An hour with… the Yen Brothers
Written by Jonathan Mahon-Heap
The notoriously media-shy brothers, Albert and Joseph, lift the curtain on TÜR Studio and Daily Daily café.
Jonathan: It’s interesting to have a similar training and background in your family — how similar are you all?
Albert: I guess we are, to a certain extent. Dad is very into his design and lifestyle. Dentistry is hard work, so we always wanted that balance. And part of that is from him. He showed us some of the things that we could do.
Joseph: He collects things. He likes to buy things. He collects everything. He gets into one thing and collects the best. He goes really deep into it. He would buy these old Chinese antiques…
Albert: That’s where he started. At one stage, he was collecting a lot of matchbox cars and he’d get them all.
Joseph: When we were younger we didn’t get ‘it’ as much. After university, we started to find things that we liked and ventured off into different paths. Albert likes coffee so, naturally, he ventured into that.
Jonathan: That knack of collecting one thing and following that thread all the way through to the end, in terms of understanding the history and embracing an entire aesthetic behind something, are you both a bit like that? Because you both have a really distinctive aesthetic on the street and you are both fully immersed in that world.
Albert: Yeah, I think if we were into something we are…
Joseph: …fully committed.
Albert: We will find information about it and understand it. It’s important for both of us to have that knowledge. You can’t be selling things…
Joseph: …just because it’s pretty or because it’s what everyone wants. It’s not what Albert wants or what I do. It’s from what we see or like, coffees that he’s seen all throughout the world and he’s made connections with those cafés.
Jonathan: You’ve exhibited works overseas and you’ve visited other owner-operators. I wondered what you pick up on when you meet people who are doing ‘you’ abroad.
Joseph: It’s kind of like meeting a friend who you’ve known for a long time. Those spaces are often really beautiful and I feel really connected to those spaces.
Albert: That’s probably one of the most important things. It’s the people behind it and that connection. How they might have made an item or placed it in the shop in that manner, why a cup is like this or the angle. It can be just a minor detail. I’ll go to a restaurant and I’ll flip the plate or cup to see what kind it is, who are they using.
Joseph: Very fussy.
Albert: More like I’m interested in little details like that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a certain brand. You’ll see in the coffee shop and TÜR, some of the stuff is antique and secondhand.
Joseph: It just serves a function aesthetically.
Albert: And the feel of it, at that point in time. That sort of triggers us into how we look at things, how we appreciate them, how we taste.
Jonathan: It helps build a roadmap or a set of instructions, almost.
Joseph: Or a memory with a certain customer — whether it’s going into TÜR or the coffee shop. Albert’s got all the different cups, rather than your standard Acme or standard cup. It’s nice for the customer to have that experience.
Albert: It’s interesting to interpret what certain people like. We think, ‘oh this cup might suit so-and-so, this cup might suit you, this cup might not suit the next person who comes through, or they will appreciate not just the coffee but the surrounding’. The cup is part of it, the table is part of it, the light is part of it and that connects you, not just to the shop, but the person behind the shop.
Joseph: And that’s what we like about it, about the places we go to. And, I’m sure you’ll be the same. It’s personal and special, and not generic.
Jonathan: I’m interested in the tension between people being on different sides of the bench as well. Like in any dynamic, where there’s a patient-doctor or a customer-owner one. It must be interesting, being on the other side of the bench. I wondered, what you had noticed over the last few years about the people that come into your shop and whether that has shifted what you do in the shop?
Joseph: I’ve been here six years and Albert’s been here three. Six years ago, K Rd wasn’t like this, next door wasn’t Madame George. In terms of customers, more people are discovering us, because I don’t advertise. I don’t do interviews or anything, because I say no.
When they find you, it’s something special. They’ve done it themselves, rather than reading it, like, ‘oh it’s hot right now’.
Albert: Auckland is very small and new things pop up all the time but the ‘hot-right-now-what’s-on’ trend is not very good for us. We don’t like it.
