Karina Cheung tells the tale of Bika Living’s passion for furniture and her role at the helm of the company.
Established in 1975, Bika Living is known as Indonesia’s leading furniture maker. The family-owned company focuses on creating furniture that is characterized by quality, strength, beauty and longevity. The founder, David Cheung, inherited his passion for beauty and moulded it into motivating force behind Bika’s approach to furniture: “a passion for beautiful wooden.”
That passion passed down to the next generation, Karina Cheung, who is now the Managing Director of Bika. Just like her father, Karina believes that beauty should be appreciated. Therefore, Bika is constantly motivated to make sure clients are the ones who are able to appreciate the beauty of its woodwork. “To us, wood is like a diamond, it’s like art. We want to give it to the customers who can appreciate it. Because then, when the pieces are in their homes, they will appreciate it even more, and they will tell that story to whoever looking at it,” Karina emphasises. Prestige sits down and chats with Karina about her passion for furniture making and, of course, about Bika.
Hello, Karina! How are you and what have you been up to?
It’s been a while since I talked to Prestige. I’ve just come back from a holiday, actually. It was my first time out of Jakarta in two years. I went to Bali, but unlike any other holiday, this time I met artists in who live and work there. So, it was refreshing and really inspirational. I had a great time. And now I’m ready to get back at work.
You have been described as ‘’the artist of the family” and we learned you had been interested in architecture and art ever since you were young. Can you tell us how you first discovered this passion?
My dad likes to take pictures and he also likes to travel. Since I was young, he took me to various places. He always had his camera with him and was always taking pictures of buildings. I enjoyed it. But I think when I was between elementary school or junior high, I realised that I liked history. I liked it because of the stories. And most stories that I liked were connected to architecture. So, I think that love started from history as I enjoyed how the stories are connected to the buildings.
I think art is very moving. It shows different ways of looking at things. I think what makes it interesting is because in art itself, there are a lot of stories. I liked going to museums and reading about how artists created their masterpieces. It’s always interesting to me to listen to others in their way of looking at things. Therefore, I can learn a lot from them.
What was it that made you decide to pursue a career in furniture design?
I actually wanted to become an archaeologist. So, I thought, what’s the next best thing? I found that the answer was learning architecture. When I was younger, I grew up meeting designers and architects through my parents when they brought me to meetings. I talked to them and I thought it was a pretty cool career to have – to be an architect, to be a designer.
What were some of the challenges that you had to overcome as a designer? And how did you overcome those challenges?
My background was in architecture. I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and studied Architectural and Building Sciences/Technology, and then I went to Rhode Island School of Design for a furniture design program. The two are completely different things. Architecture is about spaces, but what I like about furniture design is that it’s very intimate. You actually use the things that you design.
What I also realised is that sometimes school only teaches about design, but not about making things. A lot of the designers I met after I came back from school can do design; but in terms of structural, material knowledge, they’re not at expert level. So, they depend on manufacturers for the technical side of things. But my school taught us how to make. I came from a background of makers. So, I’m able to make furniture out of wood with my own hands. I know how to weld steel and how to cast concrete; anything that has to do with making. And when I came back from school, I was able to use those experiences that I had in school to talk to the manufacturer workers.
Can you tell us about your role as Managing Director of Bika? What, exactly, does that position entail?
I pretty much do everything. Well, we’re not a big company. We have our manufacturing but we also have our designers, we have a retail shop. So, I pretty much have to know everything. I still do the creative direction for the company. I still design some of the pieces in the collections, I choose people I want to work with, brands that we want to represent, I work on how a store is set up, and then we do custom work. So, there are a lot of things on my plate. But somehow it makes me a more balanced person, because I work on a creative level, to handling business, to working with people. I think as Managing Director, you kind of have to have that capability to be balanced.
“If a product is made with care and attention, whoever sees it will be able to see it. And that soul, that conversation, gets translated from makers to the customers”
On Bika’s website, you stated that “we believe in making furniture with soul … furniture that reflects the love and care and attention given to its manufacture.” Can you elaborate on that? How do you “make furniture with soul”?
Anybody can make chairs, tables, and beds, right? But certain companies, certain products, stay in the mind of customers for a long time, because that product means something to them. Either it’s the quality or it just looks good or it stirs something within. If a product is made with care and attention, whoever sees it will be able to see it. And that soul, that conversation, gets translated from makers to the customers. That’s what “furniture with a soul” means.
If you buy furniture in which the quality is not there, if the makers don’t really care about the veneers, proportion is off, etc … I don’t think you would want to keep those pieces for a long time. And I think that furniture, that piece, is an object that has no life, that has no soul. We want our products to stay in our clients’ homes and be a part of it. And when they see the products, they get reminded of us, and they’re happy. It’s a compliment for us when somebody comes in and says “I still remember that piece,” which it happens a few times. I think the soul is like that. It’s like if you have that connection, if something speaks to you, that means it has something, right? If I’m just designing a piece of furniture without any attachment to it as an artist, I don’t think that object will communicate the same passion and heartfulness to those who see it.
And as a designer what is your personal approach or design language?
I happen to, in terms of my own design works, make a lot of accent pieces. Which means every piece has a story, a concept. For instance, I have this one dining table that I call “Dahan.” One of the reasons why I picked the name – which means “branches” – is because I love looking up at trees.
The veneer work follows the look of branches criss-crossing. But the name “Dahan” is actually based on my parents’ names: David and Hannah. So, conceptual work is always something that I enjoy doing. That’s my personal approach to design.
But in terms of the collections that we have, I like to keep the story within. It’s not like we’re just designing anything; there has to be a reasoning or a story behind it, on how we come up with the design.
How do you choose brands to distribute through Bika? What do you look for in a brand before you consider adding them to Bika’s portfolio?
We are a company of makers. When choosing brands, I always want to see the people who run the company. If the founder is still very much involved, I’d like to work with the company. Because it shows the passion that they still have for the company. I don’t think businesses like us is only about money. It’s about that drive, passion of making something unique, making something that’s beautiful for people’s homes. If the founders are still in the business, that’s the kind of connections that I’m looking for in Bika and the brands that we carry.