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Che-Wei Wang & Taylor Levy of Brooklyn’s CW & T studios

Big Ideas

How These Designers Found Success on the Fringe

Husband-and-wife duo Che-Wei Wang and Taylor Levy have built a following for an array of well-made niche products.


Can you quantify wonder? If so, Che-Wei Wang and Taylor Levy of Brooklyn’s CW&T studios have mastered it.

Partners in art and life—the pair are married with children—Wang and Levy have amassed an impressive following for their often whimsical inventions, eight of which have debuted on crowdfunding site Kickstarter. So far they’ve conjured everything from a poster designed to sharpen your ability to decipher scale to an iOS app that tests your internal sense of time and an indestructible “forever jump rope,” in the process melding tech, industrial design and product development with a hint of performance art. Their most successful project on Kickstarter to date has been a $99 minimalist stainless steel pen that raised $282,000 from more than 4,000 backers; its successor raised $148,000.

Last month, the multi-talented duo celebrated the shipment of one of their most unusual projects: the Time Since Launch single-use clock, similar to the tickers used to determine marathon winners. Once you pull the clock’s pin, the clock begins to count the days, minutes, and hours of your life, ending at 2,738 years. Designed to mark momentous occasions such as a wedding, birth, or the day you quit smoking, it’s meant to chart your “personal epoch.” But where do such fantastical ideas come from?

In the interview below, Wang and Levy share the inspiration behind their ideas, their process, and how they enable others to connect with their offbeat products.

Prototypes of CW&T's latest Kickstarter project, Time From Launch. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

Prototypes of CW&T’s latest Kickstarter project, Time From Launch. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

Q. How did you get the idea for the Time Since Launch clock?

Levy: It started as one of Che-Wei’s thesis projects while we were in residency at the MIT Media Lab. It’s one of several devices we’ve made to alter our everyday relationship to time. Traditional devices such as clocks, watches + calendars are practical but tend to only address scales we’re familiar with—seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years. Time Since Launch references something much more significant than we can wrap our heads around. It draws inspiration from John Glenn’s Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, where the astronaut wore a 12-hour stopwatch on his arm on launch, synching it with mission control and tracking stations around the world. This created a shared global timezone centered around the mission. The ability to own time like that, to let anyone create their own moment zero, is a beautiful thing, and something we hope to give people with this piece.

“After the initial burst, a prototype will often live with us for a few years before we decide if it’s good or interesting enough to sustain the long and painful process of bringing it to market.”

How do you create these fascinating products?

Levy: On the simplest level, everything we make is something we want for ourselves. We often find a small void or need in our lives, then furiously search for a solution. When we can’t find one that we find satisfactory, we make it.

What is your process?

Levy: We’ve set up our studio and workshop to work seamlessly so we can move an idea from sketch to functional prototype as easily and as quickly as possible. After the initial burst, a prototype will often live with us for a few years before we decide if it’s good or interesting enough to sustain the long and painful process of bringing it to market. For example, we designed and prototyped Pen Type-C in 2016 (the latest product in their popular pen series), and lived with it and tested it for three years before finally pulling the trigger (after sorting through manufacturing and launch).

Four of the Type-A pen with ruler case laid on a grey background.

The Type-A pen is a minimal, stainless steel pen that doubles as a ruler and is meant to last forever. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

Do you know when you’ve hit a successful product, or is it always trial and error?

Levy: We treat every project we start as a lottery ticket; entrepreneur Darius Kazemi first made this analogy. We think every lottery ticket we buy is going to be the big one, but the reality is often surprising and unpredictable, so we just keep trying. There is a lot of deliberating and back and forth, but more often than not we have moments when things just click. But if that moment doesn’t happen, we naturally shift to something else. Since it’s just us two, we need to both be fully on board to bring something into the world.

“If you’re going to make something, do it in the best possible way. Don’t cut corners; you won’t sleep at night.”

What is your creative experience and how has it influenced your work?

Wang: Growing up in Tokyo, I spent a lot of time browsing stores like Tokyu Hands, a paradise for design object and tool lovers. I would come home inspired and sketch product ideas but failed miserably since I didn’t have the necessary tools and skills. Later, I studied architecture at the Pratt Institute, where I now teach, and picked up fabrication skills like welding, sewing and glass blowing. At the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU (ITP) I gained a solid footing with software and electronics and met Taylor. After, we launched our studio, did residencies at Fabrica and EKWC, got married, and spent two years at MIT Media Lab and then Autodesk’s Pier 9, at each institution picking up whatever skills I could without knowing how (or if) it would benefit my design process.

Levy: Growing up in Montreal, I was always coming up with weird business ideas I would get excited about, staying up late to sketch them out and plan, but which often didn’t look too great in the morning. In college, I studied Film and Computer Science. I knew I wanted to do something related to art + science, and this gave me a foundational understanding of how computers work. After undergrad I went to ITP, and suddenly working with software + hardware became accessible and empowering in a way where I could use it to be expressive. To me, our work feels like solving little problems on different scales, in different media. This can take many forms, but you’ve got to get the job done in the best possible way that is also honest and respectful to others.

What do you believe good design should do?

Levy: As designers, we feel very sensitive about occupying people’s time, money and space. It’s a privilege. Design should lend a positive emotional experience, whether this is through work that empowers people through knowledge or by using the best possible materials and manufacturing processes to make sure something lasts.

The Key Wrangler is a keychain (and bottle opener) that keeps your keys in order and easy to access. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

The Key Wrangler is a titanium keychain (and bottle opener) that keeps your keys in order and easy to access. Photo courtesy of CW&T Studio

What do you hope to achieve through design? What inspires you both?

Levy: We hope to bring a spoonful of joy and a regular dose of delight every time someone interacts with something we’ve made.

Wang: We get inspiration in some similar, and some different ways: Taylor finds the way computers work fascinating and beautiful, while I am inspired by looking at art. We also spend time teaching (the pair co-teach a hardware/electronics class at SFPC) and the energy students bring is very inspiring, especially when we teach them how to use technology for creative expression.

“One thing we try to do is be as generous as possible with information—why we are doing what we are doing, and what it is about a project that gets us excited. This could be sharing some weird or difficult manufacturing process, or a quirky detail that makes us happy.”

How do you get people excited about your projects?

Levy: We never know if people are going to be excited! One thing we try to do is be as generous as possible with information—why we are doing what we are doing, and what it is about a project that gets us excited. This could be sharing some weird or difficult manufacturing process, or a quirky detail that makes us happy.

Do you have any tips for creators hoping to use Kickstarter?

Levy: Just be honest, both to your supporters, but mainly to yourself. If you’re going to make something, do it in the best possible way. Don’t cut corners; you won’t sleep at night.

What new projects are you working on?

Levy: We always have about 15 or so projects at various stages of completion. Some might never see the light of day. But we’re excited about our watch, and working on a time capsule, a pizza-holding solution, an electric bike, a pepper mill…some electronic sculptures and so much more.

 

 

Laura Feinstein

Laura Feinstein is a writer and editor, covering the intersection of art, technology, and global culture.


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