I stumbled on the stunning & delicate work of 22 Design Studio last year when I needed for some inspiration and found out that their office and studio was in Taipei. I was fortunate enough to communicate with them and stop by to discuss with Sean the designer and founder of 22 Design Studio to found out more about the origin of the brand, development, inspirations & more.

à Taipei : une discussion avec Sean, 22 Design Studio.

Interview & Photography Farade Nicolas

Where do you come from?
Sean: I was born in New-Taipei city, Xindian. It’s a completely different environment from Taipei city. All my childhood is here. I started my life in Taipei when I entered Chien Kuo High School, the best high school here.

How your school experience went?
Sean: It was very academic, it’s a boy’s school where you learned all the basic stuff. In Taiwan, when finishing 3 years of High school we need to choose directly our College major, either focus more on Engineered (Mathematics, Science stuff) or Literature.

You choosed the Engineered section.
Sean: Yes, however, I wasn’t much into it, but regarding Asian culture, we followed what parents think is most “useful”. Basically, we as student only have to focus on passing the exam, obtaining excellent grades. Still, compared to other school-mates, I had a pretty chill student life. I skipped class, teachers didn’t really care as long as I take and pass the final exams.

Sounds like University?
Sean: Almost yes, despite that I didn’t do well on my exams compared to my classmates but, I did succeed on the final test and became more independent-thinking. I understood what I didn’t want back in that time. Later on, I went to Taiwan University and picked Geography as my major, which is quite an unpopular one, but since I couldn’t got in any other department. Furthermore, I always had a deep interest and love for cars, my idea was to stay and finish at least one semester, then switch back to the Engineering program.

Can you tell me more about your love for cars?
Sean: Since I have memories, I think I always was fascinated by them, can't explain why though. It’s cliché to say that but I see cars as wonderful objects, bright, polished, flawless... Young, I had this habit of going to bookstores just to read magazines, publications about vehicles. I enjoyed looking at the images. After one semester in University, I almost got kicked out (because of my bad grades.) Then I tried one more time to pass the exam and because I really wanted to study Industrial

Design. Luckily I was able to get in the National Cheng Kung University which is also a nice school in southern Taiwan.

How did you found out about Industrial Design? You had to be sure this time, that it was the thing you wanted to study. I know sometimes, it can be hard for students to decide which major to pick without even knowing what to expect.
Sean: Actually, there were no resources whatsoever to get information about Industrial Design back then, at least not on my call. In my case, I asked friends that were already studying Architecture, they told me everything I needed to know…

How was it to move to Tainan and completely change environment and lifestyle?
Sean: It is super laid-back there, I enjoyed it. In my first semester, I didn’t pick that much classes to attend… It was not a good choice because I was too lazy.

It is quite hard to find professors that motivate you and are inspiring enough, I know, I’ve been there as well.
Sean: Definitely, but in the end, I realized that I could do things I like and became much more passionate about my own researches. Fortunately, I met some teachers from outside school, they were my tutors. We had quite a big exhibition held for students to showcase our final projects, I received great feedback.

What did you make?
Sean: Some furniture, chairs, trash bins, lifestyle products.

Built by yourself?
Sean: A big part yes, but it is not really a problem because in Taiwan we are lucky to have a lot of small workshops that are easy to find and are willing to help. Especially when you’re a student, sometimes they will help you we no charge! Taiwan is literally an industrial country. I gathered some of my close classmates into the project, we name ourselves 22 Design Studio. In my opinion, 22 is when were were in our prime, you haven’t -yet face the reality.

When seeing some of the oldest students came back to share their working experience, it wasn't appealing, I didn’t think it was inspiring, doing the same stuff over and over for years wasn’t what I expected back then.

But it is safe…
Sean: It could be, but very boring in term of creative process. I am 36 years old and, looking back to my past experiences, working by myself with my team, I wouldn't say I have regrets, however, I won't lie to you it is super tough, you get a lot of pressure, everything is on you.

That is the other side of the iceberg…
Sean: True. I invest a lot of time, money, and energy. I looked for factories, made a tons of phone calls to find where we can produce our design projects, I realized that it wasn’t going to be easy. I gave up, instinctually I knew it was impossible.

How so?
Sean: For example, I made a chair in wood, contacted a company to discuss the costs and they were talking about 8,000NT$ (≈230€/260$) for one chair.

