Artist Mark Chai Creates Innovative Masterpieces From Recycled Materials

Mark Chai’s love of invention and working with his hands showed up in his work with model airplanes and cars when he was a boy. Not content to stick with the established designs, he veered toward creating alien craft that had yet to be engineered.

These days, he turns his love of three-dimensional work and puzzles to wood and recycled materials, a practice he started in 1991, when he was among the first artists tapped by the City & County of Honolulu’s recycling Office to help stir interest in alternative materials. it wasn’t easy at the start. When he crafted a comfy lounge chair out of cardboard with Styrofoam cushioning, he found “everybody agrees recycling is a good thing and everyone said it’s great, but they didn’t want to buy it. They wanted furniture that would last, made out of durable materials.”

But it looks like the rest of the state, if not the nation, is just beginning to catch up to him.

His early experience forced him to study alternative materials used in decorative works such as a Cutting Edge magazine rack fashioned from steel, wooden chair backs and a found ax, and the Wok and Roll shelving system created from a found street lamp housing fitted with two wood shelves.

He’s also known for limited-edition lampshades made with plastic sheets lining X-ray film boxes at The Queen’s Medical Center, where he works part time transporting patients.

His hand-cut designs include those of surfers, and most recently, a lamp bearing the profile of President Barack Obama. Unfortunately, the hospital recently made a switch to digital imaging, he says, which is good for the environment but has sent him on another search for materials, even as he turns his attention to bigger endeavors.

“The big thing in architecture now is pre-fab housing, and it’s something i’d like to try, creating housing that’s organic, something that looks like a cocoon,” he says.

Some of the artist’s newest works will be featured from April 1 to May 22 during a “Planet Urth” show at Fishcake (307-C Kamani St.), celebrating Earth Month and the green movement.

“i feel like people are finally catching up to my vision,” he says. “it’s great people are taking interest in the things I’m doing with recycled materials. One of my goals was to show people how to look at stuff they’d usually throw out – give it a second look.” and, he hasn’t given up hope that his cardboard lounger may have a place in homes of the future.

“Frank Gehry also made cardboard chairs that people collect,” he says. “When you have a big name like his, you don’t have to be practical. But my name is not a household name. i don’t know; maybe if i become more famous, people will want to collect my pieces and say, ‘That’s my Mark Chai.'”