The multi-talented Alan Nguyen is the mastermind behind our Freddy Chess Set as well as our XXL set in collaboration with OSCAM. He runs Space Junk, a collaboration oriented 3D-design studio. We met Alan and his partner/colleague Masi at their office/studio/3D-print space + apartment in Amsterdam.
Who is Alan Nguyen?
Alan: Good question! I occupy myself with so many projects so I don’t really think about it that much. To give a very grounded answer: I’m Alan, I design things, I own a company named Space Junk, I’m Vietnamese American, grew up in Houston and live in Amsterdam with an Italian girlfriend. I’m a problem solver and I make peoples dreams come true.
Alan Nguyen is everything, I enjoy life, I enjoy every little thing, I'm curious about how things work and especially about how people work, how they actually do things and why. That’s what made me a better designer over all these years, really observing people.
Tell us about your humble beginnings, how did you get into design?
Alan: Design was never really my thing to be honest, when I was younger my dream was actually to be a professional paintball player. When I was in junior high, I started playing paintball and over the years I actually made it on a paintball team. Eventually we got fully sponsored and I got to travel around the states and play paintball tournaments.
So that was what I originally thought I was gonna do! At that time I dreamt of going professional, I just really loved paintball: the camaraderie the friendship, the travelling.. But then you know, Asian parents. They were like: Hey c’mon you gotta do something, this is not a real dream.
Ah, the classic
Alan: Right, but then the funny thing is that my old teammates are actually doing it. Now they’re sponsoring the events! They’re professionals now, so I take that as anything is possible in the end!
But yeah who is Alan Nguyen? Alan Nguyen is everything, I enjoy life, I enjoy every little thing, I'm curious about how things work and especially about how people work, how they actually do things and why. That’s what made me a better designer over all these years, really observing people.
How did you end up in Amsterdam?
Alan: I came to Amsterdam for an internship, I was studying architecture in Houston however I really felt more attracted to industrial design. The thing was that I only had done one project of this kind so my portfolio really wasn’t geared towards industrial design that’s why I thought I’d look for an internship.
I got like a 100 rejection letters and then finally got an opportunity at a company in Copenhagen, so I thought I’ll take the chance, but then it fell through in the end. At this point I was getting pretty desperate.
One night where I was feeling pretty bad, just desperately looking at things like; Man I don’t know if I’m gonna get an internship.. And then I found this one company; Freedom of Creation, totally off the path of anything conventional! It was just a bunch of 3D-printing stuff. I had already tried some 3D-printing things in the past for myself, so I just sent in my portfolio.
They responded and that was kind of the beginning of history for me. I came out to Amsterdam a month later.
How did you feel about Amsterdam?
Haha, I thought Amsterdam was gonna be full of old white people to be honest. I thought it was gonna be an old city with old people, I don’t know why! After all these years its actually one of the best places I’ve ever lived in, I really love it.
When I came here, I worked for the company Freedom of Creation, that really opened my eyes a bit on what’s possible. It shifted my perspective on things. I intended to study architecture to make things. In architecture however it takes 10-20 years to produce a building while industrial design/product design is much shorter. With 3D printing though, you could make a new design every day!
So that’s been pretty much the DNA. Eventually that really provided me the fertile soil to think about any project. A few years after that, I decided I had learned enough. I decided to branch off and start Space Junk, my own thing. That was in 2014 and I’ve been jamming with Space Junk ever since.
Anything that people have not done before, those are the types of projects I like to work on!
Where does the name Space Junk come from?
Good question, to dissect it, it was a mix between architecture as space, and junk as product, so together it was really a place to do anything with anybody. The real mission was and still is, to collaborate with people.
And what does Space Junk do exactly?
Well, everything from design to 3D-printing, to concepting, to consultancy, strategy, everything, making renders. Anything that people have not done before, those are the types of projects I like to work on! Especially anything people are passionate about: trying something different, something new. Space Junk really tries to facilitate that space.
Well, a kind of special project that I’ve been working on which people may not expect is together with the Figura Nova Foundation. This foundation creates 3D-printed breast inlays for women that had breast cancer. So in this sense it’s not just designing objects for consumers but objects for people who need better well-being. This introduces a whole different approach in using this technology, which is super valuable to me.
That’s really cool, tell me more
Well, the foundation was founded from a very personal motivation. The founder, his sister had gotten breast cancer and actually a lot more of the women in his life as well. So coming from that, his mission became to solve this issue or to at least make it better for the women who suffer from this disease and had to undergo amputation.
For me, it’s an inspiring project to work on, I believe this technology can have real impact, real urgency compared to just another object for the consumer market and it gives me opportunities to help out and collaborate with different parties, like people in the medical field. PHD’s, doctors, surgeons etcetera.
Well I look for people who are willing to take a chance on themselves, willing to follow their dreams.
