By: Jack Stanley
The studio of Terri Chiao and Adam Frezza — known collaboratively as CHIAOZZA — is a much more playful environment than many of us are used to. It’s hard not to smile at the colorful, childlike atmosphere the two have created. Stucco sculptures in varying shapes, colors and sizes are spread out on the floor. Scattered across the shelves are brightly colored paints and small-scale models of larger installations. The rug they designed for IKEA covers the floor of a play area, while two tendril-like artworks created for the LINE Hotel in Los Angeles hang on the wall.
“Can I continue working on this?” Adam asks, holding up a broom covered in paper pulp. As we speak, he methodically applies the paste onto the object, which will be incorporated into a project for a tech and media summit in Deer Valley, Utah. Sitting on stools in the studio, Terri and Adam are kept busy by their daughter Tove, named after Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. They take turns answering questions and watching over Tove, sharing a dynamism and cohesiveness that is immediately evident even to an outsider.
Outside of their studio, it’s hard not to feel like you’re a part of their vibrant, fantastic world when you interact with their large-scale installations. In 2017, the duo brought humongous stucco sculptures, collectively called CHIAOZZA Garden, to the Coachella Music & Arts Festival. More recently, they’ve created window displays for Hermès Shanghai and Geneva, a bespoke rug for IKEA’s Art Initiative alongside Virgil Abloh and Craig Green, and an Epic React Flyknit in collaboration with Nike. Warmth and positivity radiate from every work they create, whether it’s a piece of home decor or sculpture.
We sat down with the artist duo in their Brooklyn studio to discuss the creative process and inspirations behind their work. Read the full interview below.
Inside the Fantastic World of CHIAOZZA
Exploring the otherworldly artworks of the Brooklyn-based painter and sculptor.
Brooklyn, New York
With one background in architecture, and the other in drawing and painting, how did you find harmony in your work? What draws you to sculpture over other mediums?
Yok & Sheryo
Adam: I think all of my drawings and paintings struggled to be sculptures. I always felt like an outsider as a painter; there’d be a lot of history and baggage when I’d approach an empty canvas. Sculpture felt more natural in my hands. I think that’s where we come together really well — in a sculptural form.
Terri: There’s the ideation which forms out of dialogue and a shared experience. And then, there's sketching and design which has a lot of opportunity for feedback. And then, there's the actual building of things. There's a lot of these moments where different hands can come in.
Can you talk us through your production process?
Before I start I have an image in my head of what I want. When I first started using resin, I wanted to work with two materials that became one, something that looked like one piece. But I didn't know how to achieve that.
The process is lost-wax carving, and the shape I carve out of the wax isn’t sketched beforehand, I just see what happens. A lot of people just say, “I want silver and I want black, but do your thing.” I think people like that I go in and play with it, rather than it being structured.
I don’t draw out something that I am trying to do, because I never really know what I’m doing, which is a lot of pressure on myself. I carve the ring, play with the shapes and try different things. Normally it’s two shapes, sometimes three. I go to Hatton Garden and get it cast in gold or silver, and then after that, it’s a really long process of using resin. Getting the resin in is a secret.
Erchen: It’s very important that each restaurant does different things. We’re inspired by many different eateries in Asia. So Soho is quite minimal, it’s very food focused. It’s in Soho so loads of people are coming in and out and they only want to spend maybe 30 minutes. With Borough we were inspired by the late night grill places and drinking places in Tokyo. We have a highball machine here. Everything revolves around the late night eating style. I think the inspiration comes from a different area but they’re all kinds of Asian eateries and it filters through different restaurants.
Wai Ting: It’s just trying to bring different elements of Asian culture to London. At Borough we did the KTV room downstairs, and we’ve got the hatch there, almost back to our street food days.
Adam: We made sharpie marker drawings and brought in existing, small works. A 3D artist made cut files of plywood rings and the housebuilders knew, “This is the shape I’m cutting,” and before you knew it, there it was in 20 feet from a sharpie drawing in less than a week. There were 32 pieces. We were pretty impressed that they could build such a physical thing with a very simple drawing.
