Jen Chu is a freelance set designer, interior decorator, and avid photo-taker…or you can just call her the ‘Asian Martha Stewart’. Chu lived in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, for six years, in a teeny-tiny bedroom about the size of a cargo van.
Being from the San Francisco Bay Area, Chu naturally gravitated towards foggy beaches, big trees, and old houses with excessively ornate moulding.
Jen moved to NYC right after college and jumped right into an internship for a set designer. The internship turned into a full-time job that produced freelance opportunities aplenty—and the rest is history! She was the art director for Project Runway for 10 seasons and has worked on a bunch of other shows as well as some music videos, photo shoots, and commercials.
We just LOVE Asian American girls that create and constantly inspire! Keep up the great work!
ASIANCE: What is your background?
Jen: Both of my parents are Chinese from Taiwan. I was born in the US. I studied art (with an emphasis in sculpture) at UC Irvine
ASIANCE: Where did you grow up?
Jen: I grew up in the SF Bay Area.
ASIANCE: What did your parents say that you were pursuing a career besides the traditional Asian background?
Jen: My parents were pretty supportive of art as a hobby. My mom sent me to drawing classes when I was 5, so she must have noticed that I was artistically inclined. I did art projects all the time at school and at home, and I studied art in college, so I don’t think they were particularly surprised when I chose art as a career.
ASIANCE: What made you follow interior design as a career and not just a hobby. That is very hard to do, despite your fabulous education!
Jen: I thought about working in the fine art world for a while, but I decided to work in design instead because it’s generally more collaborative. I love collaborating with vendors, carpenters, and upholsterers on transforming a space.
ASIANCE: I love your lion earning rack!
Jen: Thanks! The lion hooks are actually drawer pulls that I bought at a local hardware store. They cost less than $3 each. When I bought them, I had no idea what I was going to use them for, so it was a happy accident that they wound up holding my huge earring collection.
ASIANCE: How do you keep your small places clean? Clutter free? Any advice?
Jen: Absolutely. The key is to get rid of stuff that you don’t use. I’m very diligent about donating as much as possible, and over the years, I’ve realized that I don’t need much stuff at all! Ideally, you should be getting rid of just as much stuff as you’re bringing into your home.
ASIANCE: What about someone who has a big wardrobe?
Jen: I live in NYC and I don’t have a lot of closet space, so in the summer, I put my winter clothes in suitcases under the bed, and in the summer, I do the opposite. When I’m getting ready to put my clothes away for the season, if there is something I have not worn a single time the entire season, it’s time to get rid of it.
ASIANCE: I love your set designs Project Runway, Kardashians Hamptons and HGTV. Can you give us an idea of how you go from concept to completion?
Jen: Usually, the design starts with a sketch or an inspiration board. Humans are very visual, and it’s very hard talking about design in an abstract way. I have thousands of inspiration images in my archives, and I collage them together to propose concepts to my clients. After we agree on a general design direction, I take measurements, and draw floor plans so I can figure out the best furniture sizes and configurations. Then I shop, and when everything is ready and on location, we install the room and decorate.
ASIANCE: Is there an ultimate project or dream project that was done which you would have or would like to take on?
Jen: I don’t think there is a specific project that it’d consider my dream project. I do many types of design, and the variation ensures that I’m always engaged and challenged. I learn a lot from every project I do, so I enjoy working on homes and sets of different budgets, scales, and styles. However, I think every designer dreams of owning an amazing house that they can transform into their dream home, so I probably think about my future house more than anything.
ASIANCE: For a girl or anyone who is looking into redesigning their space (room/apartment), what is the first thing they should do? What about next steps?
Jen: The most component of interior design is scale. Before you buy anything, make sure it’s the right size for the space. I also recommend thinking about the room as a whole, and not just focusing on one item. I know it can be overwhelming, but that’s the only way you can ensure that all the pieces work together.
ASIANCE: Where do you find all the fabulous furnishings? Online? A favorite online destination? A favorite store?
Jen: I am always looking for bargains. Redecorating can be very expensive, so I try my best to save money when I can. Usually when I shop online, I go straight to the sale section just to see what’s out there. I buy a surprising amount of stuff on amazon, overstock, and ebay. When shopping online you have to be patient and you have to be familiar with the proper design terminology, so you get the search results that you want. I love Dwell studio for furniture, West Elm for accessories, Etsy for soft goods (pillows, throw blankets, duvets), IKEA for storage solutions, Society6 for super affordable art prints, Online Fabric Store for fabric, and American Frame for inexpensive art frames.
ASIANCE: Are you still living in New York or LA? I can’t tell from your blog?
Jen: I am actually bi-coastal. I live in NY 70% of the time, and live and work in LA 30% of the time. I travel often for work, and each city has different advantages and challenges when it comes to design. It’s nice to mix it up!
ASIANCE: How often do you transform your own space?
Jen: I put a lot of thought into my designs. Before I buy anything, I always want to be sure that it’s not something that I will grow tired of. Because of this, I don’t really transform my space that often. Usually I do 90% of my decorating at the very beginning. This is also an helpful tip—try to get all the “dirty work” done before you move your furniture in. A lot of times people are too lazy or intimidated to move all their belongings, so they wind up doing nothing at all.
ASIANCE: IF you weren’t designing spaces, what would you be doing?
Jen: That’s a hard question for me to answer because I’ve been doing art since I was 5 and I’ve never had any other job. If I wasn’t an interior designer, I could imagine myself owning a small business where I design and produce my own accessories for the home.
ASIANCE: What are your hobbies?
Jen: I love going to museums when they’re empty. I often walk down the streets of historic New York and take tons of pictures. Traveling is a passion and watching live music is fun from time to time.
ASIANCE: Is there any favorite space that you just love? It’s hard for me to think of my own, but I LOVE the Kardashian Hamptons’ house design and it was done by YOU!
Jen: My favorite project so far is the kitchen for the Real World Portland, and the InTheMo reclaimed wood bar. I love designing kitchens because I’m very mathematical and kitchens require a tremendous amount of detailed space planning.
ASIANCE: What advice do you have for girls who want to break into and excel in the interior design business?
Jen: I have a lot of advice! First, I would make sure that you’re always looking at design and studying what else is going on in the industry so you are current. That could be through Instagram, Pinterest, blogs, magazines… whatever. Design is a language and in order to be fluent you have to study. Secondly, design your own space and your friends/parents’ spaces and treat it like a professional project. The biggest problem with being a junior designer is that you have no work experience. Start with your own space. Make sure to take “before” pictures and get a professional to shoot the final product. Lastly, learn to use software and tools that will make your job easier. That includes some kind of 2D/3D rendering program like CAD or Sketchup, and Photoshop or Indesign to create moodboards.
For more on Jen, please visit www.jenchudesign.com