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Kin Objects: The Everyday Art of Modern Rituals Rooted in Chinese Culture

Words by: Ashlyn Chak
Photo credit: Kin Objects

Founded on the idea of making "home" a space where one feels embraced and celebrated, Kin Objects creates a minimalist aesthetic that reimagines traditional Chinese artifacts and stories for modern spaces.

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Inspired by the founders' own cultural contradictions as first-generation Chinese immigrants from the US and Australia, Kin Objects is a Shanghai-based incense & holder brand that reinterprets the unique quirks of traditional Chinese culture to evoke a sense of home for the modern lifestyle.

Cofounded by Bill Yen, an esteemed, award-winning designer and trained architect, and Miranda Yen, who has a strong background in business and product management for prestigious international brands, Kin combines their respective expertise to create a new aesthetic of home rituals based in Chinese culture with a minimalist and sustainable twist, allowing the products to complement any space with ease.

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Clockwise from left: Kin Objects founders Miranda and Bill Yen with their children; Core incense burner; Mountain & Lake backflow incense burner

Why and how did you start Kin?

Miranda: As Bill and I attempted to reconnect with our roots, we looked for products related to Chinese culture for our home but without much success. That’s when we realized there was a gap in the market for modern, visual products that delve into the rich history and traditions of Chinese culture.

When Bill made the Mountain & Lake backflow incense burner for mid-autumn festival gifting four years ago, I realized: “This is how we will build our brand”. The aesthetic was so clean and minimal that we could easily see it fit into any home, but the most important part was the weight of culture and heritage behind incense. Kin is not just a brand with pretty objects, it is a brand rooted in culture, history, and stories.

Kin is designed to evoke a sense of home — why is this important to you?

Miranda: Home is extremely important to us because as first-generation migrant kids, for a very long time, we didn’t know who we were or where we should call home. We felt like the “other” in both the societies we were born in and the societies we grew up in; it took us a long time to accept this lack of belonging.

What we finally came to accept as “home” was not a city nor a country, but a space where we feel comfortable — a space that embraces our divergent life stories and celebrates the seemingly contradictory pull of the cultures we were born into and the ones we are exposed to. This is what our products are about: rooted in Chinese culture, but global in relevance.

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From left to right: Process of handmaking incense; Moon Sierra incense holder 

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From left to right: Nelumbo backflow incense burner; Prototyping of the mold with concrete

What is so special about incense that drew you to it?

Miranda: Incense has existed in literature for as long as human culture has been recorded, and whilst I believe it has deep roots in most ancient civilizations, the first written record of incense use is in China. The ancient Chinese had a saying: “上治为香次治为食下治为药”, which loosely translates to: “the first defense against ailments is incense, then diet, and finally medicine”. Truly intertwined with Chinese culture, incense was almost “holy”. 

Now in our third year, we are gravitating towards blending and making our own incense. We wanted to further improve the quality of our incense, but finding the right partner seemed impossible… so we decided to take it on ourselves. I’ve spent so much time in the last six months just trying to finesse the art of hand-making incense — it’s harder than it looks!

How do you choose the material for your designs?

Bill: We want our design to satisfy the sense of touch. A lot of things can look good photographed, but I think it is also important for the design to have a sense of materiality and tactility. Aesthetically, we want to make things that respect the material and be true to its ability and limitations.

We prototype everything in-house, so the designs are really a culmination of our understanding of the materials' strengths and weaknesses. Our work currently revolves around concrete, bronze, aluminum, and wood, but we are always looking to branch out. As we delve deeper into incense and its history, we have gone from just wanting something pleasing to the eye in our home to wanting them to have some cultural relevance but also speak to a universal narrative.

Miranda: The choice of material is a combination of art and science. We try very hard to make our products affordable, because that's an important part of relevance. We are always thinking about using the best materials and design solutions at the best price for our customers.

We are also moving more into using bronze — it looks fantastic with concrete, not to mention its historical significance as the Chinese used a lot of bronze in its ancient artefacts.

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From left to right: Karst backflow incense burnerValley of Fog backflow incense burner 

Some of your products are inspired by landscapes in China — which impressed you the most? Outside of China, where do you draw inspiration from?

Bill: The mountains around Guilin in southwest China are some of the most incredible on Earth. This may sound strange, but even the way the mist moves around the mountains is different. I never properly appreciated Chinese landscape paintings until I got to see the subject of those paintings in person, which are both more realistic and more surreal once you've visited those mountains.

Regarding other landscapes outside of China that inspire me — I want to bring some of my childhood experiences of growing up in the US into play. There are definitely some fruitful comparisons to be made between the landscapes in the western US and western China. It's interesting to imagine a Zen master ruminating out in the Mojave Desert and doing the same in the caves of Dunhuang.