Joseph: So, naturally, it’s not a super busy place. But, over time, it became more so. In the beginning, it was quiet. Sometimes, in the first year, there would be a few weeks when no one came in but it’s my workspace too.
Same with Albert. When he first started, there were no coffee shops on this block. It’s completely dead around here, especially on a Sunday. And now, there’s a kid and baby trolley outside — you never used to have that, not on K Rd. Two new apartments have gone up.
Albert: There are so many wine bars and restaurants which is a good thing, because they’re all owner-operated.
Joseph: So it’s changing but it’s inevitable that change will happen with time. It’s really to do with the rent. If landlords get greedy and keep putting the rent up, small businesses won’t be able to afford it and will shift and go. It’s the same with every big city. You will get chain stores coming in. Look at Ponsonby, even Sass and Bide didn’t survive, there are so many empty shops.
Albert: You go down to Newmarket and it’s the same thing. Half of Newmarket is empty. I’m sure, if you remember six years ago, Newmarket wasn’t like that.
Jonathan: The Russians have a saying, that if you try and chase two ferrets you’ll end up catching neither one.
Albert: We are chasing two ferrets.
Jonathan: This is your main ferret though.
Albert: We’ve caught it.
Joseph: Every night, I’m here or every day Albert’s there. What else would I want to be doing.
Albert: But I think we both don’t really see it as a job.
Joseph: It’s a passion.
Albert: We make, we meet people.
Joseph: It’s about the passion.
Albert: It’s about our life.
Joseph: Making coffee and wiping the dust off ceramics.
Albert: This is our work.
Joseph: That’s sometimes the invisible part.
Albert: Yeah that’s the invisible side.
Albert: It’s a luxury, in itself, to have that level of control over what you do I think.
Joseph: We like control, I think. We’re dentists.
Albert: We know what we like, so we need that. We don’t compromise. We don’t feel, how do I word it… we don’t need someone else’s vision to cloud our vision.
Jonathan: I want to talk about aesthetics. A lot of the stores in Auckland, that can afford Auckland rents, are mass-produced brands. I’m curious, because you have each this aesthetic. I was wondering if that changes over time and how rigid it is because you’re both travelling a lot and exhibit everything you do. I wonder if you always set it out to be a certain way or is it no certain composition.
Joseph: There’s no composition; it depends on how we feel with time. I think it’s very dangerous to set out what something should be. You can have an overall picture of smaller things. For example, I want to sell cups and that’s okay, but it’s very dangerous to say ‘I want this to be a cup-selling shop’. The good thing with Albert and myself is that we are owner-operated businesses, so there are no business partners to discuss things with. Everything is cohesive and it’s things I like; material to colour to everything. It’s showing people what I like.
Albert: The cups, you might have noticed, are one-off or vintage. Whether we get them from Copenhagen, Japan or Taiwan, when we go home.
Joseph: We have to connect to the work first before we can show it or would use it.
Jonathan: Which could limit profitability as well, I imagine, because you don’t say ‘I want to sell a dozen Acme cups or imported works from other artists’.
Albert: That’s the part that you might say that we’re very fussy on. We have to feel it.
Joseph: We have to say ‘no’ to a lot of people who come in.
Albert: It’s tricky but…
Joseph: …I like to find it myself.
Albert: We want people to find it, we want people to see it, we want people to appreciate it. So they’ll hear it from word of mouth, they don’t want to see it on paper, they want to see it in person.
Joseph: It’s like when we go travelling; if we find a shop we like, we ask, so ‘where do you go for dinner? Where do you go for coffee?’ If you want to drink then it’s usually the best places.
Jonathan: I had a similar experience being back in Auckland. I met someone and he was like ‘let’s go to Te Uru Gallery and we’ll go to Coffee Pen’, and it’s like ‘have you seen what’s happening in our…’ the art of their cultural universe hit and pinball between all these different spots.
Joseph: That’s how you travel.
Jonathan: What were the last places that you really enjoyed?
Joseph: Taiwan. We go back to Taiwan every year because dad’s there still.
