Koonyai Studio's Wearable Architecture

For designer and maker Beau Sinchai, it all comes down to scale. Trained as an architect at the University of Minnesota, with an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Sinchai creates jewelry—earrings, necklaces and cuff links, primarily—inspired by her love of architecture and the construction materials that make buildings possible.

“I create jewelry as architecture,” says Sinchai, “but at a scale reduced to fit on the body.” Through her Bloomington-based workshop, called Koonyai Studio, Sinchai sells her designs on Etsy and the curated design site Fab.com. (In Thai, “Koonyai” means beloved grandmother; Sinchai was raised by her grandmother in Thailand).

Sinchai began Koonyai Studio several years ago, while still in graduate school at Cranbrook. Her research practice there involved designing structures for the body and experimenting with concrete for a design project. She discovered that jewelry made from concrete and metal (particularly copper) was the perfect way to manifest her interest in creating objects that would mediate between the body and the larger built environment.

“My research—which is ongoing—explores this in-between,” she says. “I’m always asking myself: How would this structure look and function? How does this material work? The jewelry that results is my creative outlet.” When not making jewelry, Sinchai is experimenting with continually improving the durability of the concrete formula she devised.

“Concrete is very abundant and sustainable,” she explains. “Concrete can be crushed and reused. It’s super strong when used for buildings, but the material doesn’t really want to work on a small scale. So I love this challenge and I’m determined to make it work.”

Koonyai Studio’s designs are sustainable in other ways as well. All of the products are made in Bloomington. When Sinchai needs extra help, she brings in women from local shelters experiencing homelessness to assist with the work. “They gain back their confidence and self-worth while learning jewelry-making skills,” she says. “It’s a win-win situation!”

The jewelry is packaged in 100-percent unbleached cotton, and shipped in cardboard boxes and newsprint stuffing made of recycled fibers and post-consumer material. “So the whole life cycle around this jewelry is sustainable,” she says. “If I’m going to make something and contribute more things to the world, I have to think about what will happen to it when people are done with it.”

Still, architecture is her primary inspiration. “Oftentimes I’ll see a building, with pretty, shiny glass or an interesting façade, and then I have to figure out how to abstract it down into a piece of jewelry. Still, what I love about this jewelry is its materiality; it’s unexpected and yet fits with the everyday. It’s durable, long-lasting and an original design—and will not end up as waste in a landfill.”