We're plenty familiar with Derek Chen and his work. In addition to being profiled on Apartment Therapy, he was also one of our Fall Color Judges back in 2007. While he's making the rounds to promote his newest project in collaboration with Newton Vineyard, he sat down to answer our Meet the Maker survey.
Where did you grow up? Urbana, Illinois
Where did you study/train? My degree is actually in electrical engineering, from the University of Illinois. While I don’t technically have a design degree, I really do use the engineering discipline daily in my design practice. Much of my work is very closely tied to how that work is made, and I never begin a project without thinking all the way through to the technical and manufacturing details. Aside from that, I would say my design education came from growing up in my parents’ home, which was filled with American and Scandinavian design classics. I truly believe that simply understanding and appreciating design are more than half the battle towards creating design, and it was at home that I learned to do this.
What was the first thing you made and sold? The first thing I sold was sort of an accidental design. I’d been experimenting with molding plywood, and had made a couple unsuccessful prototypes of a molded plywood table in my garage. Well, Christmas came around and I didn't have any gifts for my family and friends, so I looked at the mold and decided to use just part of it to make a serving tray. One thing led to another and soon I was selling it in around 30 stores.
Who is your design idol? There are many, many designers and creators who I admire a great deal, but tend not to focus on any one of them at any time and instead look for bits of inspiration from as many disparate sources as possible. I could list a hundred people here, but let’s just say I admire James Irvine’s beautiful simplicity, Santiago Calatrava’s effortless engineering, Jaime Hayon’s clever quirkiness, Giulio Cappellini’s curatorial touch ... well, that would be a starting point.
Where do you find inspiration? I find inspiration in many places, most often outside of my narrow design realm. Most recently, I visited a winery in the Napa Valley – Newton Vineyard on Spring Mountain – and was really inspired by the winemaker’s commitment to working with what nature provides him, and not forcing anything by his own hand. Over a conversation with Chris Millard, Newton’s winemaker, I learned that unlike so many other wineries, his captures rainfall and refuses to pump in water from outside sources, really leaving vine growth and harvest results up to the natural climate, as well as working only with indigenous yeasts found on the vines themselves – a big variable in today’s competitive wine market. While speaking with him and learning about his own process, this huge tree at the top of the property, which they call “Pino Solo,” loomed overhead, and I was inspired to make a vertical wine rack. My Pino Solo Wine Tree bridges Newton’s philosophy as explained by Chris and my own sensibilities of working with available materials – never forcing anything, and working a process in such a way that it only glorifies both the materials and my design vision.
What’s one thing you wish YOU had made or designed? Balloons. Aren't they fun?
What’s your advice for a designer/maker just starting out? I think the most difficult thing is to learn how not do design like someone else, but how to design like you. I’m continually learning what inspires me, and it changes all the time. An exercise I do is to always ask myself what I like and why. I call it critical appreciation. And I apply it not just to design objects, but to music, movies, food and wine, etc. The point is to look not at other designers but to look at yourself. You will never be a better Dieter Rams than Dieter Rams. But you have a unique point of view and you can create from it if you work at drawing it out.
To see more of Derek's work, check out his website: Urbana Design.
The Pine Solo Wine Tree is available at Newton Vineyard.
(Images: Newton Vineyard)