Albert: We go back still because they’re still there
Jonathan: What’s he collecting at the moment?
Albert: Japanese ceramics, danish furniture.
Jonathan: Where does he put it all?
Albert: The house is full of chairs.
Joseph: Just one person.
Albert: Thirty chairs.
Joseph: His clinic, as well… it’s like a museum.
Albert: Aesthetically, it’s really good, and that’s okay but in Taiwan that’s not gonna fly.
Joseph: You just won’t be allowed. The chairs are hidden away.
Albert: You’re just not allowed to do that, legally.
Jonathan: What, in the next few years, would you like to happen on the strip? Or what do you see happening in a crystal ball?
Albert: The train station going into Cross Street that may bring a different crowd.
Joseph: That’s ten years away.
Albert: We can’t predict. The weekend is a bit harder because we tend to have a different crowd of people.
Jonathan: Who is the crowd?
Albert: When they don’t quite feel or understand our vibe, then it’s a bit hard for both of us.
Joseph: It’s uncomfortable.
Albert: Yeah because…
Joseph: …explaining everything. I don’t really like to explain the picture like Instagram. I will show the details but let the work speak for itself. Over-explaining defeats the purpose. Just touch it will you like it.
Albert: That will enhance your experience.
Joseph: Being told what the thing is, instead of going in to feel what the thing is.
Albert: That’s our philosophy, I guess.
Joseph: That’s why no media or no interviews and we go by word of mouth.
Albert: It feels very hard to articulate. Because I might look at something and not like it as much as Joseph likes it. It might be a bit wonky but the colour of this one is better. So, are we going to compromise out of those two things and what’s gonna feel better?
Joseph: We do like the same things and nice things. So does dad and, even, mum so it’s quite nice when the family go out shopping.
Albert: You might have to step back and actually look at its function, look at its aesthetics and, then, go from there.
Joseph: We try not to look at the price. Consumerism means you have to look at the price first, not the object. I mean, obviously, you have to look at the price because if it’s a 10,000 pot. But you always engage with the…
Albert: …product first.
Jonathan: Because it can muddy the waters slightly.
Joseph: And then you’d decide at the end whether…
Albert: …you want it.
Joseph: Whether it’s worthwhile.
Albert: That’s why I usually have coffee beans from overseas and, you’ll notice, I don’t have big brands. Most of the roasters I go for are small. And that that relates to my café. So, I go for smaller ones because you get a chance to communicate with the roaster and ask them about certain details and that’s always nice. Just going for a big well-known brand doesn’t mean it will be any better.
Jonathan: It’s interesting how often things can be curated with…. not so much care. There are a lot of stores that buy art and ceramics with little… discretion.
Albert: I understand what you mean. Yeah, it’s a tricky one. It’s hard for us to explain because we don’t have rules. But we know what we like and, maybe, that’s our rule.
Jonathan: So if you don’t like it, it doesn’t make it into the shop, no matter what?
Albert: Yeah. And, it doesn’t necessarily mean the brand, it could be, this roast or that. But we keep tabs to see what they’ve got coming up next. Maybe it’s different.
Jonathan: So you have to be open.
Albert: Yeah, we’re not closed — that we will only deal with ‘so’ and ‘so’. Sometimes, you’ll just be able to find one thing that you like or that customer might appreciate. You might come in and enjoy a long black then, next time, you might come in and not enjoy the same one because we rotate our beans. It’s nice that we’ve got to a point where the customer will give us feedback. We don’t have the power. It’s level.
You tell us what this is like, can we change it? We’ll do something about it. And that’s the relationship we’ve got with a lot of our regulars and it’s nice to be able to talk in that way. We’ll just gradually build as we go.
Jonathan: What’s interesting is the balance between these two things. Yes, we are particular but, at the same time, it’s a democracy. So if you come in and you’re telling us what’s what…
Albert: We’re open.
Jonathan: Otherwise, it’s unappealing to the customer.
Albert: And that’s how you’ll be able to adapt or change.