For Vancouver-born designer Tom Chung, good design has a clear idea. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a functional idea,” he explains, but an idea nonetheless, be it aesthetic or disruptive. Tom, Designlines Magazine 2018 Designer of the Year, is currently based in Toronto and is the designer of the Plank collection, a series of closed storage units including coffee tables, a side table, and media units.
Tom’s education provided a two-pronged foundation to his design. He graduated from the Industrial Design program at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art + Design – including a semester at Malmstens Linköping University in their Furniture Design program in Stockholm, Sweden. These two programs greatly informed his practice, he said, “with one brain for systems thinking and another for craftsmanship.”
While his work at Emily Carr focused on broader thinking, such as how to implement hydrogen fuelling systems in a safe way, his semester at Malmstens, a traditional wood furniture school, provided a helpful juxtaposition – “it was really great, but really different than what I was already doing.” His first job out of university involved production sourcing for a large Toronto company, which gave Tom insight into how much goes into bringing a product to market and what makes a product successful on a larger scale, “and it usually doesn’t have anything to do with how it looks, but how you can maximize hurdles into the design rather than fight against them.”
“I think the biggest mistake people make is putting too many things in a room.”
That experience has worked its way into his current design practice, especially with regards to the Plank collection collaboration with EQ3: “It’s a rare opportunity, because not a lot of companies have their own supply chain from production through to retail, which EQ3 does, which was nice because then you can control and handle how the product is made, distributed, and retailed.”
His current approach is focused on an environmental context, “informed by systems of distribution, manufacturing, and cultural infrastructure.” Where a product actually ends up is crucial to its design – the scale, proportion, materials, aesthetic, and if it works in the intended environment. With the Plank collection, Tom wanted something that was neutral and contemporary, but that could “still fade into the back of most interiors.” The marriage of closed storage with multi-palette customization makes this series of walnut or oak veneer pieces both unique and perfectly suited to each individual’s space. “The result is a group of asymmetrical volumes with two sizes of small and large sliding door panels that define the heights of each box,” Tom explained. “The doors have been designed in wood slats and fabric upholstery to allow for digital remote signals to pass through the doors. The cabinets assume a neutral, well-proportioned language to display and store various objects.” Tom explained that this collection “has achieved a nice asymmetrical balance that allows multiple pieces to be in a room together without having a [homogenous] feeling.”
His focus on creating a collection that could exist together without feeling too “matchy” is about incorporating flexibility in interior design. “Personally, I feel that if you have that sort of décor in a room it becomes very overbearing and very rigid,” he explained. “A good comparison would be a place setting on a dining table and the formality to having an eight-piece matching silverware set, versus a bunch of stuff you found at a flea market or something, and there’s a nice casualness to that. And I think that’s how people feel more comfortable living now. I was trying to make something that had a more casual feeling that you could purchase in one place instead of having to go out and purchase all of these different pieces and put them together.”
Tom’s design process is one that involves a lot of preparatory research and thinking about finding solutions to common problems: “When I’m thinking about a product, it usually starts with looking at a lot of precedents and architectural conditions that exist and you might see that there’s a reoccurring need for something based on an interior detail that you see a lot that doesn’t have a solution.” While he doesn’t necessarily have a specific trademark when it comes to his design, he said he always seeks to find a new way of approaching a project: “That could be materially – using a new material – or creating a new function, or in the case of EQ3, maximizing what they have available through their production line and retail.” The process is different every time, though, which helps to inspire creativity: “It’s very messy, which I think is a good thing because then it becomes very formulaic and that shows in the work.”
Tom’s recent projects speak to this “messy” and creative process. During his recent five-week residency at the Banff Centre, Tom learned how to work with and use ceramics, “which was very different for me because I was actually making and handling stuff myself,” he said. It was a project of pure material exploration. “One of the things that I realized while there and making stuff is that the material I felt had the most successful results was worked by the hand of the person who designs it. So, I can’t say I have new ideas for design pieces in ceramics, but a parallel practise where I’m interested in working myself with ceramics. It’s also a really nice counterpoint to how I usually work, where you can do a project in a day versus two years.”
Another recent project of Tom’s is a publication called Local Source. In essence a process journal, Local Source came about based on Tom’s experiences of everyday commuting. Working in Toronto allows Tom to “work with companies in different cities and time zones, while also having an excellent network of localized industrial manufacturing.” He makes the daily walk from his apartment to his studio, past the construction of Toronto’s new Museum of Contemporary Art. He also regularly drives out to the suburbs to visit the factories where his prototypes are made, passing the façades and public works projects being constructed. It was during these regular commutes that he started to “notice the progress on a micro level,” he explained.
Tom began photographing his daily views as “documentation of what was directly around me as I was making stuff.” He included in the book “photocopies and scans of email correspondence and receipts of prototypes, so it was more a documentation of my process and what I was actually doing versus an inspiration, but I think in a way that was the inspiration,” he said. “If you’re experiencing this very dry, hard, cold winter commute with cold materials every day and driving out to the suburbs every day, I think it comes through in your work. I wanted to make something that fit into those spaces.”
Tom’s design advice is decidedly one of fighting the fear of unused space. “I think the biggest mistake people make is putting too many things in a room,” he explained. While we may feel the need to fill every wall, every corner, or every inch of floor space with furniture or accessories, open space is nothing to fear and can actually lend to a room’s tranquility and cohesiveness. This is particularly the case when, more and more, we are living in smaller spaces: “I think with the way people live now, everyone has far less of a footprint, and I think the impulse is to fill every square foot with stuff,” Tom explained. “I think that people need a lot less than they usually have. And I think it’s important for your well-being, because there’s a sense of stressfulness that comes with a space that’s filled to the brim with stuff – unless it’s intentional and you thrive in that environment. But I think when people are trying to lay out their space and don’t really know what to do and don’t necessarily have an opinion about that kind of thing, the natural impulse is to overcrowd a floor plan because that’s what is more common in public spaces and what people are used to.”