Paul Chan: Uncommon beauty in common things.

Your lighting series, Either/Or, encourages an emotional interaction between individuals and their lighting source. What do you hope that users will take away from this interaction?

I hope this light will inspire a sense of play, give people back the curiosity they had as children, the instinct to touch, to give everyday objects a new perspective. As technology advances, objects are increasingly treated as generic disposable goods. I hope the experience of turning on and off the Either/Or light feels like turning the pages of a good book or the touch of a cool glass on a hot day.

Where do you draw the line between art and design? How does Either/Or toe this line?

To me, design is to see uncommon beauty in common things. Art is to inspire and operates outside of pragmatic function. Either/Or is self-admittedly somewhat ambiguous in that it can be seen as a sculpture but also functions as an ambient light source. Its unexpected form provides ambient light in unusual spaces, beneath a staircase or on a corner of a bookshelf, drawing people’s attention to areas they wouldn't usually notice. Either/Or is playful and innovative in function while elegant and graceful in form.

Do you draw inspiration from materials? Or is your choice of material inspired by external sources? 

I am always on the hunt for new and interesting materials and unexpected ways to combine them. In Either/Or, I challenged myself to pair the machine precision of steel with the malleability of LEDs to form a cohesive whole.

While material innovation often spurs new concepts and forms, I also like to juxtapose those innovations with some sort of vernacular craft. I ask myself: if people have lived without this new object before, is it really necessary? Is this design new for the sake of newness? Only when I can answer these questions for myself honestly, do I begin to push the design further.

Only by reversing the perception of an object, turning it inside out could we begin to imagine and design something that is new yet completely functional.

Many of your projects are inspired by dichotomy and conflicting ideologies. How do you express this tension in your design?

Dichotomy is inherent in architecture and design. Every project has a site, a cultural context, and history to be considered along with program, form, and function. As an architect, I approach each project, be it a building or an object, from a series of productive constraints, in search of new boundaries for new ideas.

To give myself productive constraints means that I need to consider the design from multiple perspectives and time scales and to consider dialogues between polarities. These constraints also create a sense of self-awareness that keeps the design intent honest.

Your designs also explore the "in between." Has your time spent living in both Hong Kong and NYC influenced or affected your work?

Growing up in Hong Kong, I was born into two languages. As a kid, I would pause throughout my day and wonder "Am I thinking in Chinese or English?" Most of the time I didn’t really know, because I was constantly switching between languages in my head. From very early on, I was aware of the “in-between” space and it is precisely in that liminal mental state where I feel most at home. After moving to the US,  I once again had to recalibrate and that led to more questions about my environment. As a result of this upbringing, I was naturally attuned to an open-minded way of perceiving things.

The other major city you're working with is Detroit. What has been the most challenging aspect of designing for Detroit?

I fell in love with Detroit while working on an adaptive reuse hotel project in downtown Detroit for the last three years. The city has this incredible energy and optimism about its future despite the financial crisis and I think art, design, and architecture are playing big roles in defining the future of Detroit.  

In the last couple of years, Detroit has grown rapidly and will continue to evolve. While growth is a necessary part of urban development, we need to be conscious as architects and designers to avoid the pitfalls of gentrification in the built environment. For me, it is important to identify specific cultural aspects of the city as a starting point. I love talking to different members of the community from local vendors, Uber drivers to teachers and community leaders to learn their story first hand. I want to really understand what the neighborhood wants on the ground, to give local Detroiters a voice in their built environment while welcoming newcomers to Detroit and helping the city grow in an organic direction.

The impetus of my project, Garden & Houses, is to look at how architecture can be a vehicle to connect the cultural, architectural and historical context of a city. On one hand, the city’s history and locals defined so much of the identity of Detroit. On the other, there is a new generation of young people looking to settle in Detroit and grow with the city. How do you reconcile the old with the new? The Art Deco with the Modernist? How do you connect the newcomers with the locals?

With Garden & Houses, these are the questions at the forefront of my mind. To create a new and vibrant architecture where people of all cultures can find a connection. I am on the precipice of this journey and excited to learn and grow with this project.

Garden & Houses looks at the future of architecture, housing, and the sharing economy. What is one thing you hope other architects and designers will think about when designing for the future?

In comparison to other design disciplines, architecture has the longest gestation period. For me, this has meant creating socially relevant projects that address the larger needs of a community both now and in the future. Going forward, I hope this trend towards socially relevant work will be more pervasive. With Garden & Houses, this means connecting utopian ideals with pragmatic entrepreneurship.

An unwavering sense of optimism allows architects and designers to live in a world that has yet to exist, to break conventions, start fresh and look towards the future. It means reinventing the definition of how a house can look. Instead of having a front yard and backyard, why not combine them and turn it into a park? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a house in a park?

Either/Or was your debut collection. What was your biggest takeaway or learning experience?

Launching The Coast alongside my debut collection, Either/Or, was a great way to share my work and introduce my practice. Being part of Collective Concept also exposed me to a whole new frontier and a group of like-minded people.

With architecture, you typically don’t know how the final project will turn out until it’s done. Being able to quickly see the product at its final scale as a prototype gave me a new perspective in shaping the discourse of my studio.

After 10 years in architecture, what made you decide to finally launch your own studio, The Coast?

The Coast is an abstraction, an idea of the feeling of being by the sea. It is the form of jottings, rather than an essay. My childhood home is by the sea amidst the bustling city of Hong Kong. Hearing the sound of the waves and seeing the glimmering reflection of the light on the water shaped my sensibility as a designer and as a person. I would watch the coastline for hours, something that’s ever-changing, undefined, somewhere in between, but it made me feel a sense of calm, a timeless constant and something beyond myself.

I launched my architecture and design practice after ten years to investigate new ways of design thinking and create socially impactful design work that is grounded rather than fleeting.

10. How was the A/D/O Workspace a part of your design process?

Beyond enjoying being able to work within a great project by nArchitects and the plethora of machines for prototyping, I would say that the camaraderie between the A/D/O members is a fantastic resource for me as a young practitioner. The diversity of disciplines within A/D/O members facilitates exchanges in ideas and breaks down the boundaries between architecture, interiors, product, graphics and the arts.  It is ultimately a space that is conducive to collaboration both in structure and community which is useful no matter the size or age of a practice.

Photos by Justin Ryan Kim.

Paul Chan is an A/D/O Workspace Member. The Coast’s lighting series Either/Or for Collective Concepts at ICFF won Made in the Boroughs award from NYCxDesign.