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Khai Liew – Adult Prodigy

Starting out as a furniture conservator, Khai Liew embarked on a design career without any formal training. Jan Howlin follows the trajectory of his success and finds out why he’s making the folk art of the future.

BY jesse

September 4th, 2008

The following is from Vol. #34 of Indesign Magazine, from their section – Indesign Luminary.


The case of contemporary furniture designer, Khai Liew is remarkable, possibly unprecedented. Standard procedure is that designers are born, pencil sharpened, sketchbook at the ready. Khai Liew, on the contrary, was approaching his mid-forties when he began designing, little more than ten years ago. With no formal design training, he had neither designed furniture prior to this time, nor wanted to. Then, as if emerging from a chrysalis, he suddenly embarked on a design career. Like the miracle of the butterfly, he launched into it fully formed, equipped with an extensive historical and technical knowledge of the field, a mature, highly developed personal aesthetic and the design rhetoric and sensibility to go with it.


On the basis of several one-off commissions, he established Khai Liew Design in 1996. Admittedly these commissions came from Ron Radford, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, and other high-profile people. But clients like these have expectations. Not only did Khai Liew not disappoint, he seriously impressed. His Adelaide premises now showcase around 40 of his designs, although much of his work is site-specific and made to order.

He has had numerous acclaimed exhibitions including a group show at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, in 2006. His most recent, ‘Tiersmen to Linenfold’, was held in 2007-2008 in Perth and Adelaide. (tiersmen were 19th century woodcutters from the Adelaide Hills and linenfold is the practise of relief carving to resemble folded linen.)

He’s won six Design Institute of Australia awards, has designs in the collections of two State galleries (the National Gallery and the Powerhouse Museum) and has become a sought-after adjudicator and speaker on contemporary design and decorative arts.

Lately though, things have really ramped up. “This last year has brought an entirely new phase,” says Khai Liew. “As we speak we’re dealing with new clients from all over the place – London, Paris, New York, South Africa, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, Chicago.” International magazines – Wallpaper, Vogue China, Case da Abitare – are doing major features.

So why this explosion of interest? “I don’t know,” admits the softly spoken and thoroughly personable Khai Liew. “Word has got around?” And why wouldn’t it, when you’ve got a range of highly refined, contemporary hand-crafted products, a website in keeping to show them off, and a designer who brings together a broad understanding of the history and construction of furniture with a flair for invention and an idiosyncratic style to boot?…


To read the rest of this article get your hands on Vol. #34 of Indesign Magazine available at good newsagents and book stores.


Hero Image by Anthony Browell


Image by George Apostolidis

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