Well, obviously the collaboration with you guys on the chess set, but let’s see. I worked on things with SMIB, I did the intro animation for Toolie Boy and I worked on their lookbook where I designed and rendered all the furniture in the pictures. All the pieces you see are actually digital, so I suppose you would call it digital set design? I also did the vinyl animations for the Smib Patta tape outroll.
I did a piece for Secluded and basically a bunch of other jewellery projects, keeping in touch with my Houston roots! I’m currently working with Evert Nijland on some contemporary jewellery designs.
Oh, and I did the Nokia phone for Retronezer, that was really cool! One of my first multi color 3D-prints, really challenging and one of the first collaborations I’ve done actually.
There’s more too but I can’t remember. There’s always a lot going on so its tough for me to name everything from the top of my head!
What is the vision of Space Junk / Alan Nguyen?
Well I look for people who are willing to take a chance on themselves, willing to follow their dreams. So I really gravitate towards people who do that. What I want to do, is to help people realise that everybody can be happy and I suppose that’s my mission right now, to understand the steps to make everybody happy.
You have to know what you want to do. And if you don’t know what to do u have to keep trying to find out, and I believe this is a never-ending process.
Wow, tell us about the steps!
Well, step 1 is finding your happiness. Figure out what it is that really makes you happy, what gets you excited. You have to know what you want to do. And if you don’t know what to do u have to keep trying to find out, and I believe this is a never-ending process.
Step 2 is being a good person because that’s where the opportunities come in. That’s how you meet people and the doors open. If you’re a good person and you care for people and try to help people, that’s where a lot of happiness comes from.
Those are really the main things I’ve learned
And you run Space Junk together with Masi?
Alan: Well Masi is part of Space Junk but really low key. And it’s like that the other way around, so with Masi I’m also working with her on her things but more low-key in the background. Masi did the original Space Junk branding and the current Space Junk logo is Masi's as well.
Masi: Yeah, we help each other out here and there, it’s organic. We give each other feedback on ideas, design feedback but also marketing ideas. Space Junk also really became more of a platform for collaborations and experimentation.
Our relationship really started out from a creative sense, like getting to know each other through our interests and what we liked.
How did you meet?
Masi: We met through um..
Alan: -She wanted to see my T-Rex!
Masi: Well, I was working in Amsterdam and my colleague was his roommate. And then one day at the office, I saw this 3D-print of a T-Rex, this was like back in the days, 2012 or something so 3D-printing was still this crazy thing. So I thought, oh my god, I wanna meet this guy! So I basically asked him out, like Hey you wanna meet for a drink or something?
So you made the move!
Masi: Haha I guess, yeah I was just genuinely interested in who this person was!
Alan: -She wanted to see my T-Rex.
Masi: I did!
Our relationship really started out from a creative sense, like getting to know each other through our interests and what we liked. We've always been able to support each other creatively as well as on a personal level.
Can you tell us about the famous lemon?
Alan (to Masi): Is it better if you tell it?
Masi: Sure I can tell it. So the lemon thing kind of started from my childhood. It’s something I’ve been drawing since I was a kid and early on in our relationship Alan really took notice. I used to eat lemons every day, I used to eat three lemons a day which I don’t recommend because I actually got sick lol, I got like kidney stones because of the acidity.
So lemons were my thing, always have been. At that time I would also just carry lemons everywhere, so people knew me as Masi lemon already. I would always carry a lemon because in school (TU Delft) the cantina was really shit so I always brought a lemon with me.
How did that start?
Masi: In Italy lemons really are a big thing, like a big part of our diet. When I was young my mom used to take photos of me eating lemons making silly faces. But I also naturally have always had a thing for lemons, I’ve always loved yellow and my grandma used to paint lemons everywhere, like we had curtains with lemons I recall. My grandma had a huge influence on my artistic side.
I just grew up surrounded by lemons and I just started drawing it more and more and Alan really loved it. So then Alan said, I’m gonna make you famous with these lemons. He wanted to start a brand with lemons, and I was like, Okay?
And then one day he just told me like, hey just draw a bunch of lemons on this illustrator file. So I just drew this pattern of lemons and he said he’ll make it into a line of clothes lol.
And then he actually did it! That became a big part of Space Junk and the lemons kind of blew up, like he actually sold a lot of lemon hats worldwide!
Alan: Yeah, that was a big deal for me, that was my first big thing coming from Space Junk!
Masi: And then he also became known as the lemon guy, it was one of those things that really defined Alan and me or signified visually, our relationship.
Alan: And it’s everywhere now too, we got a coaster, a mask, we’re getting a rug soon, a stool, stickers, hats, sweaters, prints and so much more!
What holds the future for Alan and Masi?
Uhm, that’s up to the universe!
I love it, I think that’s a wrap!
Interview & photos by Jessey de Nijs