A rising star in the world of furniture design gives his take on the essence of woodworking and the beauty of natural materials.
Why is it that wooden furniture often appears simple regardless of how complex the process of building it has been?
Unlike other contemporary materials, wood cannot be reverse-engineered. The nature of the material limits the construction and design of wooden furniture. As a minimalist, I try to design furniture that attracts attention because of its functional form. All elements on a piece of furniture have to have a reason to be there. This doesn’t only apply to wooden furniture. Any good furniture design needs to be holistic—every part has to relate to each other to establish a visual balance as a whole.
The essence of furniture is functional—a place to sit, store something, or display something—how do your designs affect those essential functions?
Function is the first consideration in my furniture design process. I always tell myself, “I am not a sculptor.” I use a functionalist perspective to design every element. It’s also vital to ensure that the design is structurally sound, and that every part has a reason to be there. Furniture design requires an appreciation for materials, physics, sociology, and ergonomics. By researching these areas of knowledge, I’ve been able to design furniture that is both attractive and functional.
When working with wood, how do you follow the essence of the wood’s natural shape while effectively manipulating that nature?
I like the phrase “manipulate nature.” Wood is a living material and a gift from Mother Earth. As a furniture maker, I have to respect and study the material. Wood has its own physical structure that was created by nature. I need to take advantage of its character and not work against it. Wood is a fantastic material for furniture design; it always challenges me to go with its nature while either manipulating it to fit my design or altering my design to fit the nature.
Woodworking is as old as humanity itself. What has stayed the same since ancient times?
Although many advanced tools and computer applications have been invented over the years that let us save time and create innovative designs, the traditional essence of woodworking has stayed the same. This essence is about working with your hands, and learning to solve problems with the limited tools you have.
What is the relationship in your life and in your work between traditional wisdom and contemporary knowledge?
I was raised in a very traditional family; my grandfather was a carpenter, and I was greatly influenced by his work ethic. He worked very hard to bring our entire family from a rural village to the city. To me, self-discipline is at the heart of all traditional wisdom. I experienced and witnessed firsthand what hard work can bring to a family. Compared to my grandpa, I don’t have so much responsibility now, and I can try to do my best for what I love. It is a true luxury. Contemporary knowledge is what I was taught in school, and the “transitional wisdom” comes from my family and experiences. Both of them are important to me.
How has being bi-cultural (Chinese and Canadian) impacted your aesthetic?
Being a bi-cultural individual has helped me to become a versatile designer. I was raised and educated in China until I was 20 years old. Chinese culture has greatly influenced my artistic perspective, deeply, all the way to my roots. But after 10 years of living, working, and studying in Canada, I have also absorbed, understood, and accepted Western culture. I formed my perspective on furniture design in the West, which has given me a way to manifest my Chinese views on contemporary furniture. I love to distill details and the essence of stories or aesthetics from traditional Chinese culture in my designs. Elegant is the word I most often use to describe classical Chinese arts; it is also the criteria for my design process. Chinese culture is so rich and elegant, my aesthetic is to reflect the essence of our culture on a large-scale object.