Nolen Niu’s geometric, modern furniture can be found in the offices of Google, seen on the HBO show Entourage, and has been splashed on the pages of Esquire magazine.
Now the 39-year-old, Los Angeles-based designer is making the leap to television, appearing in in the latest reality series on Spike TV’s Framework, a furniture design competition pitting 13 contestants against each other for a $100,000 cash prize.
Common, the R&B singer-turned-Hollywood actor, hosts the show. He, along with Niu and Brandon Gore, founder of the furniture line Hard Goods, are the competition’s three judges. Niu is the design expert on the show, judging contestants on design and aesthetics. I chatted with Niu by phone a few weeks after the show had finished taping. Framework premieres Tuesday, January 6 on Spike TV.
Can you tell me about your background? You didn’t start out in furniture.
I started out as a computer science major (at the University of Maryland, College Park). I did miserably at it. I found art as an outlet. When I realized there was actually a career path, specifically in industrial design, I got excited about it.
(After transferring to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.), I found my stride. Design was something I wanted to be involved in. It allowed me to express my creativity.
After graduating, my intent was to be some type of apparel or portable electronics designer, but I was never able to land a job in it. Then the whole dotcom thing happened and I got involved in that (for about a year). That’s how everything transitioned. After the dotcom boom, with a little bit of money saved up, I took a break, went to Europe, found furniture and said, “This is what I’m going to do.” I came back to LA and regrouped. I worked in carpentry shops, did apprenticeships and tried to learn about manufacturing so that I could be well-versed as a designer and understood the process, and design things that were possible to make. That was a good four years of understanding the business and industry of furniture before I attempted to do anything.
We’ve seen the rise of Asian American fashion designers such as Phillip Lim and Jason Wu. Do you feel like that’s happening in the furniture industry, and that the design world is opening up to Asian Americans?
That’s a tough question. I want to say that Asian Americans as a whole are pretty open to technology and design and embracing the new. I’m really grateful that Spike TV and the producers of the show were willing to select me as an Asian American judge. We’re not that prevalent, and my hope is that with this exposure it allows people to to say, “Hey, there are other opportunities.” Fashion is a creative outlet, just like graphic design and painting and art, and furniture is another creative outlet that may have been unknown. This might open new doors for a lot of people.
Where do your ideas come from?
It’s definitely European-inspired. In Europe, they’re all about clean lines, simplicity, aesthetics. What I wanted to do was a bit of a hybrid, bringing the European style with the American comfort. That’s the DNA of my brand. These pieces might look like very hard and uncomfortable objects but they are very comfortable to sit in.
Tell me more about the show, Framework.
With furniture, there’s still a bit of a mystique behind it. A lot of viewers might not know how a table or chair comes together. This is the background of how it starts from a slab to a beautiful piece of finished furniture. You might not realize the amount of labor and technicality that goes into the piece. I think that process—figuring out how to get a carved shape out of this wood and assembling it—is really exciting.
What was it like to work with Common?
Common is super down the earth. He’s very genuine and humble. Common is the tastemaker and the representative of the every person (on the show). He has a great eye. It’s a nice balance. There are three different perspectives because we’re three different people from three different walks of life.
Does it pain you to see Ikea furniture?
It doesn’t pain me. The great thing about IKEA is they’re exposing design to the masses. They’re making it attainable to a wider audience. They can get their feet wet and then they can grow into a furniture collection like mine.
On the flip side of things, the problem is that there’s a devaluation of design. You go to IKEA and you see the prices. People automatically assume that if (those retailers) can make it for a couple hundred bucks, why can’t you?
That’s been the hurdle I’ve been facing, trying to educate people. The reason this costs more is not only because it is made in America, but also because of the craft behind in it, the quality of the material and it’s all made locally.
I wouldn’t say I’ve always had this notion of becoming a furniture designer. I didn’t land into furniture until I did a summer program in Italy, and that exposure was the first spark for me.
There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing people’s reactions when they interact with the piece, when they’re happy or sad or even mad. Just the social interaction with furniture is what draws me into it. There’s such great emotion behind it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The post is made possible by Comcast and XFinity Asia.
Main image: Nolen Niu with the ZERO chaise. Photo by William Cole.