Windy Chien Is Knot Your Average Artist

Having left a tech career behind to create installations out of sailor’s knots, the San Francisco creative is putting craft back on the map



Chien at work in her Mission studio with her 366 mastered knots on display. PHOTO: Braden Young.


Windy Chien’s studio in the Heath Ceramics building in the Mission District of San Francisco resembles a well-appointed nest. It’s an idyllic and cozy place for that rare bird — an organized and disciplined artist — to work and think and play. The first thing you notice about the loft-like space, which is draped with cording tied in intricate knots from which Chien creates her works, is that the floor is covered in thick white shag carpet.

“I’m a child of the ‘70s,” she says, “so I love a shag. But it’s also a necessity to keep the workspace clean and to prevent my work from picking up dust.”

A wall of large industrial windows, a holdover from the property’s former life as a commercial laundry, is lined with blond wood shelves and cubbies to store the materials Chien uses, custom-made and dyed cordage fabricated by the performance fabric company Sunbrella, to make her knotted rope installations. Pulley systems with copper rods and wooden rods are hung from the ceiling so she can adjust the height of her latest project to work at chest height.

On one wall, Chien displays the 366 knots she taught herself to tie back in 2016, one for every day of a leap year, after which she published a book, The Year of Knots, about the experience. Her pieces are minimal and meticulous, and she treats every knot like an “artifact of ingenuity.” Each one was designed with a purpose and function, primarily by sailors, and often carry a cultural significance.


“There is this hierarchy that places craft lower on the totem pole”

windy chien


LEFT: A playful installation occupying a wall and a ceiling. PHOTO: Molly Decoudreaux. RIGHT: One of her “Hitching Post” works in forest green hangs at Osito restaurant. PHOTO: Windy Chien.


“I taught myself by reading dusty old sailors’ knotting books from the last century,” she says, sorting through nearly 4,000 documented knots to select her favorites. At the time, Chien was transitioning from her former life at the intersection of music and tech — first as the owner of the famed Aquarius Records store, where she was known for promoting the obscure and underappreciated punk artists she loved, and then as an early employee of Apple Music. Hints of her past lives in both industries are evident in her pieces. For each work, she chooses a single style of knot from the hundreds she knows and uses it in a repetitive rhythm, like a beat. The patterns are often inspired by the intricate geometry of a circuit board. In the eight years since Chien has been creating art full time, she has made works for Denver International Airport, Ritz Carlton, and Nobu Hotels and has exhibited in museums like the de Young and SFMOMA, occupying that somewhat blurry bridge between the worlds of fine art and craft that struggles to receive the recognition it deserves. Chien has plenty to say about that.

“There is this assumed hierarchy that places craft way lower on the totem pole and fine art much higher,” she says. “I often quote this wonderful curator named Glenn Adamson who presents the idea that this is straight-up sexism and racism in the art world, and that’s bullshit. Who are the people who practice craft? It’s mostly women, and mostly people of color. Macramé is a craft. But I am interested in making contemporary art. I look at the journey of the line through each individual knot, and in order to make the knot the most prominent thing the viewer sees, I downplay color.”


A necklace from her Cast jewelry collaboration. PHOTO: Wendy Chien.


Chien is a creature of her environment. She moved to San Francisco from Hawaii as a teenager to study experimental film at Cal State San Francisco and never left. She’s informed by the future-minded optimism of the early days of Silicon Valley, and the concurrent drive to innovate, evolve, and create. “I tend to fetishize the time when the people who wanted to go back to the land and the people who wanted to save the world with tech were the same people,” she says.

Last year, she gave herself the theme of striving to be a good neighbor, which led to collaborations with other accomplished locals. She developed a new pasta shape for Flour + Water, a beloved restaurant near her studio; created a fine jewelry collection for Cast; loaned one of her favorite circuit board works to the Heath shop for her landlords; and created an artwork for Osito restaurant that evokes wood, trees, and the forest canopy, a nod to its open-fire cooking technique.

Although her adventurous spirit has taken her cycling across Asia and sailing the Mediterranean, Chien is happiest at work in the studio, and she always comes home to roost. “I’m omnivorous about life,” she says. “My ‘someday, maybe’ list is as long as my arm. There’s not enough time to try all the things I want to try. I spent a year learning how to tie 366 knots, and every one of them is waiting for me to find its expression and figure out what it wants to be.” windychien.com.


Assembling a large-scale piece. PHOTO: Windy Chien.



This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of C Magazine.

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