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An Artist Turns Her Mission Studio into a Museum of Knots

Artist Windy Chien creates an entire universe out of architectural fiber in her first solo space.


A few of the 366 “creatures” in artist Windy Chien’s Year of Knots.

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Chien says that one of the many benefits of a studio is being able to leave projects out in the open: “Just having table space is like heaven.”

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One wall is devoted to shelving where she keeps her rope (mostly cotton and in neutral shades), reference books, and other tools.

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A detail of one of Chien’s Circuit Boards, inspired by electronics and Massimo Vignelli’s New York City subway map.

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Wooden circles provide structure for a new experiment.

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“I like making big things,” says Windy Chien, perched on an embroidered leather ottoman in her Valencia Street studio. “I like taking up space.” Chien is known for her architectural fiber art—a kind of advanced macramé—which manages to be both minimalist and highly elaborate. Since she rediscovered the art form in 2012 (her mother first taught her the craft in the 1970s when she was growing up in New York State), her skill set and the size of her works have grown. She has completed several large-scale pieces for tech offices and retail spaces—such as AngelList’s downtown headquarters and the newly opened Parlor, a design-focused retail pop-up on Valencia—occasionally ascending to the rafters of buildings on a lift to install her rope art. 

Back on the ground, she creates what she calls Circuit Board wall hangings, inspired by electronics and the interconnected lines of ’70s graphic design. Recently, she completed The Year of Knots, a project in which she learned a new knot every day for 366 days (2016 was a leap year). Her latest milestone is moving into her first solo studio in January, after nearly a year of working out of the Archery, a retail–maker space mashup in the Mission.

“I struggled for a long time with the concept of ‘Am I allowed to have a studio?’” she says. “That whole thing that especially women struggle with—am I allowed to put money toward something that might feel self-indulgent?”

As soon as she moved in, she knew it was the right choice. It was a kind of homecoming, because for years she’d owned Aquarius Records, a vinyl haven once located a block away on Valencia. She sold the store in 2003, and it closed in 2016. Chien is a master of reinvention—in between her record shop days and her current life as a full-time artist, she worked as a product manager at Apple. Her corporate stint helped her achieve stability—she bought a home in the Mission, where she still lives. But after decades of running a small business and then working behind a desk, she decided it was once again time to devote herself to creativity.

The studio, which she rents, is one spacious, lofty-ceilinged room in a building owned by an architect who lives and works onsite. Chien has cultivated a “cocoony” atmosphere, no small feat considering the building’s former life as a police station. She skinned the concrete walls in plywood so she could hang up her artwork and applied a stark white coat of paint. The floor is covered in white carpet, with a shaggy white rug on top of that for good measure. Guests are invited to remove their shoes at the door, and the furniture is low-slung. A tiled table and a funky wood-and-rope chair (both are “midcentury Salvation Army,” she says) sit under a pair of her popular Helix pendant lamps, so named for their resemblance to a DNA strand. Spools of rope in all different sizes are arranged on wooden shelves on one side of the room. Chien prefers neutrals, so white, black, and navy dominate the collection, with pops of rose gold mixed in. The shelves flow into an L-shaped worktable whose legs are chopped off at 26 inches, three less than standard to suit Chien’s five-foot-three frame. Her doe-eyed greyhound, Shelley Duvall, lolls on a Casper dog bed.

The movable garment racks that she uses as stands for crafting wall hangings are a common tool for macramé artists, she says, but she is proud of her ingeniously simple solution for creating larger pieces: a pair of pulleys affixed high up on one wall. She can winch her designs higher and lower, depending on what section she’s working on.

The studio was a significant step for Chien, but not the last of 2017. In August she’ll debut The Year of Knots at Minnesota Street Project as part of her first gallery show. In addition to displaying the culmination of a year’s work, she’ll exhibit some of her other pieces, as well as a collaboration with San Francisco ceramist Len Carella, whose work often incorporates leather, thread, and cork details.

Deftly knotting together an example of a “heaving line,” a creation that Chien affectionately calls a “creature” for its centipede-ish quality, she cinches its ends with loops of delicate vintage 24-karat-gold thread. It was The Year of Knots that first prompted her to seek a workspace, she says. There was no way she could comfortably display all the knots in her home.

“That was a nice moment,” she says. “When you realize your work is big enough to move out of the house, like a teenager.”


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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