Terri: We were out there for three months, and a lot of our friends who are artists and sculptors came to help with the painting and the sculptural aspects. I was three months pregnant with Tove and sometimes we’d be up on a boom lift — we all had to get certified so that we could work up high. It was just a kind of wild experience to be spending a good chunk of pregnancy out there working and to be in this desert landscape with some of your best friends working on this thing.
HYPEBEAST: How did you two first meet? When did you start to work and create together?
Adam: We met at a karaoke bar in Chinatown singing songs with different friend groups. And I creeped in on a song Terri was singing and we mentioned maybe we could go on a date sometime and she’s like, “What about now?” We went bar hopping that night and have basically been collaborating in one form or another ever since — and that was in 2011.
Terri: Our collaborations sort of started as ways to get to know each other, so we would have drawing games while we were hanging out. We also did a lot of cooking experiments together. We made pink frittata and an eternity stew — which is our website name. For my birthday, Adam got a big pot and we made a stew in it and it was taking a really long time. We made so much of it that we imagined it could just last forever. Or maybe we would take some of the stew and put it in the next one, so there would always be a part of the stew there.
As opposed to gold-plated? Because everything started as a one-off as that’s all I could afford at the time. And, it’s not been about producing a lot of work and making a lot of money, it’s been about making things that I really like.
I could have made a lot of gold-plated things that could have gone to more places and sold a lot quicker and produced way more, but that’s not the point. It’s easy to feel like you’re in a rush to grow… Start off a lot slower, but in the long run, that serves you better.
Back in 2017, you created a large-scale installation at Coachella. What was the process like?
Good advice is work a lot, experiment a lot, and see a lot of art. Find out who the artist is who you really admire and what do you like about their work, what can you bring into the work, but also how can you experiment with materials and make paint do something that's your own language. At least for me, that's always been really important to my practice.
“Play is fun and it’s a way to find the lightness of things...that's something that I feel like can be shared.”
“I think all of my drawings and paintings struggled to be sculptures.”
Sheryo: Not as much as we like to. Now, we’re very busy with studio work and traveling to different locations in Southeast Asia.
Yok: Yeah, we’re busy finding places to do installations. It’s our new thing. We also travel often to learn niche handicrafts. We get stoked about going to places like Indonesia and spend months learning how to do Batik and making other local artisan works.
“There are elements of creativity in what I do but it's very process-focused work.”
Adam: We work with paper pulp a lot, which started when we were seeing our mailbox filled with stacks of junk mail every other day. We would take the junk mail out and rather than throw it to the trash, we would rip it up, put it in a bucket with water and let it break down until we had this pliable material. As the practice has grown, we've been reaching out to photography studios that have access to seamless paper, and after a photoshoot we'll have gifts outside the door of rolls that they don't need anymore.
I think Terry's architecture background really aids in putting together presentations and visualizing a project before we even start building it. There will be a lot of initial drawings and long conversations, like where's this project going? What do we want to say with this? From there, we'll print out the vision and make a work plan.
What’s your creative process like as a team?
Terri: I think play was a natural process for us to engage and get to know each other. And that has evolved to be a crucial part of our work; it’s a way to work together. When you’re playing, you're entering into this new arena that’s different than whatever other reality you may be in already. You set some kind of emotional space that is understood or maybe you push the limits or work within it. Play is fun and it’s a way to find the lightness of things. I think that's really important for living our lives. And that's something that I feel like can be shared. It's sort of a universal thing that everyone does in some way. Everyone plays or can understand how to play.
You’ve said that a large part of your work relies on “play.” Can you explain this concept and how it informs your work?
Yeah she had been to my shows before! My grandma's someone who would always say, “You're so special. I love you my grandson. Like no matter what you can't do wrong.” And all of her grandchildren felt that way. It was so nice. She had this amazing way of making all of us feel special.
Had your grandmother seen your work?
The closest thing I've come to painting myself, had been this last series where I'm taking different people of different ages and races like the people who I am closest to in my life. It could be my grandfather, my godson, homies or whomever I love and bringing them together in my compositions. They necessarily don’t even have to know each other in real life. That concept, I’d say, was the closest thing to a self portrait from me. But when it actually comes to physically painting myself, it’ll probably happen when I'm old.
