Karina Cheung on her role in Bika Living

Karina Cheung tells the story of Bika Living’s passion for furniture and her role at the helm of the company.

Founded in 1975, Bika Living is known as the leading furniture manufacturer in Indonesia. The family business focuses on creating furniture characterized by quality, resistance, beauty and longevity. Founder, David Cheung, inherited his passion for beauty and turned it into a driving force behind Bika’s approach to furniture: “a passion for beautiful wood”.
This passion was passed on to the next generation, Karina Cheung, who is now the general manager of Bika. Just like her father, Karina believes that beauty should be appreciated. Therefore, Bika is constantly motivated to ensure that customers are those who can appreciate the beauty of her woodwork. “For us, wood is like a diamond, it’s like art. We want to give it to customers who can appreciate it. Because then, when the pieces are in their homes, they will appreciate it even more, and they will tell this story to whoever looks at it,” Karina points out. Prestige sits down and chats with Karina about her passion for furniture making and, of course, Bika.

Hello Karina! How are you and what did you do?
It’s been a while since I spoke to Prestige. I just got back from vacation, actually. It was the first time I had left Jakarta in two years. I have been to Bali, but unlike any other trip, this time I met artists who live and work there. So that was refreshing and really inspiring. I had a good time. And now I’m ready to get back to work.

You have been described as “the artist of the family” and we have learned that you have had an interest in architecture and art since a young age. Can you tell us how you 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 always took pictures of buildings. I liked that. But I think when I was between elementary school and middle school, I realized that I liked history. I liked it because of the stories. And most of the stories that I liked were related to architecture. So, I think the love came from the story because I enjoyed how the stories are tied to the buildings.
I think the art is very moving. It shows different ways of looking at things. I think what makes it interesting is because in the art itself there are a lot of stories. I loved going to museums and reading how artists created their masterpieces. It’s always interesting for me to listen to others in their way of seeing things. Therefore, I can learn a lot from them.

What made you decide to pursue a career in furniture design?
In fact, I wanted to become an archaeologist. So, I thought, what’s the next best thing? I found the answer was to learn 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 thought that was a pretty cool career to have – being an architect, being a designer.

What were the challenges you had to overcome as a designer? And how did you overcome these challenges?
My training was in architecture. I went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and studied Architectural and Building Science/Technology, then 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 love about furniture design is that it’s very intimate. You actually use the things you design.
What I also realized is that sometimes the school only teaches design, but not manufacturing. A lot of designers I met after I came back from school can do design; but in terms of structural and material knowledge, they are not at the expert level. So they depend on manufacturers for the technical side of things. But my school taught us to do. I come from a background of makers. Thus, I am able to make wooden furniture with my own hands. I can weld steel and pour concrete; anything to do with manufacturing. And when I came back from school, I was able to use those experiences I had in school to talk to the factory workers.

Can you tell us about your role as general manager of Bika? What exactly is this position?
I do just about everything. Well, we’re not a big company. We have our manufacturing but we also have our designers, we have a retail store. So I pretty much have to know everything. I still do the creative direction of the company. I still design certain pieces from the collections, I choose the people I want to work with, the brands we want to represent, I work on the layout of a shop, then we do custom-made. So there are a lot of things on my plate. But in a way it makes me a more balanced person, because I work on a creative level, to manage business, to work with people. I think as a general manager you kind of have to have that ability 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, is translated from manufacturers to customers.”

On Bika’s website, you stated that “we believe in making furniture with a soul…furniture that reflects the love, care and attention that goes into making it”. Could you clarify this? How to “make furniture with a soul”?
Anyone can make chairs, tables and beds, right? But some companies, some products, stick in the minds of customers for a long time, because that product means something to them. Either it’s quality, or it looks good, or it stirs something inside. If a product is made with care and attention, whoever sees it will be able to see it. And that soul, that conversation, is translated from manufacturers to customers. This is what “a piece of furniture with a soul” means.
If you’re buying furniture that’s not of the right quality, if the manufacturers don’t really care about the veneers, if the proportions aren’t right, etc. I don’t think you’d want to keep these pieces for a very long time. And I think this piece of furniture, this piece, is an object which has no life, which has no soul. We want our products to stay with our customers and be part of them. And when they see the products, they remember us and they are happy. It’s a compliment to us when someone comes up and says, “I still remember that play,” which happens a few times. I think the soul is like that. It’s like you have this connection, if something speaks to you, it means it has something, doesn’t it? If I just design a piece of furniture without any attachment to it as an artist, I don’t think that object will communicate the same passion and heart to those who see it.

And as a designer, what is your personal approach or design language?
As it happens, when it comes to my own design work, I do a lot of accent pieces. Which means that each piece has a story, a concept. For example, I have this dining table that I call “Dahan”. One of the reasons I chose this name – which means “branches” – is because I like looking at trees.
The work of the veneer follows the appearance of the intersecting branches. But the name “Dahan” is actually based on my parents’ names: David and Hannah. So concept work is always something I like to do. This is my personal approach to design.
But when it comes to the collections we have, I like to keep the story inside. It’s not like we design anything; there must be some reasoning or story behind it, how we come to the design.

How do you choose the brands to distribute via Bika? What do you look for in a brand before considering adding it to Bika’s portfolio?
We are a company of manufacturers. When choosing brands, I always want to see the people running the business. If the founder is still very involved, I would like to work with the company. Because it shows the passion they still have for the business. I don’t think companies like ours are all about the money. It’s about that drive, that passion to create something unique, to create something beautiful for people’s homes. If the founders are still in the business, that’s the kind of relationship I’m looking for at Bika and the brands we carry.

Marjorie N. McClure