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Hometown Heroes: Furniture Designer Nina Cho

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Next up in our series of inspiring Detroit Hometown Heroes is Nina Cho, a designer who has the form-and-function thing down pat. Her subtle, thoughtful creations are like museum-quality works of art—that you can actually use in your own home. While getting ready to open up our new store in her neighborhood, we stopped by Nina’s studio to talk about how she built her career, what keeps her inspired and more.

Have you always been an artist? What made you decide to pursue it as a career?

I studied painting when I younger. Attending art high school in Korea, I realized that I was more interested in three-dimensional structures and space. I started to explore the relationship between things of different scales, such as bodies and furniture, objects and architecture. I studied woodworking and furniture design as an undergrad at Hongik University in Seoul. The program was very different from an industrial design program. We were encouraged to tell our own story and taught to create unique pieces of furniture using our identity. That freedom in developing my own process led to a more personal approach to product design.

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Can you tell us about how you ended up in Michigan?

I moved to the U.S. shortly after finishing my undergrad to study 3D Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art. I graduated three years ago with an MFA but I started building my career while I was at school. There were no credits and assignments at Cranbrook so I worked in my studio space just like a professional independent designer. I developed each aspect of my design process from the initial concept to model prototypes to the final piece. Taking responsibility for everything helped me gain confidence in my creative thinking.

What’s a typical day in the studio like for you?

I have a studio, but I also work at home, fabrication shops, material supply places, coffee shops, even while driving. I move around a lot during the process of creating a product. Each step requires different types of work so every day is different. There is no nine-to-five schedule for me. Being an independent designer gives me more flexibility but also always keeps me in work mode—either physically or mentally.

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Is there anything special you like to have around while you work?

Coffee—hot during cold weather and iced when it’s warm out.

What has been inspiring you lately?

Everything around me subconsciously inspires me every day. But if I had to choose the most inspiring thing, it’s this very old saying: 검이불루 화이불치 in Korean, 儉而不陋 華而不侈 in Chinese, Gumleebullu Hwaleebulchi translated to English. It means, “It is simple but not shabby, and impressive but not extravagant.” I admire this as an attitude and also as an aesthetic. I think design can be categorized and defined as many different things. My interest is to blur the line between art and design. I want to create unique things with longevity that inspire every moment of people’s daily lives.

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Do you have any advice for young people trying to make it in your field?

It’s been only three years of me pursuing this career professionally. It’s not an easy field. Being an independent designer or artist is more than just a job. You can make it if you are serious, dedicated and love creating your own work.

Come meet Nina and shop her creations IRL—she and more Detroit Hometown Heroes will be at our new store opening on 10/16 from 6–8pm. Plus, read our past interviews here.