You specialize in portraiture, have you ever made a self-portrait?
Your work evokes this sense of childhood innocence. How do you retain that playful spirit throughout your practice?
Adam: For the window display in Shanghai, we knew we didn’t want to use a mannequin but had to use their products. We love this idea that when you come to a beautiful place in nature, you kind of settle in — like you’re having a picnic or going to go for a swim and all this stuff you might have brought gets thrown about. So we tried to imagine someone had just arrived at a portal in nature and all the Hermès products were left behind. We tried to create this endless loop of experience for the viewer — like you're stuck in this dream state.
Because of the logistics of the distance between here and China, they had it fabricated by one of their teams and we would Skype or call just to check in. When we arrived at the installation, it was already in the window. It felt like the smooth jazz version of ourselves. It was so refined and finished that we missed our hand a little bit — wonky, more organic. We couldn’t have been happier how it turned out though. This is how it would have turned out if we were super slick or something.
Tell us about your work for Hermès Shanghai.
Terri: I think that part of the reason we work really well together is that there is this sort of fundamental playfulness in our work individually. Even like the concern with color and shapes — there's a lot of common interest. Even though it looks really different, there's something underlying that allows us to communicate. The work that I often end up doing on my own focuses on habitation and habitable structures, like tree houses, little cabins and things you can be inside. And then Adam’s things are piles and gatherings of entropy and things like that. But ultimately, there's a good way that they come together and they're not that different in our minds.
How do both of your styles come together?
Yok: We would look at our drawings and imagine how it would be great if they were worlds that you could go inside, touch and move around. That's where the installation inspiration came from, I guess.
Sheryo: It was kind of natural, really, a progression from 2D to 3D. Yeah.
What about installations are you both most fascinated by?
Yok: We’re working on an immersive installation at the Paddle 8 auction house at the Lower East Side of New York City. We’re creating this nine-foot wooden sculpture of a middle finger with Donald Trump’s tombstone on top.
Sheryo: It’s this pretty big basement spot. We are making sculptures as well as creating the upholstery and benches. It has a really dingy and dark vibe. It’s kind of a lounge room setting. It’s going to launch this coming fall season.
What are you both working on right now?
Archie: We aim to hire people that are extremely multidisciplinary. But at the same time they don't have to have done everything, because in this studio, Jeff and I have not done everything and the principle of this studio is that we won't.
What most people don't have that Dillon, Phil and Ana all have is the rare layer on top of professionalism and the ability to design — the ability to not have ego, to want to learn, and to want to try things that aren’t comfortable. When you’re uncomfortable, good stuff happens because you’re able to fall back on and grow your basic skill set. Dillon didn't design shoes before he got here — he just wanted to. Now he's a shoe designer. To Phil's earlier point, that's why PLAYLAB is a school.
When you decided to grow your team, what qualities were you looking for in new members?
Dillon: Residency programs and other resources for artists — let’s make a school someday.
Jeff: I want to make a penny press called “Penny, Pressed.” The image that goes on the penny press is a penny. I'm not even sure if that’s legal, but it's in the works. I also want to make more art. I think we need more of it and that everybody thrives off of it.
Archie: I want to do it all. I want to see PLAYLAB continue to thrive and grow and morph and change, and I want to be surprised by it every year. I love the projects we work on, but I love the studio more than anything. The studio is the project because it's art.
What's next for PLAYLAB? Is there something that you've always wanted to design through PLAYLAB that you guys haven't touched yet?
When you work on projects with large corporate organizations, how do you manage to strike a balance between what the client wants and PLAYLAB’s creative identity?
Jeff: Back in the beginning when it was just Archie and I, we would get fired from projects because we would throw back ideas that they didn't ask for. But we just kept persisting throughout every year, we just kept making sure that people understood what we think. Now we've gotten to the point where people expect these ideas from us — everyone from big corporations to smaller clients.
Archie: We've tried to craft an environment where people come to us for us — not for a specific type of project. But at the same time I think that our job is to be honest about who we are and what we're doing and what we're interested in. We never present something to the client that we don't think is sick. As a result, sometimes the client isn’t the right fit. But most often, the client is like, “Holy sh*t.” And that's what we look for. The feeling in the studio when that hits is like a drug.
