vol. 9 Goldilocks

Credit: @yescynfria on Twitter

02 / 02

Cynthia Chen:
“I have always been focused on creation and craft.”

Artist & Product Designer & Rug Maker

A chat about favourite childhood snacks, the beauty of tactile creation and the complications of commodification.


May 23, 2022 | As told to Cherie Yang and edited by Megan Hill

Cynthia is only just coming to terms with calling herself an artist, despite being a seasoned product designer and an art major from Arizona State University.

But, regardless of the labels she chooses to take, Cynthia has always been driven first and foremost by a love for her craft.

Her role as product designer at Stripe Climate has helped her to understand the wider implications of design but she reserves her side hobby (rug making) for personal pleasure. Cynthia's handmade rugs are woven with nostalgia and literally one-of-a-kind. So what happens when the rugs go viral: does she seize the opportunity to scale; and, if so, what does that mean for her hobby? Ever the perfectionist, Cynthia also weighs up when her work is, to her, good enough to be sold when she's always in pursuit of the next, better version.

In our chat, we discuss paying homage to heritage, the importance of constraints and the joy in creating for creation's sake.

Find Cynthia and her delicious rugs on Twitter.

  • I actively try not to frame myself as my profession...
  • &: Imagine you’re writing a Twitter bio, how would you describe yourself?

    CC:

    Oh my gosh! That's a very difficult question.

    Sometimes when I do these conversations, I think I should have prepared a polished take on who I am and what I do!

    I actively try not to frame myself as my profession. I make rugs. So, I call myself a rug maker. I do product design. So, I guess I'm a product designer. But I very intentionally try not to say that I'm a designer at a certain company so that I can focus more on the work that I do and the creative aspect of it instead of the work part.

  • ... My art teacher said, “But you love art so much. Why aren't you doing this?" She was right and that really prompted me to change my major and study art.
  • &: Have you always been interested in art and design?

    CC:

    As a kid, I was always super interested in art. I used to get up really early just to draw the Spice Girls! Art is something I always loved but I didn't realise it was really a feasible career until much later on in life.

    All through middle school and high school, art was just a hobby I liked doing. As a first-generation immigrant, my parents were always very involved in things. Their stance was, “Okay, we will help nurture this as a hobby, but we would rather you pursue other career options."

    It wasn't until high school that I gave up on band (my extracurricular to try to check that box for college) and instead, I took an art class.

    During that class, the teacher asked what I was deciding to major in for college. I said that I was going to major in biological sciences—I was going down the doctor route! My art teacher just said, “But you love art so much. Why aren't you doing this?" She was right and that really prompted me to change my major and study art.

  • &: What did your parents think about your change in major?

    CC:

    I wouldn’t say that were over the moon, but to their credit, they were supportive of me pursuing my passions!

  • Art is very much a representation of yourself. But design is very much external...
  • &: What was the ‘college experience’ like for you?

    CC:

    The first year was honestly kind of silly in the art program. To me, art lacked constraints. There were all these prompts but I just never understood the purpose. I didn’t know why I was doing any of these things.

    Then I happened to learn that there was also a separate design program. Once I learned more about it, I realised it was far better suited to me. Design still had the creative aspect but with more guardrails.

    Art is very much a representation of yourself. But design is very much external: your job is to understand a problem that someone is having, and then you take it in and try to fix it for them. That framing resonated much more with me.

    So I then enrolled on the visual communication design program at ASU.

  • ... So how I think, how I navigate the world and absorb information has always been in a very visually driven way.
  • &: So, you studied visual communication, have you always considered yourself a visual thinker?

    CC:

    I've always been such a visual person. If someone were just to talk to me and explain a concept, I really struggle to internalise that. But if it's written down or in a visual format, it resonates with me so much more.

    So how I think, how I navigate the world and absorb information has always been in a very visually driven way.

  • &: And then after college, you moved to the Bay area?

    CC:

    Yes, I went to college in Arizona. Arizona has a very beautiful landscape that I took for granted growing up there.

    But during my time at ASU, I had done an internship in New York and so I got a taste of that big city experience.

    I knew the other big place for design was San Francisco and so after college, that is where I started applying for jobs.

  • &: What kind of design jobs were you applying for?

    CC:

    When I was finishing college I didn't even really know that digital product design was a thing.

    And so in my mind, I was limited to very traditional roles—maybe the odd cool website!

    I didn’t even think about working in tech, like at Apple or Google. For lack of a better term, I naively thought that it would be like selling out. I wanted to work for a smaller company to try more things.

    But ironically, I started at AKQA, a really large advertising agency and my first client was Apple. I wanted to work for a smaller company.

  • But when you think about something like climate change—I didn't think that, as a designer, I could have an impact...
  • &: And now you work as a product designer at Stripe climate. What does Stripe Climate do and what does your role entail?

