A frequent winner of international awards for his spatial design works, Johnny Chiu has always brought the spirit of branding and architecture into his designs. Educated in New Zealand since the age of 10, he is of huaren heritage but received a thoroughly Western education. This background has an impact on his works. They are playful and full of creative energy, and stands out among the new generation of Taiwanese designers.
Chiu was born in Taiwan but moved to New Zealand when he was 10, living a life in which school ended at 3 and opportunities to experience nature were plenty. Thanks to these life experiences, creativity and fun were always part of his DNA. Even though his design work spans a wide variety of styles, there is always a sense of playfulness and delightfulness that make his works memorable and immediately recognizable in the spatial design world.
In the “Happier Café” project designed by him and his team at JC Architecture, Chiu broke the mold of conventional decoration and partitioning techniques, using only kraft paper in his design of the 330-square-meter space. By hanging the paper and making them into scrolls and stacking them, he created corridors, beds, and chairs for an innovative design that made the space open, fun, and conducive to human interaction. The design was critically acclaimed, winning the Taiwan Interior Design Award, the JCD International Design Award, the I-Ding Award, and the Golden Pin Design Award.
Discussing his concept for the design, Chiu explained that the purpose of Happier Café was, as the name suggested, to create happy feelings. He was inspired by the carefree pleasure of doodling on paper as a child. “A single piece of paper is so limited. If I can have an entire space made of paper, including the furniture and the bed, then I’ll be able to scribble anywhere. How happy will that make me!” He also hoped that visitors could leave behind their happy memories, so he encouraged people to write down what made them happy. In doing so, over a thousand happy memories could be recorded in the café. The kraft paper could even be brought overseas someday to show people in other countries what made the Taiwanese happy. The creativity and clever thinking behind the idea garnered an excellent response.
Of course, such a good idea also came with challenges. How thick did the kraft paper need to be? How to hang it so that it would spin without swaying? Would the paper rip if customer lay down on it? Would it become soggy once cups with beverages were placed on it? All of those questions required repeated experimentation to produce the best solution. The paper industry has always been a point of pride of Taiwan; meanwhile, scrolls are a very Eastern element while the innovative use of space is clearly Western-inspired. This work is a classic blending of Eastern and Western thinking.
The idea of branding is also very important for Chiu. His Taiwan Interior Design Award-winning commercial space design for Les Bebes Cupcakery, for example, was inspired by the brand’s packaging. The space’s exterior resembled a box of desserts, while the interior was dominated by yellows that evoked sweetness just like Les Bebes’ cupcakes. Said Chiu,“I want customers to know what the brand represents right when they enter the space. What made us very proud was that, when you search this brand on the internet, you’ll get images of both their cupcakes and the interior of their shop. This shows that our design has become part of the brand.”
Chiu grew up in New Zealand and has worked in Sydney, New York, and Sweden. He says that the biggest challenges facing designers in the huaren market are the pressure of tight time and budget constraints, and communication with clients. Clients here often want designs to be completed as little as two weeks after the first meeting, an unimaginable demand for Western designers. “My colleagues in Ireland could spend an entire year on a project, discussing details like how bricks should be laid. But the advantage of facing this kind of compressed timeframe is that it’s trained us to think very fast.” Chiu has also discovered a commonality among huaren clients. “They don’t say no directly. They smile and say, ‘let me think about it.’ So you need to learn how to read the client’s expression and body language to see when you need to push them and when you need to stop. This is all a learning process. The biggest challenge is to understand the client’s needs and balance their requests with my own creative thinking, all while operating under a limited time and budget.”
Chiu returned to Taiwan to found JC Architecture in 2010. He believes that Taiwan has many great designers and architects, and that the frequent earthquakes mean that houses are built to be durable; they don’t collapse even when the façade is completely removed. Although Taiwan still lacks a distinct style of spatial design like Scandinavia or Japan, Chiu believes that in 5 or 10 years’ time Taiwan will be able to establish a design identity drawing from its own cultural roots.
About Johnny Chiu
Johnny Chiu graduated from Columbia University in New York with a Master of Architecture degree. He is currently a PhD candidate at RMIT University in Melbourne. Between 2002 and 2007 he worked at renowned architectural firms including Kisho Kurokawa Architect & Associates in Tokyo and Kevin Kennon Architects and United Architects in New York. In 2010 he returned to Taiwan to found JC Architecture. His most famous works include Cut Space, H&M’s Taiwan offices, Happier Café, and Logistic Republic’s Ruifang offices. He has won many major design awards, including the Red Dot Award, the AIA Award, Japan’s Good Design Award, the Taiwan Interior Design Award, the JCD International Design Award, the I-Ding Award, and the Golden Pin Award. He is often invited to speak across the world, in countries including Australia, Sweden, the US, and China. He is one of the most active Taiwanese designers of the new generation.