Designer Cynthia Chen’s Rug Collection Pays Homage To Iconic Asian Snacks

published Jan 10, 2021
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Credit: Cynthia Chen

A few months into the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic late last year, San Francisco-based designer Cynthia Chen found the ultimate creative escape: Weaving exquisitely elaborate rugs in the form of beloved Asian snacks. It began in September. Chen, now a product designer at Stripe Climate, had some time off and a proclivity for creative projects outside of her 9 to 5. What started as a Spam rug to complement a novelty AirPod case shaped like Spam has since evolved into a collection of Calbee Shrimp Chips, Yakult, and White Rabbit candy rugs.

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An American canned meat product that dates back to World War II, Spam has been revitalized and largely embraced in Hawaiian, Japanese, and South Korean cuisine. For Chen, a Chinese-American whose parents emigrated from China in their 20s, it’s a source of deep nostalgia—an afterschool snack she turned to time and time again during her childhood. “After the Spam rug was done, I was hooked,” Chen tells Apartment Therapy. “I definitely had a personal attachment since it was nostalgic for me, so I decided to keep the theme going with other snacks that I loved as a kid.” 

Credit: Cynthia Chen
Credit: Cynthia Chen

The rugs are created via punch needling, a technique that uses a special “punch needle” to weave yarn through a loose-weave fabric. “There’s something really satisfying about crafting something with your hands away from screens or technology,” Chen says. In choosing which snacks to create, the designer navigated towards the familiar. “I love how iconic these package designs are,” she says. “If you removed the product name from the Spam can, Yakult bottle, or Calbee Shrimp Chips bag, you would still know exactly what that snack is.” 

She adds, “A big part of this series is paying homage to those designs. I try to pick snacks that have that iconic quality that make them instantly recognizable.” The needling, on the other hand, is a deeply involved process. “The time it takes on each rug varies depending on the design, but each rug does require some iteration to translate my design onto the rug format correctly,” Chen says. “Each piece is truly one of a kind and takes quite a while to finish.” 

Credit: Cynthia Chen
Credit: Cynthia Chen

The rugs have not gone unnoticed. Last month, Chen shared colorful snapshots of her snack rug series on Twitter. It has since amassed over 60K likes—and a seal of approval from the official Spam brand, by the way. When asked to reflect on why she believes the rugs have resonated, Chen muses, “I would say they spark fond memories of when we were all kids, eating these snacks. And through that, we’ve found that there are so many others that have had similar experiences and upbringings.” 

The designer is still in the process of building up her collection prior to opening up an official shop. In the meantime, follow Chen on Twitter and Instagram to stay updated on the rug series (yes, more Asian snacks are coming!) and possible commissions. As for the designer’s current personal favorite Asian snack? “Boba milk tea,” Chen says. “I’m always on the hunt for the best boba in San Francisco!”