    CC:

    So, I have been a product designer since I got out of school. When I say product designer, I mean digital products. I used to work at Airbnb and before that, I was at a product design consultancy so my focus has always been on building products for people to use. I really enjoy being able to solve problems for people.

    But when you think about something like climate change—I didn't think that, as a designer, I could have an impact. It was something that felt so out of my hands, more government policy type of work. So the chance to actually get involved and use my skills towards something like that was just so exciting.

    Stripe Climate allows Stripe merchants to dedicate a portion of their revenue toward climate action. There are no fees so 100 per cent of the contributions go towards carbon removal projects. I think it's so cool that a company chooses to invest time, money and resources towards this. It's not something that makes revenue, it's purely in pursuit of fighting climate change.

    A portion of my work is product design. But then I also help out with things like marketing or branding, any creative need—I’ll be working on it. It's a unique role because I wear so many different design hats and I also do research. It's very much startup vibes but within a big company.

  • ... The whole process of figuring it out and solving this sort of puzzle was really fun.
  • &: Amazing. So, how exactly did you get into rug making?

    CC:

    I wish I had a cool story. It was honestly just a random harebrained idea.

    I had the idea mid-pandemic. I was keenly aware that I was spending a lot of time looking at screens and I knew I needed something more tactile.

    And then on social media somewhere, I saw a post about punch needling. It seemed like a fun, low-stakes hobby to pick up and so I bought a kit off Etsy. I finished it in about 2 hours. I’d really enjoyed the process, I just needed something bigger.

    So, I poked around on the internet and found a few select creators who were sharing their processes. There is a lot more content for rug making now to use for reference but at the time it didn't feel like there was a lot out there. But that suited me actually because I wanted to sort of ‘DIY it’.

    I went and got all the supplies and from there it was very much trial and error. I drew the design but I didn't know I was supposed to flip the design… so my first attempt was entirely backwards! The whole process of figuring it out and solving this sort of puzzle was really fun.

  • I love spam. I love food. I want to make something with my hands. It would be so funny if I were to make a Spam rug.
  • &: And that initial design was a tub of Spam! So, why Spam?

    CC:

    Okay. So I have always loved Spam, it has always been my go-to afternoon snack. I have this novelty Spam AirPod case and I just looked at it on my desk one day and it sparked this idea.

    I’d been interested in the idea of rug making but up until then, I hadn’t had a design idea that I was really excited by. I just felt the Spam design captured my personality!

    I love spam. I love food. I want to make something with my hands. It would be so funny if I were to make a Spam rug.

  • The Spam rug

  • &: So, for your very first piece, how long did it take from conceiving the idea to completion?

    CC:

    I did my first drawing on September 10th. And then let's see, I finished the rug on September 23rd.

    Wow! So it took a while, but it was definitely an on and off process.

    Punch needling is very laborious, each fibre is me manually punching. Imagine embroidery, but with really chunky yarn.

  • &: What did you learn during the process of making that first rug?

    CC:

    It's much easier to execute a design on an iPad than in ‘real life’. You have access to infinite colours that you can tailor to exactly what you want. But once you work with fibres, and you're not custom-dying them, you are limited.

    It builds on what we spoke about earlier—working within constraints, The colours are not always perfect and so I have to make decisions on the fly. For example, if a green yarn actually has more of a blue tone, I’ll need to change the shade of orange to better match.

  • I usually work on [the rugs] in the evenings after work. I think, especially since I work from home, I could easily see myself working really long hours or working well past work hours. And so having this side hobby/passion is a great incentive for me to stop working!
  • &: How do you differentiate between ‘product designer mode’ and ‘rug maker mode’?

    CC:

    I work from home for both. But I work in separate rooms.

    My day job set-up is pretty straightforward. I have my laptop and my big monitor ready to flit between Slack and Figma. I have a standing desk that I use sometimes, but not as much as I should! I specifically positioned my desk so that I can see out of my beautiful bay window.

    I always have some type of music on in the background, I need some noise. Recently, I've been going through a disco phase. I love disco music. It's amazing.

    Then my rug making area is set up in our second bedroom. I think it's kinda cute: my partner's desk is on one side and my make-do studio area is behind him.

    I usually work on [the rugs] in the evenings after work. I think, especially since I work from home, I could easily see myself working really long hours or working well past work hours. And so having this side hobby/passion is a great incentive for me to stop working!

  • Cynthia and her cat get to work in her make-do studio

  • &: And how does the actual process of the two differ?

    CC:

    The process itself is different because when I’m building a product at work there are so many stakeholders. You’re trying to fix real user problems and they don't have forever to wait. At Stripe, the criteria for success or for when something is ready is clear. But also something digital is much easier to continue to iterate on, we can launch something, get feedback, refine it, launch a V2.

