Off the Rack: An Urban Designer Ventures Into Wine Country


Picnicking beneath the towering Pino Solo pine tree that marks the highest point of Napa’s Spring Mountain, designer Derek Chen was struck with inspiration for his latest creation. The San Francisco–based designer had just been tapped as the 2013 contributor to Newton Vineyards’ annual Eco-Chic design series, a program, now in its fifth year, in which a designer is commissioned to craft a piece that wine enthusiasts can enjoy. “Sitting beneath the tree, I realized that I wanted to make a wine rack that was vertically oriented,” says Chen, who headed back to his studio with a prototype in mind. “Newton Vineyards has a particular way of making their wines that’s similar to the way people design things,” says Chen of the winery’s nature-led processes, which include collecting rainwater and fermenting the wine using the yeast that dusts its own grapes on the vine. It’s a reductive approach that aligns with Chen’s philosophy. “People think about design as creating, and yes there is a lot of creating going on. But there is also a lot of removal. I try to include only what is necessary. I do not like having a lot of design noise.”

Despite his clear-eyed philosophy, Chen wasn’t always so resolute on what his professional path would be. When the dot-com company he worked for folded in 2001, Chen started to build coffee tables in his garage to pass the time. Friends purchased his earliest pieces, and before he knew it, his work was in high demand. The maker-by-night formed Urbana Design, named after his Illinois hometown. “Urbana was a great start. I enjoyed crafting furniture, but because I was designing my own stuff, it was all in a single creative voice,” says Chen. “I felt people would tire of pieces coming from just one designer.” It was this idea that led Chen to create Council Incorporated, an incubator that produces furniture lines from an array of local and international designers. “I thought that I would be pretty good at curating and directing work designed by other people I admire, in addition to creating my own pieces,” says Chen. Council’s success made him an obvious choice for the 2013 Eco-Chic designer.

For the wine rack, Chen envisioned a design that highlighted the beauty of the bottles.  “Wine is normally just kind of filed away in cellars or in the box,” he says. “I wanted to make something that could be put out in the open but was also efficient.” Chen designed his version to hold the wine bottles at an angle so that the cork would stay wet—the optimal way to store wine. He made the bars of the rack out of 75 percent post-consumer stainless steel and steamed the curved staves of reclaimed wine barrels to mold them into his desired shape for the base. “The part that was most fun was busting up the old barrels to get the materials for the base of the rack,” says Chen.

The designer’s ingenuity was sparked as a child in Illinois when his parents, now retired educators, would make furniture and paint canvases. That same creativity can be seen today in Chen’s studio, where furniture prototypes and sketches are scattered among handmade tools. Whether he’s welding—one of his favorite activities—or sawing away at wood, Chen says that time spent working in the studio is always gratifying for him. “Half the battle is figuring out how to actually make something, but once I get to that part, that’s when the fun starts.”

This was originally published in California Home + Design’s Fall 2013 issue. Click here to subscribe.

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