That is crazy.
Sean: Yes but you know, as an industrial design student I think great stuff equals high quality, high skills to start a production. Still, it doesn’t assure you at 100% you’'ll get a decent product. I understood that it was nonsense to ask for that much money. We wouldn’t be able to sell the chair under 30,000 NT$ (≈860€/980$). Following this episode, I joined the military for 15 months. When discharged I wanted to find a space to think and work. I aspired to do something fun. During my resting time, I developed concrete rings. I had this specific idea for a few months. Architecture played a big role in my researches, Japanese Architect Tadao Andō is one of my biggest inspiration. I spent a few weeks traveling in Japan, facing his concrete works gave me the boost to start working on this project. That's how the idea was born. After launching my very first design ring series, I joined Weekend Flea Market (about 10 years ago, it was a platform for creative people, artisans sell their products). It was very popular before. I managed to sell a few accessories and later on, we got the opportunity to participate in a few similar events and we did pretty well.

How many time did it take you to produce a few of them?
Sean: I could make thirty rings a week. As I said, I was doing the production in my parents’ basement, I had everything needed there.

But at that time, 22 Design Studio was over, right?
Sean: Well, I just kept the name.

Were you planning to extend the project by yourself by making these accessories?
Sean: Not really, I didn’t think about it, at least not at the beginning. It wasn’t something I was planning as a long-term work, I thought it was fun. Four months later I registered for another event. I knew precisely that all I was doing couldn't be enough to sustain my life. Then, I brought the rings to Tokyo and joined a different event which was bigger than every past venue I attended.

I can tell, Tokyo is on the International radar from many years now, the impact must have been interesting.
Sean: Especially when I got there, in 2007, the Design scene was booming, it was a good timing, the sales were excellent.

Were you only selling your items face to face during those events and not via a website right?
Sean: Yes, however, I met people that were happy to help me with my projects. Have you heard about the design website designboom.com

Of course.
Sean: The people behind this fantastic website were also the same group who organized the event designboom market in Tokyo. It’s a Milan based company but they brought this specific event throughout many countries. They were launching their online store and aspired to work alongside to sell my rings via their platform. Everything change after that trip. It was a small orders but still quite exciting to me. After I flew to Seoul, Stockholm and a few more places with them.

Were you doing the same products over and over or did you try to develop a full range of rings?
: Well, this was one of the biggest issues I had to face.

Because you can see what was selling well, you could always proceed on that same production path. But as a creative, I imagine the ultimate goal is to keep developing new and exciting stuff…
Sean: Yes, that is the key point! As a designer, I must challenge myself. After making rings I designed glass cups, frames, and clocks. Unfortunately, none of them got orders, there were a lot manufacturing, design problems. In the coming 3 years I kept making rings, the sales were good enough to support myself, my partner and a part-time worker. By end of 2010, I decided not to end the studio but to focus mainly on those best-sellers, and stop developing new products. I went to London to study English. To be honest with you, London opened my eyes, change my mindset. I understood I wasn’t working as a designer but should operate as a brand. I am releasing my products and as a designer, you work for brands to develop contents, projects or such and as a brand, you have to maintain a certain aesthetic, a definite direction, Nike didn’t make any pieces of furniture, right?

Sean: I should stick with my initial concept, making rings, developing a range of products. It was an easy idea but how come I never thought about it? Then, I noticed that the Taiwanese government began helping creative industries, a lot of my friends were able to receive funds. I went back to Taiwan and officially launched 22 Design Studio. We worked on the business plan, the skeleton of the financial aspects which is the most sturdy but delicate part. Everything went well, I managed to get funds and told myself that I didn’t want to work alone. I rent this space which was far bigger than my needs, I invited creative friends, sometimes from overseas to set up their workshop for a short or long period of time.

As a creative person, it is always interesting to confront your work…
Sean: Definitely, we held events, exhibitions. Subsequent, I developed the pen series and turned the early clocks into watches, I had to focus on accessories. I think Taiwanese people are specialists about developing personal belongings, it is a part of our heritage.

How do ideas start, as for the pen series, could you tell me more about your process?
Sean: I like rules, I need structure. Concrete is a material I can handle. There are a few rules about Concrete design that you have to keep in mind: One is that it has to make you think about Architecture. It has to have a simplistic, vertical, geometrical shape. It has to be made by ourselves, be producible and I think it is better to be able to change, improve the structure overtime because concrete is a material that breaks within use of time, and I love that, the association between time and material. I began to draw a pen that matches all these rules with a simple, straightforward shape but not that usual. Furthermore, adding stainless steel in the creation process was relevant because it is a material that isn’t easy to produce, so if I found someone to handle the production, it gives notable signature to my design.

How many trials or error before the final result?
Sean: Not as many as you think, it was quite fast and smooth to manage everything, it is just about details. I tend to do small changes every time I began to produce a new lot of goods.

So, if I am right you are making those small adjustments because of the construction dilemmas you are facing and not because of the design aspect?
Sean: Indeed. When the design fits all the rules I established, I don’t have to change anything. I am learning about making pens while designing them. It took me in around 6 years to complete the full range of products you see now. We now have five different pens models. We are designing new material but we also need to find new costumer to expand our sales.

You guys are doing everything by yourselves.
Sean: 85% yes. We learned different phases from running a company to manufacturing process, design & sale aspects.

Were you the one showcasing to your team how to make the product at first?
Sean: Yes, it is a simple process, just like making cakes, but with more details included. Many details need to be done properly. There are always elements you can improve, especially in term of choosing the right material. We experimented a lot with concrete, struggled and finally managed to work alongside talented people, labs to find new formulas. Our business grew organically, I hired people, we are now fourteen.

Tell me about this, hiring people, you take care of this part also?
Sean: Yes, we hired makers first. A lot of them were studying architecture, industrial and graphic design. Gradually the people we hired for production learned other things throughout the way, marketing for example. I enjoy this process.

What about the development of your watches, can you run me throughout the process?
Sean: At first, I had this idea of making clocks, I thought about designing stairs on the inner side, to combine time and space. When I was selling wall clocks, we had great feedbacks yet the sales weren’t that satisfying therefore I didn’t pursue in that direction, we needed to take new resolutions. I thought about making something modern like table clocks. Our sales were higher but not going crazy. It was hard to find suppliers and manufacturers in Taipei. The conception, making a watch isn’t tricky, what is tricky is getting all the parts right, perfectly achieved. I did some research, found about this Taiwanese watchmaking organization. I rang them, explained our situation and they were very helpful. In 2014, we started a crowdfunding project for the watches production, it did well, we raised 6 million NT$ (≈171,306€/200 000$). And with the pre-order

success, we earned our suppliers trust. The most interesting part about doing a crowdfunding is that you’ll get in touch with your potential/future clients, though it’s an exhausting process people will tell you exactly what they like or not. Following the conversations we had, I noticed that several people were asking us to produce mechanical watches. I knew nothing about those so while maintaining the talks I learned a lot about it, spoke to critics, watches collectors, it was an exciting process. The following project was to develop mechanical watches with a similar design but with a higher price range. We also used crowdfunding but in a different manner. When the watches were 80% done, we got a few samples and asked which caliber we should use, either the one from Japan or another one from Switzerland knowing that the Japanese one cost less, is thinner and looks better. Nevertheless, a lot of people told me to pick the Switzerland one.

More mainstream maybe?
Sean: Yes but I couldn’t choose, and for me, the reasonable choice was to get the Japanese one. The initial idea was to release two versions of the watches. I asked which one people would like to see produce, which colors we should go to etc, etc.

We waited a bit and eventually received a lot of responses, about 2 000. We were able to rase 12 000 000NT$ (≈ 350 000€/400 000$) for this project. We thought about hiring new people just to maintain the orders flowing though I think we may have bitten off more than we could chew… It was too much.

What about the market itself. How do you position yourself?
Sean: That is a good question, we are not positioning clearly. Both watches are in distinct selling channels, one cost 300$ the other 700$. Thing is we are a design driving company so we’re thinking about the making process mostly... Since last year we are trying to rebrand ourselves, with the help of a good friend who’s a brand consultant. We have to learn how to communicate in a better way. There are now two lines, one is 22 Personals which are focused on watches and pens, the other is 22 Concrete who’s more design oriented. We also need more products, one watch isn’t enough especially when you reach stores, you have to produce more if you want them to carry your merchandises.

What about the fact that you traveled quite a few times now, being in various countries, observing the way people are making business overseas, do you think Taiwan is the best place to keep working and developing your products?
Sean: I can't tell. Once again, it is all about communication. I think languages could be an obstacle to the business part, watches are an emotional product, you need to get the words right if you want to reach your customer base.

What gives you the motivation to keep going further?
Sean: There are still things that I find hard to understand. Just a small & quick example, if you take a look at Daniel Wellington’s watch, it is the simplest watch ever made. Its good looking, however, I don’t know when I am developing a new watch and how I am going to sell it. You have to find to the perfect partners. We can talk for a few hours about how we are making it, people might admire it but I can’t fake it. One of the biggest problems in Taipei is that there is no big industry, even know it could be a good thing because we set up the rules, we have to do everything, it is a slow process… What’s next for us is to keep building our identity on urban lifestyle and focusing on concrete products.