    Whereas if I make a rug, I’m in control and once it's done, it's done. So the iteration cycle is much slower.

    As a rug maker, I set my own constraints. But at work there are so many other people to consider. What I design impacts what engineers work on, what product managers work on and then ultimately what end users interact with.

    At work if I miss a constraint or I don't consider some part of the experience, it can actually have a negative effect on people. I have a responsibility of doing something right. Or doing something as well as possible.

    So I think there's a lot more pressure when you provide a service; but with rug making, or any other creative side hobbies I have had, there is no responsibility, it is just expression.

  • ... I find it all incredibly satisfying and meditative. So I guess in that way, it is a bit of self-care. There is something very satisfying about not having to overthink everything you're doing.
  • &: How does rug making benefit you emotionally or mentally?

    CC:

    As a creative person, you have this need to make some sort of artefact. Whether that's a rug, a ceramic pot, or a painting, it's about channelling your creative energy into a physical form.

    There are plenty of people that make digital designs and prints and stuff, but I just really need something tactile. I saw a tweet recently that said product designers spend so much time online that in their own time they think: what is the most opposite thing I can do?

    That is definitely true for me. I like to make things that don’t always involve looking at a screen. I love the final product being something I can hold and touch, knowing I have made this physical thing with my hands that I can interact with and appreciate. It’s very real.

    I also love that I’m never hustling to finish a piece, I really do enjoy the process of making it. I like the term ‘flow state,’ I can really get lost in the process. That’s very different to the sort of design that I do in my daily work. At work, you're talking to so many people, you have so many meetings and you have to answer to all these different things.

    Whereas [with the rugs], it is pure creation. I do the upfront work but even just the process of winding yarn, drawing the template or setting up the frame—I find it all incredibly satisfying and meditative. So I guess in that way, it is a bit of self-care. There is something very satisfying about not having to overthink everything you're doing.

  • Cynthia’s ‘Pocky' rug.

  • &: You have had such an amazing response to your rugs online! Nearly 60,000 likes. Why do you think the designs resonated with people so much?

    CC:

    It was a reaction mostly from the Asian American community. In Chinese culture, food is such a big thing. So any sort of acknowledgement of the food we eat is really fun and engaging.

    Then there is definitely the nostalgia factor—so many of us grew up with these snacks! I loved hearing stories about people's personal relationships with food in response to my work, “Me and my mom used to eat this” or “I remember the smell of these from when I was a kid.”

    Also, from a design perspective, the packaging that I’m interpreting is so iconic. It’s very punchy and visually pleasing. I feel as though for many of the designs I’ve done, you could take away the actual brand name and it would still be immediately recognisable.

  • But in general, I was surrounded by a good community of other Chinese American families and kids that really stuck together and hung out a lot. I think that helped to maintain that identity.
  • &: Your designs clearly pay homage to Chinese culture and your childhood. What was your relationship with your Chinese heritage like as a child?

    CC:

    How I felt about my identity as a child is very different from how I feel about it now.

    As a kid, you want to be immersed in this American culture, and you're always conscious that you don't quite fit in. I noticed it in very little things, where I’d think “Oh, I wish I could do X” or “Oh, these cool kids do Y, but my family does it differently.”

    For example, every weekend we would go to Chinese school. Growing up, I resented the fact that every Saturday morning I had to go to Chinese school when everyone else could go hang out at the mall! But looking back on that, I'm thankful for such an invaluable experience.

    I also noticed it during school lunches. My mum would pack my school lunch in an aluminium foil bag. And I remember even my teacher made fun of me for bringing in this bag and for bringing in ‘different’ food.

    But in general, I was surrounded by a good community of other Chinese American families and kids that really stuck together and hung out a lot. I think that helped to maintain that identity.

    When we did go back to China during the holidays, as a kid I was annoyed because you're gone for a whole month and don't get to hang out with friends. Now that I’m older, I can't go back as much. So I look back and realise how cool it was. I wish I hadn’t taken it for granted.

  • If I sell something, I want it to be something I'm really proud to put out there...
  • &: And what has happened to all of the rugs that you’ve made so far?

    CC:

    All the originals are still hanging up on my wall. I don’t sell them because, for one, they have a lot of sentimental value. Each was such a manual process for me that it was very much a labour of love that I'm reluctant to give up.

    And then there's the perfectionist side of me. Even though I love them very much, I don't think they’re good enough to sell. Because, the early ones especially, were experiments that didn't always go to plan.

    If I sell something, I want it to be something I'm really proud to put out there. I want it to be as polished as possible. I am such a stickler for the details on these rugs. My friends can testify that I spent hours on incredibly small details that probably no one notices! It may not be perfect, but if it's not at a certain quality level then I wouldn't feel comfortable taking people's money for it.

