Cat piles at home, everyday? This is what Comma’s famous Cat Pile is: a set of wooden cats you can play as a stacking game like a Jenga game. Not only did the cats in funny, descriptive carvings captured the heart of the internet cat lovers, they actually were the result of Comma’s designer seeking relief after parting with his cat.
Who is Comma, and how did they create these wooden blocks that became so dear to people around the world? Their story is one of a rich history, from a woodcarving workshop that has been serving a family for decades. Here’s a look into what Comma is really all about.
1. Tell us about the brand Comma and how you came out of Chen’s Woodwork from the 1930’s.
We launched Comma in 2011 in order to give new life to the eighty years of legacy at Chen’s Woodwork, a family business that has sustained our livelihood for three generations.
Comma’s mission is to pass down the old crafts and stories of woodworking through new ways fitted for the generation, like old trees budding new leaves, so that the handcrafting legacy continues despite the overwhelming influence of mass-production industries.
From Chen’s we inherited the love, knowledge and collective memory for wooden materials. Then, we bring in design thinking to create wooden products that warm up and simplify our lives. It’s to bring joy to our everyday moments, which encourages us to keep on going with life.
Chen’s Woodwork fed the family for three generations not only financially but also spiritually. By creating Comma, we hope to bring more collaboration between traditional wooden crafts and other industries so that the spirit of this family business lives on with us.
2. The wooden Cat Pile was immensely popular around the world. How did you come up with the idea?
I had a cat but only for a short while and had to give it away. I really miss our time together, so I’ve designed around cats for many projects. Cat Pile began as cat-shape blocks I made as samples for myself to play around with. It was therapeutic to play around with them and I started piling them.
Later, I brought them to a show just to see how people would react to them. A cat-lover designer near our table kept coming to play with them and said that if we release the product she’ll be the first to buy. The pile was pretty popular during the show too, so in 2012, we launched the Cat Pile product. Now we’re in the fifth generation and it’s still the best-selling Comma product.
3. What did you enjoy the most about designing Cat Pile?
The design process was a lot of fun. We looked at many cats in photos with different positions and expressions, and tried to copy what they were doing. The result was a bunch of man-like cats and cat-like humans designs, as well as lots of laughs! Those were good times and reminded me of my own cat.
We loved all the different cats so much and couldn’t leave out any of them when we were making prototypes. This is why we had so many different sets. But the variety made stacking much more interesting and challenging—they also challenged your balance on your hands. They do a lot! See? Cats are our best friends.
4. Tell us also about your love for wooden and bamboo stationery.
We design stationery out of the same brand concept: to connect the good moments in life. One stationery piece, the Split Bamboo Pen Holder, was designed around a Chinese expression which compares an irresistible winning moment to slashing bamboo. The pen holder captured the split second of bamboo pieces shot out in rays when split by a knife. This product won the 2011 Cultural & Creative Award in Taiwan, which was not only a big encouragement for us, but also a way to make Comma known to more people, and a hope that we’ll keep up with this “winning moment”!
5. The international popularity of Cat Pile also meant growth and challenges. What are some lessons learned from running your own brand?
Comma came out of Chen’s, a traditional handcrafting workshop, so we had no experience in mass-production at all. We had to visit the wooden factories and learn how and what to adjust to make our crafts possible for production.
Besides production, marketing and selling were also challenges, because the ordering and invoicing system was very different between Taiwan and abroad. With the unavoidable language barriers, we had to patiently communicate and adjust our invoicing structure until both the customers and ourselves saw it as a viable business.
Also, we’ve been to craft fairs and international trade shows, spending a significant amount of time and money to figure our way out. This is why we all still have day jobs in order to keep Chen’s and Comma running.
6. What would you say feeds the spirit of the Comma brand?
As a kid, I watched my father and the artisans carving custom orders one by one, and I grew up with wooden materials and handcrafted methods all around me. As a student, I studied industrial design, finishing off my thesis project with a stationery collection inspired by wooden materials, which appeared accessible to me.
In our age of mass-production, it seems as if hand-carving and Chen’s Woodwork is destined to disappear, but woodcarving is far from outdated. It’s merely that we’ve forgotten we could make everyday objects with our own hands. Comma is one way that we bring the skillset back to the modern life.
7. Share with us a customer story!
We hear many cat lover friends say “that’s exactly what my cat does!” They use the wooden cats to decorate or to play stacking games. Their cats also have fun pushing over a stacked pile when their owners tried to take a photo.
One of our friend loved the Cat Pile so much that he bought every set as soon as one was released. He’ll figure out all kinds of ways to stack them, take photos and send them to us. One of the stack was one cat holding up 19 cat blocks, and another was one cat holding up 24 cats. He was so worried that we won’t believe him that he got a friend to take photos from different angles to prove that it was an actual stack.
His way of stacking was so creative and he had so much fun from challenging himself that he even made it to Apple Daily (local major newspaper)! He surprised himself, and we got the best PR!
8. What’s next for Comma?
Our biggest dream for Comma is to keep Chen’s Woodwork running. Now, more and more younger generation have heard of Chen’s and visited the shop because of Comma. This really gave new energy to the old-fashioned workshop!
We have a new mushroom collection coming up consisting of utensils inspired by cute round dotted mushrooms. The cute shapes and polka dots accentuates your meal or afternoon tea very well, so is great for serving. They are also great as decorations, since each mushroom has its own personality. They’ll delight you and make your days a bit sweeter and happier!
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