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From a Small Island to a Big Island

musings with Tony Chi, designer and founder of tonychi and associates

Today, looking back, there’s only one way to summarize the journey,” says Tony Chi, founder of New York-based design practice tonychi and associates. Peering through his signature round-framed glasses, typically red or cobalt blue (depending on his mood), Chi has a layered, almost meditative look in his eyes. The lyrical melody of xiao flute and piano plays in the background, its simple instrumental sound a light overture to the rich, theatrical tale that is about to unfold.

“The story begins from a small island to a big island,” he continues, half present, half consumed with his never-ending list of to-dos, whether for a project in London, Mendoza, Chengdu or Hong Kong. His hands idle away at colored pencils strewn across his studio desk in Soho, New York. “It was from an island full of memories, or Taiwan, that I traveled to start a new life here on Manhattan, a lonely island.”
For Chi, who has called New York City home for over 40 years despite spending considerable time abroad (he recently penned a guest column as a “frequent flier” for The New York Times offering savvy travel tips), his first encounter with the City and coming to America as a young adolescent was a jarring experience.
For starters, it was characterized by the absence of light. “I remember crossing the [Williamsburg] Bridge from JFK airport,” Chi recalls, “It was after midnight and the city was dark. Delancey Street was dark, the right turn onto Avenue B…god, was it dark and lonely.” That peculiar feeling of isolation, of living in an impenetrable, concrete jungle as opposed to an open one with glittering skyscrapers and hopeful dreams, would set the tone for much of his early youth.

He learned to speak English and to assimilate into American culture—his first New York memories include fishing and crabbing at Coney Island and buying a t-shirt of football legend Joe Namath. Even his name “Tony” originated in haphazard fashion. While enroute to New York, the Chi family had to transfer flights during a stopover in San Francisco International Airport. Tony was told by his mother to return to “Gate T to NY” in case he got lost––“to NY” became “Tony” when asked to write his English name later on in middle school. (Those were the only combination of letters that left a strong impression.)

He found solace in communicating through art at the High School of Art & Design. In the classroom, if he wasn’t cutting class (“It was the 70’s!”), he constantly doodled or painted with watercolors. Outside of the classroom, Chi was inspired by music, another universally understood, sensory experience, and traveled around the U.S. to catch acts like Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Deep Purple, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band. High school, he cites, was one of the happiest times of his life.

Afterwards, Chi studied architecture for a year before transferring to The Fashion Institute of Technology to pursue a degree in interior design. It was during this time that he learned to cultivate his eye and develop a deep appreciation for style, through the flamboyant design world inhabited by already established friends like Juan Montoya and Vicente Wolf. “West Broadway yesterday,” Chi recalls, “was Soho today.” Downtown had this cool, creative camaraderie––from Chinese hangout Oh Ho So to the old Castelli Gallery up the street.
The architecture and design industry then, however, placed heavy emphasis on schooling, specifically by championing Ivy League graduates of Columbia, Harvard and Yale. For those, like Chi, who went against the conventional grain––or couldn’t afford the hefty tuition fees of private universities––they sought to define their own niche. Chi, already a part of the inspired downtown scene, set up his own design studio on 611 Broadway in the iconic beaux art Cable Building in 1984.

“I basically did my thing, I didn’t care about anything else. [They] would never imagine that you would be good enough for them, socially, economically, creatively, financially, intelligently, et cetera,” Chi explains. “But when you start creating outrageous designs, people start to look at you differently. When New York Magazine cited me as one of their upcoming top ten designers, people started to ask ‘Who the hell is this guy?’”

Chi’s big break came with the Café Society on 21st and Broadway, a sleek restaurant that led to more projects within Manhattan before the market crashed in 1987, forcing him to look elsewhere for opportunity. He set his sight toward the small island of his past: Taiwan. Immediately following, he began to explore other parts of Asia, including Indonesia, Japan and Hong Kong. With the right combination of luck in partnership (with restaurateur Paul Hsu, real-estate developer Allan Zeman and Hyatt Group’s Frank Ansel), timing and persistence, Chi built a successful practice in ten years.

“From a professional point of view, I think I bridge old masters from the past,” he says of sustaining his now thirty-one-year-old practice. “I practice like an old scholar. I don’t look at business.” His signature aesthetic, “invisible design” which is “what touches you rather than what you see,” is a resulting culmination of his past, present and future defined by his respective experiences in Asia and the West. Though he is always reconciling the two sides, he veers towards his Eastern roots when explaining his outlook in life.

“In Chinese culture, we were brought up to believe one thing. It was called the collection of life. You collect things over a lifetime and you treasure them. When you die, you take all your collection and you somehow disperse them to give to your loved ones or you bury them with you,” Chi explains. That “over a lifetime” mentality is also applied to his design process. “Most people don’t seem to see things that have aging beauty in them. People like new things, but I always gravitate towards things that have been around for a while…things that have patina.”

Is there one project in his collection of life that has been the total embodiment of his creative vision? “Every job to me is a draft of some sort,” he replies, citing the impossibility of executing one project from its pure point of origin after passing through the hands of the builder, developer and operator. “I draft them like a sketch because if it’s a sketch, it’s not so hard to part with…the one thing I learned is to never fall in love. If you fall in love with something, you cannot let it go. None of [my projects] are full-fledged paintings.
“The only thing that will stay pure and true for me,” he adds, “is if I ever build my house. I will put myself in it.” Having recently purchased land overlooking the Hudson River in Garrison, New York, Chi is well on his way to creating his pièce de résistance. Currently in his fifth iteration of its design, Chi’s Garrison house will be free of perceptions, which he believes are rooted in the past, what has already happened. “I’m trying to create something new,” he says firmly.

Formality, he advises, is also crucial to understanding one’s relationship to a home. “I want the formality [of Garrison] to say, ‘I am confident in this house.’ When you feel very confident in this house, many things can happen. You wake up confidently and you’re going to live that day confidently…I think the end result will be incredible.”

So incredible, in fact, that Tony Chi—the design world doyen who created everything from nothing, the grandmaster with the impenetrable force, much like the spirit of the dark and lonely island he once perceived Manhattan to be––may finally fall in love? “Oh,” he says, amused by the idea. “Just maybe.”

Tony’s New York: