Drinking with designer Nolen Niu
Photo Credit – William Cole

How much do you know about furniture design? I didn’t know much, but top-notch American furniture designer, Nolen Niu, took the time to chat with me all about his design projects, and what’s it like to direct a team of problem solvers and creators everyday.

Nolen is an industrial designer and founder of Nolen Niu Inc. a custom furniture design and fabrication firm in Los Angeles. Niu also lent his expertise this year on Spike TV’s first-ever furniture design competition show, Framework.

We spoke about his love for charcuterie, his all-time favorite limited edition liquor, and how he sustains each day only eating one meal.

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What inspires you when you’re creating a furniture line?

It might sound strange, but I do a lot of research within the fashion and automotive industry. I look to cars for their proportion and styling, and fashion for their use of color and textiles. Those two industries go hand and hand with furniture because furniture is this very fashionable, personal item that expresses our individuality within our home.

Cool. When you’re not busy designing what do you like to order when you’re out?

I’d definitely have charcuterie, cheese, and olives. I typically drink Merlot; that’s the bulk of what I drink. If not I would have Rioja or Tempranillo. I love reds.

What if you were having fish for dinner?

You know, I don’t follow that rule too closely because I’m not so into white wine. I love red and Prosecco. Maybe it’s because I’m not as versed in white, and typically when I drink white it’s too dry for me, even though I do like that it’s cooler in temperature.

Do you have a favorite liquor?

I am a big fan of this tequila made by José Cuervo; it’s called de la Familia. It tastes like a really well-aged scotch. Every year they release a limited run of these collector bottles and commission Mexican artists to paint the unique packaging. I’ve been avidly collecting this tequila for the last six years. I actually always buy two; I leave one unopened and then I drink one.

Smart guy. Are you a big collector in general?

Yes. I collect watches—and not even super expensive watches, more on the specialty side. If I travel and find a watch that’s really cool I’ll collect that. I actually have one of the very first digital camera watches from Casio. It’s a wrist camera with a stainless steel band that I got back in 2001.

I imagine it was very futuristic at the time! How was it to work as judge on SPIKE TV’s design show, Framework?

The TV show experience was fantastic, and being a judge was a real treat! It was my first time doing something like this, and it was a completely different experience outside of what I do from day-to-day. Contestants have it much harder than we do because they are thrown into a new environment with strangers in this house under pressure to create. We’re just there to give insight and critiques. It was made in 10 weeks and was very fast-paced, but definitely one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had.

Did you and co-judge Common spark a friendship?

Yes, he is honestly one of the most humble and genuine people I’ve ever met. He’s extremely polite, and one of the few people I’ve enjoyed meeting and getting to know better.

That’s fantastic. Take me through a typical day, starting with your morning routine.

I wake up, shower, get my iced Americano, and drive to work, which is five minutes away. I actually don’t eat breakfast or lunch. I have one meal a day, which is dinner.

Sounds like a model’s life. How do you sustain the day? Do you drink juice or something?

No, usually water. I don’t really get hungry because I’m so busy in general. At night is when I can relax and enjoy myself. And I’ll always have meat and cheeses with some wine.

What’s a day at work like for you?

Everyday is different. I think in life, people view issues that arise as issues and I would say that in my daily scenarios there are definitely problems, but it’s about the way we approach the issue. I always see problems for the solution and view it from a problem solving perspective. Especially when you own and run a shop — nothing ever goes right.

Got it. And lastly, what is your clientele like? Do people commission a line for their home; do people come in and just buy one piece?

Yes, it definitely runs the gamut. I have some clients who see things that they like, but they need it so speak to their own individuality. Some people want furniture tailor-made like a suit to fit their space. I also have hotel and restaurant projects; right now we’re in the middle of designing all the furniture for a new nightclub in West Hollywood. It’s a small project, but its fun and gives us a chance to be completely vertical, which is the whole notion of why I started the shop in the first place. We like to be able to design, and then after that, actually manufacture the furniture.