New Taipei City, Taiwan
Yaungo keeps it pretty simple. He’s apt at finding his foothold amidst the currents of change, never losing sight of the realities of production when pivoting between boutique installation work and factory-produced fixture.
Once you take into account Yaungo’s involvement in the day-to-day of operation of his studio, where he employees a number of skilled craftsmen, it’s clear to see his dedication to developing both an agile and local approach to design. Through this craft Yaungo aims to establish his brand as a unique Taiwanese entity both at home and abroad, and his dedication to process speaks of nothing more concrete.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
My name's Yaungo Cheng and I work with my family's lighting business. We have been in operation over the past 35 years producing lighting fixtures for American markets. Given the legacy of my father's involvement there has always been pressure to improve upon the existing, but I try and create value through my own training in graphic design, which often involves web, communications, or other media.
Did you ever think that you'd be coming back to take over your family’s business?
Not at all. In the beginning my involvement grew out of staffing shortages, and within that role I found new ways to innovate and utilize my skill set. Up until that point they had been doing business the same way since the start, and had never explored the idea of building a brand, an identity.
At the time I was juggling other clients and splitting my time between designing websites and getting the bigger picture together. After about six months or so decided I needed to fully to commit to this endeavor. Given the freedom to really shape and craft the approach presented opportunities that I would never see when working with other clientele, and I figured within 2-3 years I could walk away knowing that the company was healthy and sustainable.
How did that work out?
That was the dream, and one never knows what the reality is until after the fact. After 30 years I'm still here. Not because there aren't other things to move on to, but because I think there are more things to innovate on in this space, and even products to explore.
What do you hope to accomplish?
I want to build our company's reputation not just as a manufacturer, but as a distinct and recognizable provider of lighting solutions. I hope one day that someone can relate the product to the people and culture behind the style and sensibilities found within our designs. I'd like to see our market move forward as we take products to other places, and our clients identify the qualities within our work as a product of Taiwan.
When I think about design I have to keep in mind “what is this item's value?” It's often not just solving problems through creative thinking, but understanding that there are large moves in play.
Is woodworking a big part of Taiwanese culture?
Yes. Everyone either works by themselves or within small studios. Previously our company was in mainland China, and nearly all of the goods made there are mass produced. A large part of my involvement in reshaping the company has involved moving the work back to Taiwan.
How did what you studied help you in what you do now?
Studying graphic design was both a blessing and a curse. I didn't have a background in woodworking, and that made talking to the factories in China a bit of a struggle. Often they would return designs claiming they were impossible to make, mostly because the style of woodworking was challenging their traditional methods. We would argue back and forth, and little by little we would win over small details.
You've spoken about having to convince your workers to go beyond tradition in terms of construction techniques. How did you get to where you are now?
In the first two years I focused on the small victories - getting the factories to improve this, improve that. It was dreadfully slow, and a lot of it had to do with seniority.
You had to prove yourself to them.
Yes, and I eventually had to do it by myself and then show them how to move forward, step by step.
Is that why you moved production to Taiwan?
As it stands, all the machinery, labor and money is in China, and most manufacturers are ready to sacrifice quality in service of scale. Once I realized that factories were not ready to produce specialized designs I took to learning woodworking on my own. Not just in terms of design, but logistics - actually knowing how to produce concepts and translate these designs into processes we could implement here in Taiwan.
Do you consider your approach "hands-on?"
I like working in this way, but right now my job requires me to find a balance between the scale of a factory and specificity of a studio, and ultimately this will determine whether or not I will be able to export.
It must be a challenge to balance both the creative and business aspects of the operation. How do you manage?
I have to I stay in two minds to handle both roles. When I think about design I have to keep in mind "what is this item's value?" It's often not just solving problems through creative thinking, but understanding that there are large moves in play, and how to work in and around those constraints. What might be in fashion this month may not work next month, but if something really has value, somebody might just hold onto it.
Why do you think wood is important to people?
A lot of people have talked about the ecological sustainability of materials, but more often than not they are naturally drawn to the warmth and familiarity of wood. We could have made our fixtures in a lot of different materials - plastic, glass, stone, nearly anything. We work with wood because we know how to; it's been with us for so long. Focusing on this workflow for us keeps our quality high, and allows us to find our own ways to innovate, step by step.
Can you kind of walk us through the process of producing one of your designs?
From concept to product involves mostly sketching and waiting.
Mostly waiting for factory to say, "yes, I can try this." Take for instance our Uncle L lamp. The design is quite different from previous products, and the factory was reluctant to take it on. Funny enough I originally intended to call this lamp Ell, but by the time we were able to take it to market it had become so old we changed its name to Uncle Ell. Since then our choice of lights has now moved from traditional bulbs to LED, and with that comes a whole new approach to fixtures.
Where do you get your inspiration from? Do you have favorite designers?
I would say I'm fond of Italian design. I try not to think too much about it, though. If I have a table, a big table, I must live in a big country, something like the US. In reality I live in Taiwan, and this takes on a different scale. From here I try and distill what differentiates and what aligns these environments. At this point I ask myself, "What does a lamp look like?"
So you're thinking of a total experience.
In traditional industrial design, the thinking is different - it starts with form. For me the lighting fixture is just that - a device to carry the light. When I start to design a light, I think first about who will use this lamp, and then what kind of space they will place it in.
Let's talk about your brand, Meta. Where is the name from?
One day, I'm reading a novel called The Collector, by John Fowles. It's a mid-century suspense novel told first from the viewpoint of abductor and then victim. After finishing it I decided to take to the Internet to find out a bit more about it. Search after search classified the novel as a “meta-novel” due to the multiple perspectives. In my mind “meta” is quite simple, and allows me to think of the value of seeing something from multiple perspectives - in this case lighting fixtures.
Outside of wood, what other materials or projects do you want to work on in the future?
It's in my interests to let the material have a long life, and even more so if it can have a second life. For myself I would like to play with metals, recycled metals. However, for my brand the focus will always be wood because we are a small company, and a relatively young brand. We have to focus on things people can identify with, and execute them well.
Is there something you would like to impart on new designers?
Don't just talk, show what we do. If you want to change things you need to give them something to see. If you don't do anything they will not listen. To me, that's the best way to solve a problem.
Yaungo, thank you for allowing us to share and understand your vision. We hope for your success in the years to come and that you’ll show people that you can change traditions without losing them.