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Best Interior Designers: An Exclusive Interview With Michael K Chen

Michael K Chen Architecture is an architecture practice providing innovative and superbly crafted work for clients seeking thoughtful and considered design. MKCA’s services integrate architecture, interior design, and product design through a cohesive, coordinated, and collaborative process. We had the opportunity to speak with Michael K Chen himself so stay tuned and discover why Michael K Chen Architecture is one of the most sought-after firms in the industry today!


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CovetED Magazine: Can you tell us about the beginning of your journey in the design world? How did the love for architecture emerge?

Michael K ChenI was one of those children who was always drawing and building things in my bedroom. I think I decided to be an architect at age 6 and it just stuck.

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CovetED Magazine: From what we know, you founded your company in your own apartment in 2011. What were the main difficulties and what motivated you to do so?

Michael K ChenI had been working on small side projects before that, first with a friend, and for a while on my own in between stints in offices and teaching. In 2011, I landed a rather large project that was substantial enough to require a team. We started as two people in sublet office space, then grew a little bit into a shared office, and the practice slowly grew from there. I always wanted to have a practice, but it was really the prospect of having a team that excited me and continues to excite me about practice. Building a team with different interests, backgrounds, and sensibilities means that our work is so much richer and more interesting. It’s something that I was interested in for a long time, and then once the opportunity was available, it’s really been about building and sustaining that team in the office. That’s really the hardest and most rewarding thing about practice for me because it’s forced me to learn how to manage and work with people, how to draw out everyone’s best work, and how to be smart about running and resourcing the office… all things that are aren’t what you’re taught in architecture school.

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© Max Burkhalter
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© Alan Tansey
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CovetED Magazine: How would you describe your signature style?

Michael K ChenWe studiously avoid any form of visual signature or style, but what I would say is that much of our work shows a dedication to craft, a love of color and materiality, and sense of play. We love challenging projects, and we are very interested in intricacy. I find the situations where there are many different requirements and complexities, and many different agendas and voices that need to be brought into some sort of harmonious and clear resolution to be the most rewarding.

michael k chen Best Interior Designers: An Exclusive Interview With Michael K Chen

CovetED Magazine: How does everything start when you have a new project in your hands? Tell us a bit more about your creative process.

Michael K ChenMost of our projects are commissioned work for clients, so we generally start by asking a lot of questions and listening. We talk a lot about a project’s values and concerns, as well as its functional and budgetary requirements. Because we work with people, we try to understand both what they need from a project, and also what they value, and we look for ways for those two things to come together in an interesting way. Often through that initial process, we start to identify collaborators. I think the team, both inside the office and outside, is so incredibly important to a project. We try to identify what other areas of expertise or experience would be valuable to us and to the project, and we try to identify people who we would like to work with. Those can be consultants, and sometimes they are artists, or other designers, scientists, or other interesting collaborators. We tend to work in digital models, so from the beginning, we build very precise models of a space or a site. And then we do what designers do: we iterate, we sketch, we collect images, we make problems for ourselves to solve, and over time the ideas come together.

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© Richard Barnes
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© Richard Barnes

CovetED Magazine: For you, what is the secret to creating something unique?

Michael K ChenCuriosity, listening, and learning to work well with others.

CovetED Magazine: If you had to name the project of your career and your life, which would it be and why?

Michael K ChenAn impossible question! What we look for in projects are opportunities to learn and grow as a practice. We’ve started to do more civic and cultural work, which we would love to do more of. And while I wouldn’t call it the project of my career, my husband and I are building a small house in the country for ourselves. That’s been a very interesting process – ambitious and humble at the same time.

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© Brooke Holm
michael k chen Best Interior Designers: An Exclusive Interview With Michael K Chen brooke holm park avenue prewar apartment
© Brooke Holm

CovetED Magazine: What is the main message that you want to pass to the design world with your beautiful projects?

Michael K ChenFor a while, our priority has been to connect the work that we do to the values that we and our clients hold as people and citizens of the world. We are aware that part of the privileged position that we have as designers is to promote a vision of what we think excellence looks like. For us, that’s never been about luxury or the most precious materials, nor has it ever been about a signature aesthetic. It’s generally been about people, their ideas, and their labor. We’ve always been thoughtful about craft and how things are made and we are trying to pursue that interest in the widest possible way and to connect it to larger issues. Naturally, we are looking for ways to challenge ourselves to find ways to reduce the waste and energy that are created and consumed as part of our work. We are looking for ever smaller and more local supply chains for materials, we are looking at circular and alternative material streams, and we are also trying to use the specification power that we have as designers to attempt to look out for issues like the rights of workers and the diversity of the construction workforce. Unsurprisingly, this is not about slapping a label on the same old practices and materials, but about looking a little deeper and challenging some of our assumptions about what is beautiful and compelling. And it’s about finding the right partners and collaborators to design and produce the work with.

michael k chen Best Interior Designers: An Exclusive Interview With Michael K Chen

CovetED Magazine: In your opinion what is the big change that the pandemic brought to the design world?

Michael K ChenIn my experience, it has certainly supercharged our desire and practice around collaboration, because it has completely normalized remote relationships. We’ve had so many conversations and engaged in so much cooperation as a result of online tools for communication and design as a result of our year working remotely with each other. I think the pandemic and the corresponding attention on racial justice that happened at the same time has also highlighted so many structural inequities that we live with, and it has brought into sharper relief a truth that we can either perpetuate or work to change them. We helped to start a nonprofit network of designers (Design Advocates) who work on providing design service to communities of need during the pandemic, all through tools like Zoom and Miro, and it’s one of the best things I’ve been a part of in my career.

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© Alan Tansey
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© Alan Tansey

CovetED Magazine: We are excited to know about what the future holds for the great Michael K Chen. What are your next steps?

Michael K ChenWe have a number of new ground-up buildings in design and construction for the first time, which is very exciting. As an urban practice, we are so accustomed to working at a more interior and constrained scale, and these house projects have been something of a new kind of challenge. And we are pursuing more work in the public realm, partly through Design Advocates, and partly by building on our experience of designing complex urban projects for individuals. We have a furniture collection coming out with TRNK later this year that encapsulates many of our ideas about flexible living and the slippage between spaces of living, work, and hospitality that I’m very excited about, and we are growing our team, which is always fun and interesting.

“For us, that’s never been about luxury or the most precious materials, nor has it ever been about a signature aesthetic. It’s generally been about people, their ideas, and their labor.” – Michael K Chen

CovetED Magazine: Which piece of advice can you give to the young professionals today?

Michael K ChenMostly that every experience and person that one encounters in one’s professional life is an opportunity to learn. So many architects and designers (myself included) are wired to put their heads down in their computers and to think that they have to have the answers or figure out everything on their own, and this is just not true. Recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge and experience, and taking advantage of the people around you can be so empowering, and it is the fastest way to learn and grow.

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© Alan Tansey

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