Artist and maker Windy Chien has never been one to follow a typical life path. She happily admits that she’s probably had three or four lives before going out on her own to start her handmade business, where she’s best known for her eclectic, hand-carved wooden spoons.
She spent 14 years running and owning San Francisco’s oldest record shop, Aquarius Records, where she only sold music she loved — from Norwegian black metal to Brazilian Tropicalia, Ethiopian jazz to Jamaican rock steady, and noise, indie, punk, krautrock and more.
Then, she spent eight years with iTunes and Apple’s App Store, picking the best songs for iTunes’ mixtape series and the best apps to be featured on the front page of the App Store. “The thread that ties those careers together is that I was evangelizing and presenting the artists I love to the world. And that was great for my 20s and 30s, but when I hit my late 40s, it wasn’t satisfying anymore. I realized I was spending my days sitting at a desk and looking at great work roll across my computer screen,” Chien explains. “I decided it was time to nurture my own creativity. I spent so many years promoting other artists, musicians, and creatives, I like to think I’ve earned my ‘me’ time.”
When she quit her corporate job, she dove into hand crafting full force which included stone carving, ceramics, weaving, block printing, jewelry making, etc. “My father was a woodworker and my mother taught me macrame in the 1970s, so when I started working with wood and fiber/rope, I knew I’d hit my sweet spot,” Chien says. “When my friends started asking where they could by my pieces, I realized I could make a living doing this.”
Her studio is a one-room cottage in her backyard in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s a tight space, so she often works with the doors open, using hand tools to craft her spoons. “The curves and organic shapes you can make with hand tools is wonderful, and the second I had the gouge and rasp in my hands, I thought, ‘This is it. I love how this feels.’ When I started making my spoons, I quickly evolved a style that I hadn’t seen before (the right angle corner that is both practical and beautiful),” she says.
“The process of carving feels so, so good. I get into the flow state.”
Chien primarily sells her goods on her website and a select few retailers, but she isn’t out looking for buyers—they approach her. “People with great taste find me and if it feels like a good fit, we work together.” She does, however, utilize the wonders of Instagram as a tool to show her work to online tastemakers who she thinks will appreciate her work. She also participates in the West Coast Craft, a juried exhibition of artist and designer craftsmen and women inspired by the mood and aesthetics of the West Coast lifestyle. Her macramé pendant lights, for example, are much more impressive in person than online. “Interior designers love them and that has led to commissions and installations,” she notes.
Pricing her work is an altogether different thing. “I’m always amazed when I see woodworkers selling spoons for $25. Unless they’re employing blind children in India or using machines at every step of the process, I don’t know how they are able to sustain themselves. For me, the goal has always been to price the work reasonably, but also to ensure that I can keep doing it, that I can live on what I make. My customers appreciate that my work straddles art and functionality, and that they are getting a handmade piece that is unique.” She figures out how long it takes her to make each piece from beginning to end, and come up with an hourly rate for herself, along with the cost of materials, and then she works out the price from there.
Chien tries to keep enough stock on hand to meet a few weeks of sales, so she never has stock piling up, and she’s always in making mode, which she prefers. Some items are constantly revolving and evolving like the spoons and macramé items, but others have fallen to the wayside. “I’m sold out of the brass knuckles because I realized I don’t love making tiny things! I made the rings because I wanted them—they’re so badass—but after selling a few hundred pairs, I may move on to the next thing.”
“I love thinking of my work in editions. I’m driven to make what I feel passionate about, and that is always changing and evolving, as it should.”