Name: Albert Chu
Location: Los Angeles
Current projects: Expanding and refining Otaat's collection of leather accessories and developing objects for the home and office.
Mission: Paring down complexity to the fundamental beauty, utility and fun of simplicity.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer? Throughout my childhood, I was always interested in thinking and making things, thanks to my sister who made nearly everything a fun creative process. So I was lucky to grow up in an environment where creativity and generative possibilities were the norm. When I was in high school, I applied to Cooper Union (architecture) on a whim and was unexpectedly accepted. That was probably the first time I thought seriously about design as a career, as I decided whether to attend Cooper or not. And I thought, "Wow, maybe I can actually do this for real!"
Education: I ended up going to UC Berkeley, where I got a Bachelor's in Civil Engineering, and then to Harvard University's Graduate School of Design for a Master's in Architecture.
First design job: First unpaid: atrium landscape design for my childhood home; my parents were nice and trusting enough to let me do it, especially since I was about six years old. I think it turned into a small field of kalanchoe with liriope as liners. Perhaps this was a precursor to my fascination with monochrome and textures (at least when the plants weren't flowering).
First paid job: In high school, I helped out at an architecture office doing some basic model-making work. The first project I worked on had so many arches that I learned really quickly how to cut curves in foam core—and learned that patience is key!
Who is your design hero? Martin Margiela—for his anonymity, his genre-bending mash-ups, his conceptual rebellion, his detail-oriented follow-through and his wit.
Above and below: Otaat prototypes in Chu's Los Angeles studio
Describe your workspace: Controlled disaster! While I like a clean, tidy, sparse environment in life, for work I love having zones of messes. I think the closest analogy would be flipping through my old sketchbooks: I use pocket-sized ones for jotting down basic concepts and small, partially figured-out details so that I can revisit them as idea instigators rather than as documentation of "final solutions." Similarly, I like looking around my workspace and seeing evidence of in-progress work that allows me to jump in and out of various projects or iterations. As a result, my long work desk has piles of mock-ups, sketches, materials, rejects, books and water glasses all over it. And along the walls are loads of shelves where I can store inventory, old work products and other miscellany for reference and use. Then there are boxes and boxes full of stuff; one day I'm going to build a fort with them!
Other than the computer, what is your most important tool? Pen and scrap paper—not only for drawing and writing on but also for quick-and-dirty N.T.S. prototyping. Those are my most important "tools," not to mention being in transit (airplanes are super generative, as are those days when I'm driving all over and have only my mind to keep me company!).
What is the best part of your job? Through working on Otaat, I have gotten to meet some really amazing, smart and talented people. That is definitely the best part because I have learned so much from peers and elders who all have different insights and realms of knowledge, ranging from creative influences and world views to technical construction and craft. Some of my favorite moments are talking with the leather manufacturers that I get to work with, because they each have decades of experience and can talk not only about the nitty-gritty of manufacturing but also about how our world has changed over the years. It's been a fascinating history lesson from very personal perspectives. And I also love working with people that I admire on collaborations that stretch my natural tendencies and let us all jump down the rabbit hole to something really different for us yet synthetic.
What is the worst part of your job? Running errands when my to-do list is crazy long.
What time do you get up and go to bed? I usually wake up at 7:00 a.m., pour some black coffee into my Kazakes Ceramics double-handled mug, walk to the studio and start working. I go to bed by midnight. I like this general schedule because I love daylight and work best in the morning, when things are calm and fresh.
How do you procrastinate? I doodle ideas about current and future projects. For better or worse, it's really easy to justify this form of procrastination! I feel like it's not a total loss in terms of productivity but rather a way to rethink, casually, the various things going on.
What is your favorite productivity tip or trick? Coffee and mono-beat music. That combination—or taking a shower to clear the mind, refocus and wake up—works well for me, especially after my first window of productivity starts to wane.
What is the most important quality in a designer? Doing it! I think it's important that design enters the realm of reality, even if it's not "perfect" or what you imagine. To me, only when it starts to become real does it actually exist. And most excitingly, that's the point when you (and others) can be critical of the process and product and begin to work through the design and iterate to the point of acceptability and refinement.
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers? That design is a luxury.
What is your most prized design possession? My grandmother's ceramic pieces. Not only are they incredibly sentimental to me but they are also a testament to her spirit as a doer and maker. She made quirky, distinctively-shaped vessels with a color palette that was both earthy and pop. And this sensibility, in conjunction with my grandfather's belief in the rewards and grace of simplicity, really informs my approach and aesthetic.
What is exciting you in design right now? I am always drawn to creative processes that do not take themselves too seriously yet are still rigorous in their reflexivity, criticality and intentions. And so I am really excited by the interest in abstraction and whimsy in design, especially in "minimalist" design. I like how there seems to be a lack of pretension and self-seriousness right now. It seems like there's "room to breathe" now, where fun personalities and points of view are encouraged.
If you could redesign anything, what would you choose? Airplane seats. Gladware. The car-radio dash and interface. And a fun yet subtle hat.
What do you hope to be doing in ten years? I hope that Otaat will have grown to include a tight collection and archive of thoughtful, useful and fun accessories in not only leather but also additional materials. (I am itching to play more with Neoprene, sturdy muslins, paper, gels, paints and more.) I hope to expand the brand to include housewares and office-wares that act as "tabletop furniture" and settings for utility and play. And I hope to be running a small studio where I can work with others on performative, as well as completely ridiculous, projects. I also hope that in ten years I will be able to help other young designers and creatives work on their own businesses and ideas; I have really appreciated all the help and advice I've received from others and hope I can continue the precedent.
Lastly, who's more fun to have a drink with: architects, industrial designers or graphic designers? To be honest, they're all fun to have a drink with!