March 6, 2017

A Q&A with Micro-Living Guru, Michael Chen of MKCA, on Thoughtful Design and Innovative Living

Michael Chen founded MKCA in 2011 in San Francisco and New York. Today, the firm offers conceptually rich and innovative designs both for commercial and interiors projects, as well as furniture and urban spaces.

by New York Spaces

Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA; Attic Transformer.
MCKA Michael Chen
MKCA; Bank Street Apartment Entrance.

NYS: What is your firm, MKCA known for?

Michael Chen of MKCA: We are known for designing exceptionally crafted buildings and interiors, and a scholarly and well-researched, but playful design sensibility. Many of the most most well-known projects we've completed are ones that incorporate transforming and moving elements, integrating technology and design in a way that makes small urban spaces function like larger ones.

NYS: What and all services do you offer for someone who needs your help?

Michael Chen: We are a full-service architecture and design firm focused on everything from furniture, to interior

MKCA Michael Chen

design, to renovations, to entire buildings. Many of our projects now integrate architecture, interiors, historic preservation, and landscape, and we are frequently working between those areas on projects big and small. We're also a little unique in that working on complex urban projects, our team has accumulated a good deal of the expertise and technical know-how of a much larger office without losing our focus on refined and well-considered design delivered in a boutique, detail-oriented, and client-centered manner.

NYS: How did you come to specialize in creating sophisticated, livable micro apartments?

Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA; Unfolding Apartment, Bed Shown Closed.

Right when I was starting out, my former business partner and I were given a terrific opportunity to design a small apartment for a friend who had recently purchased a 400-sq-ft studio in Manhattan, but whose lifestyle, which included frequent entertaining, house guests, and working from home was really more conducive to a much larger space. That project (the Unfolding Apartment) really captured my imagination, and it was also extensively covered in the press, which in turn led to other projects. Over the years, we've completed other similar projects of increasing complexity and also decreasing size. Though the majority of our work is considerably larger, we almost always have a small space project in the office. We enjoy working on them, and we've learned so much about how to build them well and also how to think creatively about making a small space both functional and gracious.

NYS: What range of sizes do you consider a micro apartment?

Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA; Unfolding Apartment, Bed Shown Open.

Michael Chen: Generally speaking, a micro apartment is anything 400 sq. ft. or smaller, but the expertise that we've accumulated working on micro spaces really informs quite a lot that we do at other scales. For instance, we have developed several near standalone "micro" projects within much larger spaces as places for guests or for entertaining, and our reputation for capturing every last bit of usefulness out of small spaces also has us working on larger and multi-unit projects with developers and homeowners who know that we will take advantage of every square inch of space that we are working with.

NYS: What kind of furniture do you suggest looking for if you are in a micro apartment?

Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA; Park Avenue Prewar, Master Bedroom Closet.

Michael Chen: The ability to do double or triple duty is always a plus. In almost every project we work on, regardless of scale, we always try to incorporate the biggest table that we can, for dining and for working, sometimes in a moving or transforming way, and sometimes just stationary. It's not necessarily the most obvious choice in a small space, but a table does so much to make a space work in different ways. We also almost always have a 16-18" tall stool, which can double as a side table, nightstand, and extra seating for conversation or for dining.

All that said, people often make the mistake in assuming that everything in a small space has to be tiny. As a rule, we select furniture for small spaces using many of the same criteria that we use for larger projects. It's important to live with things that you love and that speak to you, regardless of the size of your space. We just think carefully about how furniture can be used and positioned in a small space.

Michael Chen of MKCA

NYS: What are some easy-to-do tricks you can offer someone who does not have the resources to engage your services?

Michael Chen: We always make it a goal to reduce visual noise in a space. Creating some visual quiet in the form of emptiness does so much to make even a small space feel more expansive. Maybe that's about eliminating paper and magazines and the like in your space, or making sure to leave a little empty space on shelves. Another thing that we do is to hide books. I love books and have hundreds and hundreds myself, but they can overwhelm a small space, so we try to tuck them away so they are out of view—either behind doors, or around a corner.

NYS: What is one of the most interesting spaces you have ever worked on? The most challenging?

