Sources of Design Inspiration: A Talk with Tung Chiang

[Ed. Note: The following is a speech that industrial design and Ah Tung principalTung Chiang delivered as part of Metropolis’s Next Generation symposia, which was held atInternational Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) 2003]

My name is Tung Chiang. I grew up in Hong Kong; now I live and work in Los Angeles. I would like to talk about who I am and from which influences my work comes.

A lot of designers think that a work is part of a person, that it has come from some mysterious place inside. How it will sell depends on who we are as individuals. But an interesting thing for me is that I think we ourselves change from time to time. I may be Tung Chiang, but I can also be somebody else in order to see things differently.

I am Tung Chiang, but I am also Audrey Hepburn. Everybody tells me that I’m beautiful, however I’m no better. I believe that true beauty has to come from within, that’s why I have this chair. It represents total harmony between your outward appearance and your soul. A metal frame was used as an inside bone structure; it was then cast over on the outside with a clear urethane. This means that the chair feels as soft as your own body, while the inside structure stays forever strong and muscular—a perfect combination of outer beauty and inner strength, a perfect symbol of true beauty.

I am Tung Chiang, but I am also Galileo. I live in a time when people think that the world is flat; however, I believe otherwise. When I work on this computer work station, I lower the front area for the keyboard so my elbows can keep at a comfortable 90-degree angle. I also raise this platform so I can keep my monitor at my eye level. This one-piece rotation tabletop is full of highs and lows, and also includes features like a pencil holder, cup holder, and book stands. With the mind that the world is not a flat place I was able to challenge myself to design a more ergonomic table.

For a while, I was also a pregnant woman. In my womb I carry a child, a happy burden that I know will one day leave my side to grow and assume its own identity. This big chair shelters a small chair, just like a mother. When a little kid sits on the small chair, the mother chair functions as a table. In other words, the mother chair changes roles from a chair to a table, just like a woman changes her role from a woman to a mother when she is facing the needs of her baby. This chair is a symbol of motherhood, but it is also a practical design that will grow with a child. One day he’ll discover that he’s too big for the smaller chair, so naturally he’ll shift to the bigger chair.

I am also a five-year old child. I am a child at heart and will never grow old, so I came up with this sofa. The bottom of this sofa is curved. If you have two people sitting in it they will use it as a seesaw. At the same time, it works perfectly well as a couch. Through play people will get closer—that is how we make friends when we were kids.

I am John Lennon, but at the same time, I am Yoko Ono. We believe that we are united until the end of time. That’s why we think that a single ring is not good enough to symbolize the love between us. This ring is made of two pieces; it will only hold each other in place when a user is wearing it. Otherwise, it will break apart. This is just like us—we are only complete when we are with each other. It’s also important to note that with this ring, the person wearing it plays a very important role—it’s through physical wearing of this ring that he or she makes the ring complete. Just like any relationship, it is the person involved that is important, and not the object that is given to each other.

I am also a garbage collector. With this piece, two big vacuum bags slide into a metal frame to form a chair. You can then choose anything you want, stuff it inside the bags, seal them with a zip lock, and then use a vacuum cleaner to suck out the air to keep whatever you stuff inside in good condition. You have total control of how the chair should look like or feel like when you sit in it. The greatest fun with this chair is using whatever is available to you, and to be creative with it. And if you screw up, you can always just throw the stuff out, and like with the original trash, just start over again.

I am also Sir Isaac Newton—the person who defined the world by questioning why the apple insists on hitting him on the head and dropping to the ground. But this time I chose to redefine the world in a different way. To make my new world more complete, I designed a teacup set that can defy gravity. The bottom of the cup you see here is fit with the positive side of magnets facing downward, while the saucer is fit with the positive side of magnets facing upward. The cup floats in the air until the weight of the tea holds it down, so it won’t spill. It floats up again once you are done drinking the tea.

You know the legend of three monkeys: hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil. I’m the first monkey. This is called the wall of silence. Its function is a contradiction of its name, because the wall was made to create an environment that is friendlier to conversation. I used corrugated cardboard that was built under a modular system. Each module is made of 16 pieces of cardboard and each piece will be glued together in a different configuration to make different modules. The modules are combined to be a continuous wall, with certain areas placed strategically to create opposite curvature, so they can become a resting place for either objects or people. The corrugated cardboard absorbs all the noise around the room, so if you’re having a conversation with someone else you can both hear each other better.

I am also the Iron Chef, Japan’s most famous chef. I love to do unexpected things with food. That’s why I thought a sea urchin could be a wonderful seat. Rather than letting the urchin sit on top of limbs of rice to become a piece of sushi, maybe we can try to sit on it instead. This is an inflatable sea urchin, it allows a person to sit at any angle or any position he or she likes. As the best chef we know can surprise our eyes and taste buds with new ways of treating food, so can a good designer.

To be in the shoes of someone else, to look at the world from a different perspective is a way of inspiration. What if I am not Tung Chiang? What if I am so-and-so or so-and-so? With all the characters and all the personalities in the world there are unlimited sources of inspiration.

Something else that shapes our work as a designer is our personal experience. In my life I have experienced tremendous change. Moving from Hong Kong to L.A., from one person to the next, from advertising to design, I change my roles every minute of the day. This minute I’m a friend, next minute I’ll be a son. I can be an employer or an employee at the same time. Human experiences are multi-dimensional, and in my work I would like to reflect that. I strongly feel that designers should not restrict themselves to one single style, or way of working; rather, we should change as we ourselves change, since our designs should be a statement of our life.

Being inspired is the first step, being creative is the second necessary step, but the design process does not end there. The idea will not become complete unless it is successfully transformed into an actual product that can be reached, can be felt, and can be used. This is the greatest achievement of a designer—to see his inspiration to the end.

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