What is the most ridiculous request you've ever gotten from a client?
Dillon: We don't get ridiculous requests, we give them. We tell people to do some pretty outrageous sh*t, and a lot of what we hear back is, "This is f*cking amazing. Wait, rewind. How do we make this?" The more nuanced part is then making our ideas real, in tandem with other people, with a budget, in the real world.
Archie: It’s also just about ridiculous situations, which are the byproducts of working on projects with human beings. With the Louis Vuitton show, the moment nobody sees is Virgil texting all of the designers in the group thread saying he wanted to bring a DJ and throw a huge party in the center of the show right when it ended. Situations like that and learning the different ways people you work with think are the evidence of a project. Those little moments are like symbols, and every project has them.
“We want to be the studio that wraps its arms and collaborates with an infinite amount of people to learn — not to take full responsibility.”
What is the typical workflow of a studio that has “no particular focus” but also has many projects to focus on at once like?
Jeff: We have so many things going at once, so there's no typical day. On any given morning everyone knows they can walk in and we'll be like, "What you thought you're going to do today is not going to be anywhere close to what's going to happen, so let's shift gears." It's changing all the time, which is how we like it.
Dylan: Day to day is not a real thing in this studio. There's a rough energy level and thought level that we have to keep consistent, but in terms of projects we are always pivoting. When I come into the studio with a rough idea of what the timeline of my day looks like, it generally gets moved around because we're working on projects simultaneously that are all so different in nature and are always changing.
Do you find that working on multiple projects simultaneously makes each separate process stronger?
Phil: Yeah, sometimes your work for a project will have to be put on hold, but then you interweave it with some of the learnings you have from encountering another project in that time gap. Now you can bring some of those teachings back into that first project that you had to put on pause, and sometimes that can really work to the project's benefit, even if it's really subconscious.
Anna: It's really helpful that we're not working on all branding projects or all experiential projects. I can get inspired by something that we reference for a branding project at 9 a.m. EST, and at 1:00 p.m. EST it's one of the main ideas for a separate experiential project.
“The real magic of the project wasn't the two weeks that it existed and was beautiful - it was the drudgery of the work to get there.”
By: Gabrielle Leung
From abstract to more realistic depictions, your work seems to draw primarily from nature and plant motifs. Why do you find these forms the most inspiring?
Terri: We love nature, being outside and all of the forms that nature gives us. There’s just the physical feeling of being outdoors where you might be on a pebbly beach with big smooth rocks that have been rushed over with water for millennia and you can find the nooks that your body fits into in unexpected ways. One pretty influential experience was when we were out in the desert in the southwest and we drove through part of the desert that had a bushfire and everything was just charred — all these black, lumpy forms. They looked dead, but then you get up close to them and some of them have small little sprouts coming up. That was something that was really beautiful — like even when something looks dead, it’s actually making way for new life.
Terri: I think I just really love the work. In the past, we would give ourselves at least two weeks sometime in the year to either decollaborate or turn the focus away from the studio. Lately, we’ll stay up after Tove goes to bed for a few hours and do some ideation work at home and we’ve been calling it the “CHIAOZZA Midnight Residency.” It’s in the middle of the night, so it already has this dreamspace vibe. That feels like a wonderful time for Adam and I to both be in our space together and project new ideas into the world.
Terri: That’s something we often think about with sculpture — like you’re making something that takes up space, has a lot of materiality and is meant to be temporary. We struggled with that part of the project and wanted to try to save them. But it was a crazy, logistical challenge. We think of it as a substantial mirage in the desert. Think about film sets that are made and used just for the film and destroyed — it doesn’t make the memory of it less powerful. So many people experienced it. It lives on in other ways.
Adam: For the pieces that are going to the Utah event, we started to fantasize if they do go to a landfill or start to decay. We’ve added wildflower seeds into the paper pulp so overtime if the glue breaks down, the seeds may survive.
What happened to the works after the festival was over?
“Even when something looks dead, it’s actually making way for new life.”