Michael Chen of MKCA

Michael Chen: We're incredibly fortunate in that we get asked to work on a lot of challenging and interesting projects. We just finished two—a 220-square-foot micro apartment in an attic in the West Village, and a 9,500-square-foot townhouse on the Upper East Side—both of which are just loaded with challenging details and design elements that reflect years of research and development. They're the smallest and largest projects we've completed thus far, and strangely similar in the sense that both had tricky Landmarks issues, and both were extremely complex, with many different elements that had to be coordinated and work well together.

The townhouse project in particular was an extraordinary opportunity to engage research that we've done on digital design and manufacturing. We were able to incorporate elements like very complex bronze railings, highly detailed digitally-carved woodwork, and sculptural terra cotta façades into the project as a way to seamlessly integrate modern design into a historic environment.

Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA; Powder Room Prewar, Powder Room.

It's always an interesting challenge to realize design through the construction process, especially when the design is meticulous. Projects like these have really forced us to develop way to engage the process of making in a thoughtful way. Of course the goal is always for that effort to be entirely invisible. When we've done our job well, a space or a building is just beautiful and works well.

We're now in the process of completing the interior design for that project, which is its own challenge. We've built a collection that integrates contemporary independent American design with landmark pieces from post-war Scandinavia and Italy and custom furniture, carpets, and other items that we've designed.

NYS: Tell us about Attic Transformer in the village! What did that project consist of?

Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA; Unfolding Apartment.

Michael Chen: A client who had acquired a tiny space along with an adjacent attic in a historic 1850 townhouse on a gorgeous street in the West Village, approached us to thoroughly renovate it. The existing space was almost shockingly small—220 square feet with a crumbling plaster ceiling—and the challenge was to make a real and workable home.

The apartment has exposure along three walls and it is also on the top floor. We knew the space was in bad shape, but once we removed the plaster on walls and saw sunlight coming through we knew we had to effectively rebuild the space from the outside in. As a result we were able to gain almost a foot of ceiling height, new windows along with a thoroughly waterproofed and insulated exterior, and a very nicely leveled new floor, which was important for all of the pull-out and rolling elements.

Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA; Unfolding Apartment.

We completely gutted the interior, removing some existing partitions and opening up the space. The attic was a good size, but not tall enough to stand up in, so we decided to pack as much as we could into that space and create a solution where key elements like a dining table for four or five could be pulled out of the attic into the main space, and then easily packed away.

In addition to the 6-1/2 foot long table, a home office is created by pulling out a powered compartment housing a desktop computer. Another compartment under the table that houses a printer, and adjacent compartments pull out to reveal a pantry and a large rolling wardrobe.

The bed also folds down from the attic volume (see images above). The compartment inside is lacquered in pale pink with a custom blue mohair headboard and an illuminated nightstand with more storage above.

In the entry we carved out a separate dressing area and landing pad with a built-in dresser, additional hanging closet compartment, and access to the leftover space in the attic, which is used for seasonal and long term storage.

Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA; Unfolding Apartment.

The bath and a new kitchen are housed in a volume of black Corian and charcoal lacquer in the entry space. There was never a kitchen in the space previously, but we managed to add a small one with a custom sink, an induction cooktop, and a terrific refrigerator/freezer drawer.

The material palette was kept crisp and mostly high contrast black and white with bleached ash woodwork, an ebonized white oak floor, and white walls and lacquer contrasting against the black Corian. The pink lacquer and plush headboard were added to introduce some playful color and plushness to the space, along with a puffy but sleek sofa from Hay upholstered in a pale pink Kvadrat wool. And we introduced other materials like sheepskin, a terrifically graphic quilt by Anderson Designworks in Los Angeles, and an incredible painting with a tropical scene that the client had to bring other textures and color into the space.

Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA; Park Avenue Prewar.

I had my doubts along the way, but the completed project is remarkably comfortable, and we've had rave reviews from the client, who is planning to enjoy it for a long time.

NYS: What are you working on now?

Michael Chen: We're busy! Right now we have two apartment projects in construction where we are architect and interior designer, one in the West Village and one on Park Avenue. We're working on a challenging renovation of an apartment in an iconic building on the West Side Highway for a client who uses her space to entertain on a serious level and that includes a motorized transforming bar, loaded with technology. We are about to start construction on another historic brownstone project in Brooklyn, and we're also just getting started on the design of a ground-up multifamily residential building, also in Brooklyn. And as always, we are at work on research projects, some of which are independent, and others that are funded through grants.

Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA: Bank Street Apartment, Kitchen Closed.
Michael Chen of MKCA
MKCA; Bank Street Apartment, Kitchen Open.

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