DISCUSSING DESIGN PURITY AND CRAFT PRINCIPLES WITH ONE OF THE UK’S LEADING DESIGNERS
Back in 1988, famed design historians Charlotte and Peter Fiell were looking at new furniture pieces exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society in Pimlico, London. They were admiring works by emerging designers who would later go on to shape the world of interior design as we know it today.
Amongst these newcomers was Samuel Chan, whose design was part of the stylish contemporary movement that was poorly represented on the British market, and went against the dominating Postmodernism of David Linley and the English country-house look. Samuel Chan was a much welcome breath of fresh air.
According to the Fiell’s, Mr Chan’s furniture preserved the craft ideals and nude simplicity found in Shaker designs and the Arts and Crafts movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His stripped down modern designs spoke of purity and quiet, elegant sophistication – reminding them of Frank Lloyd-Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In fact, his work preceded the New Simplicity movement of the early 2000’s.
Mr Chan’s family emigrated to Britain from Hong Kong in 1979, when he was only 13. His thorough education and dedication are still visible today, as Mr Chan comes across as a thoughtful and honourable person, a gifted designer with much passion for the details hidden beneath the simplicity of his design.
In hindsight, his skill-set was far beyond his years in the early ‘90s, and his love for furniture-making is absolute. A design journalist reviewing his early works described his designs as having an ‘uncommon logic’. His strong belief in the ethics of craft purity and design principles set him apart as an icon in the field.
His ‘Curve Chair’ became a masterpiece of woodcraft. In 1989, his ‘Alba’ high-backed chairs were sharing the spotlight with (then) up and coming designers Tom Dixon, Ron Arad, Ross Lovegrove and Danny Lane. He’s earned a whopping 15 British Design Guild Mark Awards until now, and he’s not stopping any time soon.
After the glorious development of his Channels brand, Samuel Chan now offers a little something extra to the world – more of his meaningful designs that cut no corners and come in more affordable formats via Joined + Jointed.
We had the pleasure of meeting Mr Chan during the Independent Hotel Show and later on, we got to visit his showroom in Chelsea, marvel at his entire collection of beautiful and intelligent designs and we engaged in a lengthy conversation about his career, his vision, his experiences and his plans for the future.
Coshamie: Samuel, when did your passion for design emerge? Was it something you discovered and loved as a child or perhaps later, in high school? What was the thought process that led you to this choice of career?
‘It actually started with woodworking for me, not design,’ Mr Chan says. ‘I was attending secondary school here in Britain at the time, and we had these woodworking classes. I loved it, it made sense to me, and I had a great teacher to guide me along the way, Mr Harry Knock, to whom I also dedicated a Channels collection, titled Mr Knock’.
‘My interest was in developed in woodworking, and design simply followed as I grew up, when I continued my studies at the London College of Furniture. After that I got my BA from Middlesex University in 3D Design, which was still a very young section at the time, and my Masters in High Wycombe, which was (and still is) the heart of British furniture making’.
Coshamie: Your love of classic woodworking with contemporary freshness is obviously the Channels trademark, but can you tell us a little bit about how you got around to it as a core concept for your design studio?
‘I wanted to offer something timeless to people. A lot of the furniture you buy is with you for a few years, maybe, these days. I felt that great wood deserves to live longer, and I wanted to create pieces with heritage value, that can pass on from generation to generation and tell a good story,’ Mr Chan says.
‘I’m happy when my clients come in, buy something, and don’t come back for another ten years, when they bring their own children to furnish their homes. I have a large number of clients that I’ve been proud to serve over two generations now, and I feel that this is the best kind of value I can offer – timelessness.’
‘I also wanted to focus on doing something that was friendlier towards the environment, something that would disrupt our planet, our home, as little as possible. Which is why many of my pieces are, in fact, environmentally friendly – like the Motley drum tables, for example, where I used sections of reclaimed pieces of Canadian cedar. There’s a story behind every object I make, and more often than not, many of these stories will talk about respecting our environment without compromising on our quality of life’.
