Furniture designer, engineer and manufacturer Derek Chen identifies his childhood in the midwest as the origin of his love for American design, details how he transitioned from his first career as a management consultant to his second career as the CEO and Design Director of Council, a modern American furniture brand, and celebrates the merits of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a model of ingenuity. Plus, he invented a technique for cleaning his room with a 2x4. Listen:
What is your earliest memory?
Being at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC, probably around 1971. The noise, the crowds, and mostly the giant balloons. Specifically, the balloon of Underdog, my biggest hero at the time.
How do you feel about democratic design?
I love it. I’ve always believed Ikea is a good thing. But for every Ikea there has to be a Cappellini that pushes the needle forward without engaging in the popularity contest.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?
Just do the right thing. You can always make money, but you can’t get your integrity back.
How do you record your ideas?
I scribble on scraps of paper and on the backs of envelopes, then scatter the scraps everywhere. If I really can’t afford to lose a thought, I send myself an email.
What’s your current favorite tool or material to work with?
The newest one. I love learning about new materials, and I love buying new tools.
What book is on your nightstand?
My Kindle, though admittedly I just use it to watch Warriors games from my DVR. Also, a client recently gave me a copy of Let My People Go Surfing by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. It’s a nice reminder that you don’t need to sell out your principles, integrity, and priorities in order to succeed.
Why is authenticity in design important?
Originality and creativity and authenticity go hand in hand in hand...you’re either creating or you’re copying. But I don’t believe that design is necessarily a collection of entirely unique and independent creative thoughts. It’s a conversation with history; we know what we know and we build upon it, riff off it, expand on it with authentically new ideas.
Favorite restaurant in your city?
At Commonwealth (which we worked on) chef Jason Fox is really creative with food. As someone who works in a different creative medium, it’s really fun to experience someone’s creativity with an entirely different palette.
What might we find on your desk right now?
You might find a lot of things, but there are a lot of things that I can’t find on my desk right now. It’s a mess. I see a 3d printed cell phone case, a few pairs of glasses, a tube of putty (in hard-to-find white), some furniture levelers in blackened steel, some miter saw parts, a replacement switch for the welder pedal, all amid drifts of paper. Where is my phone?
Who do you look up to and why?
In all of the chapters of my life, it’s been the person with the most integrity. This starts with my parents, of course, and the list includes Mike McCollom, my high school track coach, Joyce Nitz, a partner at Accenture, Jerry Helling of Bernhardt Design, and President Barack Obama.
What’s your favorite project that you’ve done and why?
All of them, especially the next one.
What are the last five songs you listened to?
I’ve been listening to African music at work. Les Seigneur Rochereau, among other artists. It’s good to work to: it’s pleasant, it has a steady amble without too much drama, and the lyrics aren’t distracting (because I don’t understand them).