  • I started this because I love the process. I didn't get into this to start a business...
  • I also wonder, if I make a hundred of these per se, does it somehow diminish their existence as art? Does it make them less valuable? Would people still want to buy them...
  • &: What are your thoughts about scaling your hobby into a business?

    CC:

    I started this because I love the process. I didn't get into this to start a business. I am deeply uninterested in trying to figure out a business plan and talk to manufacturers and all of those things. But I know that if I did go down that route, I’d have to be very involved, it would all have to be perfect.

    I also need to consider the fact that I am constantly iterating. The process is slightly different for every rug I make, I'm always learning more and improving things. So, when is the right time to scale and sell this to people? Because I’ll always be in pursuit of that better version.

    What I'm trying to do now is to build out a whole collection of different designs and release them all at once, rather than on an individual basis. I'm so flattered that people love the rugs I’ve made so far and I do want to replicate them for people to buy, but I also want to make new things. Trying new things is what gives me that creative spark, so it is really important I don’t get caught in a cycle of repetition.

    If I make a hundred rugs, does it somehow diminish its existence as art and its value? How do the people that buy them feel? But then I just panic and move on to the next design. It’s easier to keep them as one of one!

    I think it is a really interesting problem for any artist. How do you create a sustainable business, selling things that are very unique and time-intensive, whilst protecting the ethos of the whole thing?

  • I didn't want this to become a chore. Which is why I didn't go the route of scaling and selling a whole bunch.
  • I do this because I love the craft and the process and I’m very invested in what the finished product looks like...
  • &: Hmm, it is interesting. Do you ever feel pressure to grow or adapt though, given the demand?

    CC:

    Oh, there's definitely pressure. Because this level of interest doesn't happen every day, you know?

    I think creatives are always under pressure to scale their side hobby into a business. But as soon as it becomes a business it also becomes—I don’t want to say this—a chore.

    I did not want this to become a chore. Which is why I didn't go the route of scaling and selling a whole bunch. Of course, I have daydreams of leaving my day job and making rugs full time. But when you do only one thing you could definitely burn out.

    A lawyer/licensing type figure reached out to me saying, “If you need help connecting with brands or you want to scale your operations, then I can help you.” I didn't think about any of this!

    So I have had to ask myself if this was something I wanted to do for work or keep as a personal hobby. I did struggle with that dilemma for a little bit. But ultimately I decided that I don't do this to make money.

    I do this because I love the craft and the process and I’m very invested in what the finished product looks like. So, I chose not to go the route of manufacturing at scale and keep it as art versus commodity.

  • I guess technically I am, but I struggle to call myself that. I don't know why though. Maybe I don't have the credit to call myself an official artist yet.
  • &: Do you consider yourself an artist?

    CC:

    I guess technically I am, but I struggle to call myself that. I don't know why though. Maybe I don't have the credit to call myself an official artist yet.

    I follow a lot of fibre artists and the work they make is so cool and on such a large scale; it is also their full-time endeavour. So maybe it’s the fact that this is a side project to me.

    It's totally subconscious. I would not apply any of these same thoughts to anyone else. It just comes up for me.

  • Cynthia holds her 'Botan' rug

  • &: When did you feel confident putting ‘rug maker’ in your Twitter bio?

    CC:

    I think it was when I went viral. I would not have called myself that before!

    But given the reaction, I realised “Oh my gosh, so many people like this, there must be something here. I must be doing something.”

    Also, I’d decided that I really enjoyed this hobby, and I was going to continue doing it.

    I realised I am a rug maker because I'm always making rugs!

  • &: Do you think that recognising yourself as a rug maker has changed how you see yourself as an artist?

    CC:

    To be honest, it hasn't really. I have always been focused on creation and craft. Regardless of labels, I love making these rugs and I like sharing them with people.

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Off the Cuff

with Cynthia Chen

Ampersand
  • There are these mochi snacks. I keep trying to find them and I can't find them anymore! I can eat a bag in one sitting. You gotta try to find it!


  • My family. More specifically, my grandma. I was always very jealous of people that lived in the same city as their grandma. I have so many memories of going to visit her and spending time immersed in Chinese culture.


  • I love Figma. They are such geniuses, it is similar to your product in that it is really built for creatives.


  • Twitter is so funny. It's funny in a literal sense because there are a lot of really funny people on there. But it is also just a funny world. I could easily spend too much of my time on it.


  • Essential. Constraints are essential. If you just threw a white sheet of paper down in front of me and told me to do something, I’d have no clue. I think constraints make better products. I think they make better art.


Ampersand Next up

01 / 02

Tom Hauburger

One of the challenges of the program here historically has been attempting to find that Goldilocks zone right in the middle.

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