Coshamie: You’ve probably noticed a number of trends coming and going from the design world – are there any that you’ve seen over the past year in particular, that you’d like to see more of in the following years?
‘Let me start by saying that, generally, I’m not that bothered by trends and new currents, because the work I do with Channels has a timeless concept overall, and it’s never bothered by changes in the interior design world. And my clients are not that interested in trends, either,’ says Mr Chan, smiling.
‘But I do observe from a distance, and I must say that contemporary design is really becoming an impressive force. What I’ve noticed, in particular, is the way in which the craft element has become such an important part of contemporary design – that obviously resonates with me as well.’
‘As far as hotels are concerned, I’m sad to see they no longer emphasise this, it’s all about filling the rooms, putting in some furniture and booking them out, never having them empty for the sake of sales. Which is why I’ve started looking at boutique hotels – my work best fits hotels that place great value on detail and craftsmanship, and I feel that from that point of view, the future is with them’.
‘I really enjoyed doing three small hotel projects with the Retreats Group in Wales – including a castle with 9 rooms and what they called the ‘Honesty Bar’. I enjoyed it exactly because they appreciated what Channels could do with their limited spaces, their unconventional architecture and the value we added’.
Coshamie: What value do you place on social media for your design brand? How have you approached it, how has it helped and which channels do you think you’ve had a better performance with?
‘I’ll admit, I’m still very green with social media, but I do recognise its power. It’s something I’m definitely looking to tap into in the near future. It has great potential – not so much for Channels, as the brand thrives offline very well and I’m happy where we are with it, but more for Joined+Jointed, which is younger and appeals to a much wider audience’.
‘Brand awareness becomes essential in this day and age, and I know that social media can get people to our showroom, for them to see our products and purchase them. I’ve come to appreciate the impact that it has’.
Coshamie: Last, but not least, can you tell us anything about your plans for 2017? A new collection or project, perhaps?
‘Well, this year is still looking quite busy for us! We’re doing a second launch of Charlotte and Peter Fiell’s book in December, at the Hong Kong Design Centre – we’re being given the atrium for a full exhibition to accompany the book launch. And I’m also preparing for a new collection in 2017’.
‘I’ve gotten to a point in my professional existence where I am comfortable and I feel free to do further experiments. I’m very open to trying different things and seeing where they take me, so I guess we’ll have to see where they take me next year,’ Mr Chan says, smiling.
‘I’m also going to keep growing Joined+Jointed. It’s supported by some of the world’s most promising designers, and it offers the Channels quality, without cutting any corners. I was extremely frustrated in the past, when I was creating furniture for other brands, and I kept seeing details that were important to me and the design getting lost in the manufacturing process, for cost-effectiveness’.
‘So it’s one of the reasons why I pushed forward with J+J. You get the design purity and high quality, but you get it in a more affordable format that doesn’t compromise in the production stage. The pieces go very well and our workshop is constantly pushing out new stock, so I think that 2017 is the year that we’ll take J+J to a new level’.
Channels Designs follows a concept as simple and as compelling as its products: design, make, sell. Mr Chan founded Channels together with his wife Shirley Wong, and with great support from his younger sister, Marylois Chan, they nurtured and developed the brand and its impeccable ethos.
In order to keep both the design and manufacturing processes in-house, Mr Chan enlisted Mike France’s skills and opened the Shropshire workshop. To this day, all of Channels’ furniture comes from that workshop and is even delivered through the company’s own service. This way, Mr Chan makes sure that the same amount of respect and care that goes into the design also goes in its manufacture and its delivery.
Samuel Chanhas collaborated with many international designers, including Marcel Wanders, and shares many of his design principles – which focus around comfort and a sense of belonging, while creating pieces that last beyond a lifetime. In that sense, Channels Designs creates furniture on the very design purity and craft principles that headline the compelling biography published by Charlotte and Peter Fiell, a book which we feel should be compulsory reading for any aspiring interior designer today.
***This is a shorter version of our in-depth interview with Samuel Chan, edited for length. To read the full interview and find out about his design ethos, favourite collection and hotel work, as well as upcoming projects, Click here.