive chef Angela Dimayuga (who was instrumental in the design decisions in the restaurant) tapped the duo she had known since college, to create wall pieces that used real mushrooms encapsulated in resin. At this past 2018 Design Week in May, Chen & Kai debuted their wackiest invention to date: an artisanal Cheeto machine. We had to find out more so we asked Chen & Kai to tell us a bit more about how their design work relates to food.
I watched an interview in which you talked about the way you slice your resins inspired by the salami meat in delis. Can you speak more about your connection to food, generally, and how you see it as a point of inspiration?
Our point of reference is product design so we view everything through the lens of machines and processes and because food is all around us, it inevitably sparks inspiration that leads back to our work. The connections aren’t hard to make, when you go to a butcher you see them using a band saw— same as in a woodshop. When we first saw a Cheeto (technically just a popped cornmeal snack) machine, it obviously held similarities to plastic extruders. A few years ago we made alcoholic gummy cocktails and the most enjoyable part was learning that gummy candies are molded in corn starch molds which are produced in a similar way to sand casting molds for metal.
While resin is a toxic material and bad for the environment, you both make a point of recycling the excess waste from prior projects back into your work for future projects. While this is obviously a sustainable practice, the scraps also add to the whimsy and uniqueness of each piece. Can you speak a bit more about how you think about your work in terms of sustainability?
We have a few different aspects to our business.The pieces we design for manufacturing at factories are primarily metallic so they can be recycled or ceramic which are benign when broken down (we don’t use exotic glazes). The resin pieces we make are all produced in our studio, so by volume it’s quite small and as you brought up we try to find a way to use every bit that we produce. Sustainability is about economics, and we have found a way to make the trimmings have value which gives us a big incentive to collect and reuse it.
Many of your designs have food-related names like your Caviar Sconce. Was that a conscious decision?
Early on we realized what we were making was kind of far flung from what the general American audience was accustomed to seeing. Everyone can relate to food and so whenever we can make that connection we try to as a way of extending a hand out to the audience to bring them into our world.
Can you tell me a bit more about the wacky food-related design work you’ve done in the past? You mentioned the alcoholic gummy cocktails.
If you look at the resin panels on the bar at Mission Chinese Food, you’ll see that it’s embedded with mushrooms and various other dried plants. Very early on we discovered that spandex netting in a resin casting would act like cross hatching and show motion in the piece, in the bar panels we used veil mushrooms to do the same. On a more current note, on the [Summer] solstice we participated in an event at the Storefront for Art and Architecture and for one hour made tortilla chips carved with the Sublime sun and listened to Sublime.
What was the inspiration for the Cheeto Machine? I saw you worked with Angela Dimayuga for the flavors and its release during Design Week. Can you tell me a bit about the process and where you see it taking your future practice?
A few years ago I was in China and I saw two guys making a giant bag of Cheetos on the side of the road and it was absolutely mesmerizing. It’s incredible that just by taking away the little cutter that normally cuts the Cheetos to that length, you end up with an infinite Cheeto. It took a year for Kai to find the machine on the internet and then another year for us to find an excuse to get it. We launched a line of wiggly metal accessories and we figured they looked enough like Cheetos to make the connection. Angela’s been a friend since college and she was gracious enough to help design the flavor powder where we combined the super synthetic orange cheese with really nice pepper powders so that the flavor was more complex.
Why do you think the design community has suddenly found food suddenly to be of interest? It is so trendy.
For us it’s the immediacy of the process. Of course there are cooking techniques that take a long time but it’s very rare in design to be able to make something immediately.