Interview with Luce & Ceiba of Sun at Six

Luce and Ceiba began working with my mom, Maria, almost 20 years ago in Guangzhou, and today make furniture, design joints, and engineer designs for Sun at Six. They’ve both known me since I was a kid and saw me grow up, so our history goes way back. They’re experts in traditional Chinese joinery and stalwarts at Sun at Six. Today we chat with them about woodworking, their history, and the studio. 




So how long have you been working here?
It has been 19 years since the new factory was officially opened in 2004.

What do you mostly work on with Sun at Six?
Primarily I put the concept of furniture design into practice, to refine high level concepts and rough design drawings into production-ready design. Intuitively, it is to turn a concept on paper into becoming a real object through many processes in the workshop. Of course, in this process, it takes a lot of research and development and collaboration to complete.

How did you join the company?
Before I joined, I was working in furniture for three years for a furniture manufacturer in Beijing. I moved to Guangzhou for family reasons, and was looking for work in furniture here. After the new workshop here was built in 2004 and Maria Yee was growing, I applied at the career fair by coincidence and hit it off immediately. 

Were there any challenges when you started working here?
When I was in school, I learned knowledge that was more theoretical. Later, when I began to work, mainly engaged in design work. After coming here, the focus was on hardwood joinery with very strict requirements on the joinery process. In addition, different furniture would use different joinery processes and structures, so I came here mainly to learn and master more of the joinery craft.

How did you get started with Chinese joinery and woodworking?
In college, I chose relevant subjects to study. After four years of theoretical study and some practical work, I had a preliminary understanding of joinery.

Where and how did you learn your woodworking skills?
Basically, what I learned in the university was primarily theoretical knowledge: understanding familiarity with furniture materials/production and processing and other related knowledge. After graduation, I worked for a furniture manufacturer in Beijing to start my career. At the very beginning, it was necessary to understand and be familiar with the process of furniture production, especially the process of going from furniture design to production. I gradually learned over time.

When doing this job, what do you think is the most important thing to pay attention to?
The most important thing to pay attention to is that each step in process should be intentional and accurate, because furniture design and production is an integrated process: from the making of the design drawing to refining the size and structure at each stage in production, each subsequent stage of assembly requires a perfect fit.

What would you tell someone new to furniture to help them succeed?
First, you need basic knowledge and skills, and second, you need to learn and practice in the workshop hands on.

When you first joined, was there anyone who helped you learn the specifics of how we do joinery and make furniture?
When I was here interviewing on the first day, I was asked the joinery structure of an all wood cabinet corner. Through the process I learned about complexity of the joinery process and about the “Embracing-Shoulder tenon.” This structure is relatively complex and is more commonly used tenon structure. I learned a lot of things in the workshop during my internship in the factory, and many teachers would train and guide me. By understanding the processing process on site and using a real object, and then comparing it with the drawings, I learned the joinery structure more fully and deeply.

What‘s your favorite joinery in a piece of furniture?
My favorite joinery structure is the “Embracing-Shoulder tenon” (also called the “Shrimp whisker tenon”), because of its complexity, required precision, strength, and durability.

What‘s your favorite piece of furniture you’ve worked on over the years?
My favorite furniture I’ve worked on is the Aptos collection (a Maria Yee collection), which includes dining tables, coffee tables and a sofa. The legs of this series are relatively thick and beautiful in shape, it has distinguished features. I love it. The joinery structure is pronounced, and the structure is strong and durable. It’s been selling for many years. I also special made a joinery video showing how its put together.

What‘s one of the hardest pieces of joinery engineering you’ve done? 
In my opinion, the most difficult joinery construction is an unusually-shaped three-dimensional structure that requires high strength. For example, the Ember chair has the rear leg connected with the joint of the backrest, but the backrest of this dining chair is curved and made of solid wood, and it has a three-dimensional and unusually-shaped connection with the upper end of the leg. If there is any variation in accuracy of cuts during production, it may loosen during use. In order to reduce the risk of this joint shape and position, we had to make a digital three-dimensional model, and design and position the joint through the model accounting for the unusually-shaped connection. We then had to figure out how to process actual chair according to the precise angles and dimensions, reliably and at scale. 




How long have you been working here?
I joined Maria Yee in 2003, so it has been 20 years. When I first joined, we were still in the old workshop. But in less than a year of me working there, we moved into the new space.

What is your main job at Sun at Six?
The main work is managing the production design process, production, and quality control. I focus on product development, engineering and revising the furniture to meet customer demands, and working with production, purchasing, and quality control team.

How did you first hear about and join the company?  
When I was graduating from university, I started to look for internships and jobs, sent out resumes in the career fair, and got the job that way. After seeing my resume sent in the career fair, the recruiters said that they needed youthful energy and were impressed by such a vigorous university student. That’s how I first joined.

Did you encounter any challenges when first starting work here all those years ago?
It was very smooth when I first joined. I basically didn't encounter any difficulties. The main reason is that I have a strong interest in many things. When I joined, my theoretical book knowledge was hazy, but seeing all the equipment, real production processes, and furniture made me hungry to learn real life application of that book knowledge.

When you first joined, was there anyone who helped you learn the specifics of how we do joinery and make furniture? Like any joinery makers, etc.
When I joined, we had older colleagues teach us, show us around, and mentor us one on one. The masters who understand the details of furniture production and joinery techniques also helped us learn and understand the furniture making process as well.

How did you get started with Chinese joinery and woodworking?
I chose design as my major in university because I like it, including interior design. When I went to school, we had our own workshop, although we couldn’t spend much time, there were still opportunities to understand and practice. We could also practice and learn outside school. Since joining the company, when I’m not busy, I go to the workshop to talk to and study with the masters.

When doing this job, what do you think is the most important thing to pay attention to or be careful about?
I think the most important thing is the brand; as long as it is related to the brand: design, quality, etc. are very important and there can be no mistakes.

What piece of furniture was the hardest for you to make? 
We did a dining table with spiral legs, called the Arial dining table, which was large and unwieldy, and had to be made and polished with sandpaper by hand. It even required us to use an axe to slowly shape the spirals.

What‘s the most difficult piece joinery engineering you’ve done?
The most difficult joint we have is actually the most common structure -- the “Shrimp Whisker tenon”. The reason why it is difficult is not that it is the most difficult when processed alone, but when it appears in the whole product, it involves many related dimensions, and the requirements for processing accuracy and tolerances are very strict. In addition, the wood will change according to changes in the environment. If any of these aspects are not well controlled, it will easily lead to problems in our assembly, or the details of the joints cannot meet the craftsmanship spirit we uphold. Of course, this is not only a technical process issue, but also a production management system issue - a large part of the difficulty is doing this consistently well at scale. 

What‘s your favorite type of joinery in a piece of furniture? 
The “Shrimp Whisker tenon,” which is clean and tidy, and also reflects the wisdom of the carpenter.

What‘s your favorite piece of furniture you’ve worked on over the years?
I like many of our products. If have to choose one, it is the Plume Chair. The overall proportions, lines and craftsmanship details of its design are all in place. In addition, it uses rough and natural leather to give each piece a strong sense of design, personality and craftsmanship.

What would you tell someone new to furniture to help them succeed?
You need goals and interests. It's hard to have no goals. For example, when I first joined the company, I could make only 6-7 production design drawings in a day. Now I can draw more than 10 or 20 drawings a day after a lot of practice. You must find ways to improve your skills at your position.