We caught up with Albert Chu, the man behind Otaat, a handmade line of leather goods that strikes the coveted balance between sophisticated, function and quirk in a way few designers are able to pull off. We're proud to carry the Otaat line on HELPSY and wanted to find out howoes what he does.
As a graduate of both the University of California, Berkley and Harvard University with a degree in architecture, how did you find your way into the leather goods business?
I have always reveled in the creative process, where you develop an idea from idea to reality. During my time in civil engineering and then architecture, I began thinking more and more about how a design relates to the individual in a very personal way. So hearkening back to my childhood, when I would spend some free time making bags and pouches, I revisited those ideas and started working on objects that people could use and hold and carry and have a very personal relationship with. Leather became a material and medium that was full of interesting, educational, thought-provoking ideas for me.
In what ways have you been able to apply your knowledge of architecture to Otaat?
Architecture is such an incredible profession and practice. You get to follow very nuanced and complex processes from beginning to end, and you get to work with so many amazing people. This collaborative, exploratory process that I learned during my architecture days is fundamentally part of how Otaat works. But in addition to the procedural, so to speak, architecture taught me to have a rigorous creative process that is simultaneously disciplined and completely open. It’s about logic and developing an idea to an interesting, thoughtful resolution. So both the logistical and creative processes are fundamentally architectural for me and for Otaat.
You have described your collection as “smart, subtle, and smiley” - What inspired this minimal aesthetic?
I grew up in an environment of mathematicians and scientists where the combination of simplicity and creativity was the Holy Grail. For example, my grandfather was an influential mathematician in differential geometry, and he wrote a ground-breaking paper on the Gauss-Bonnet Theorem in just a couple pages because he was able to approach the problem from a different perspective, use his creativity in managing the proof, and communicate the complex logic in a very short space. To him, this simplicity, despite the “back-stage” complexities, was the more clear way to express an idea. After all, why do something in a zillion steps when you can do it in a sentence? It may be harder, but to me, the end result is so much more satisfying and beautiful. This is the driving idea behind Otaat.
The goal of Otaat is to create a collection of pieces that men and women can use in subtly personal manners, where each piece becomes less a statement of brand and more an expression of the mantra of simplicity and simplification. As a result, the design intention is to rethink the assumptions of complexity (e.g. ornamentation, trend, excess) and rework the details “behind the scenes” as much as possible so that each piece expresses a simplicity and ease of aesthetic, use, and function. That said, each piece was also designed with a sense of humor and levity.
Otaat stands for "One thing at a time," is this a principle you actively apply to your approach to design?
“Otaat” stands for the first half of my personal mantra: “One thing at a time.” My parents used to say this to me growing up when I got overwhelmed either by homework and other childhood “responsibilities” or by all the “playtime” options I had. It helped me focus on “one thing at a time,” so that I could work/play on something with a high degree of concentration and intention and finish it up well. Then move onto the next (the second half of my personal mantra: “Advance the plot”).
And I hope that this mantra comes through with each Otaat piece because I always try to focus on the design of one piece at a time. Of course, I circle around back to it later to edit and revise the design throughout the prototyping and sampling phases, but each piece is the subject of complete focus at a given moment.
A favorite Otaat piece is the leather Party Hat - what has given you reason to celebrate lately?
There are always so many reasons to celebrate! Especially how I’ve gotten to meet and work with so many amazing, intelligent people who each have such unique world-views and voices. That is probably the biggest reason to celebrate!