F5: Will Zhang Finds Design Inspiration in Nature, History & Even His Dogs

05.26.23 | By
F5: Will Zhang Finds Design Inspiration in Nature, History & Even His Dogs

Will Zhang’s curiosity for design and incredible interiors was established at an early age, eventually leading him to his current position as Director of Design and Product Innovation at Emtek. There he establishes industrial design as a key part of the brand, maximizing the aesthetic and design value of products while continuously searching for new inspiration and ideas.

But he didn’t arrive at this point on his own. Will credits his best friend, spouse, and fellow industrial designer – Carolina – with being a constant source of support and guidance since they first met in college. He said, “Her influence on my designs is immeasurable, and I look up to her with the utmost respect and admiration. I aspire to emulate her in every way.”

brown-skinned man with long dark hair wearing a blue sweatshirt and dark pants sits and looks into the camera

Will Zhang

A noteworthy design moment that stands out to Will occurred when he was beginning his studies in Industrial Design. A close friend took him to visit an exhibit by Ant Farm, a multidisciplinary collective involved with alternative architecture, performance, and video. “The experience left a lasting impression on me and he even gifted me a book about the group afterwards,” he said. “The concept of underground architecture and design captivated me, and their work still resonates with me to this day.”

During his time at Emtek, Will’s designs have received several awards, including the Interior Design BOY Award 2014, Best of KBIS Award 2020, Architectural Record Best of 2021, Good Design Award 2022, and AN Media Best of Product Award 2022.

“Breaking away from work can often be a challenge for me, but I have recently established a routine that involves taking my dogs skateboarding at 6pm daily,” he shared. “This activity brings us so much joy and has been instrumental in helping me disconnect from work and bring closure to my workday.”

This week, Will Zhang joins us for Friday Five!

the beach

Photo: Joel Mott

1. Surfing

I grew up skateboarding, from when I was 7 or 8 years old. My cousins had an influential part in that industry and culture, founding a few surf and skateboard companies in Venice, California, and are still a big influence to this day.

I didn’t get to start exploring surfing until just recently when I turned 40, thanks to Lasik eye surgery. It’s opened up a whole world of wonder, creativity, and excitement for me as a designer. The tendency within those worlds to “go against the grain” is really intoxicating. Whether concrete or water – not only to create stimulation but also new lifestyles and counterculture. There’s an element about surfing that’s core to the human spirit, it’s no wonder it’s rooted in indigenous cultures and documented all across different parts of the world.

I also really admire those that shaped surfboards, innovated in their garages and workshops – people like Bob Simmons who revolutionized surfboard design. Although his ideas didn’t catch on until way after his death, it’s a reminder to search for inspiration from those that came before us before trying to reinvent the wheel.

two hands sketching at a desk

Photo: Emtek

2. Chaos

I’m most creative when my studio looks like a tornado swept through it! I don’t cherish any of the sketches or artwork I produce during my design process – the majority end up in the trash completely undocumented. Is it just how I work – or maybe the product of my childhood lack of structure? Regardless, it works for me and I feel uninhibited when I ideate this way. I can create freely, knowing the only important sketches are the non-physical thoughts running through my head. I spend a lot of time just staring off, thinking about, and envisioning a particular design. I might not look productive or very busy, but I swear, the wheels are turning!

Furthermore, I think mixing elements to create something new and funky are my favorite sorts of designs, and one of the things that inspired the Select line from Emtek. Like the Mah Jong Sofa from Roche Bobois – such a genius way to weave in whimsical and colorful details while still keeping things chic. Life is too short to not play with styles and textures!

brown-skinned man with long dark hair posing with a copper colored dog who sits on a stool

Photo: Emtek

3. The New Addition to Our Family, Copper

We found Copper running around the parking lot at the Emtek corporate office. The first time I saw her foxy face and bushy tail I fell in love, and knew immediately that I wanted to rescue this dog. However, she was extremely afraid of humans and it took two weeks to actually capture her. Once we got her home, I spent three full days building her trust by enticing her with treats nonstop until she caved. The moment she learned to trust me sealed our bond and we’re totally inseparable now!

We’re still learning about each other day-by-day, but it taught me that as cheesy or cliche as it sounds, that as long as there is love, there is hope. I’m really looking forward to our future full of adventure and great memories together!

two antique doorknobs that feature dog heads

1870s Russell & Erwin Brass Dog Door Knobs, via Ebay

4. Design History

A theme found in my work is that I’m always looking backward to look forward. Maybe I got that from my mother who was a history professor? I admit that I have this weird obsession with door hardware and I’m also a dog nut. But apparently I’m not even close to the first in this niche! Antique dog door knobs have been around since around 1890. The industrial revolution modernized the world, and to be honest, not much has changed with door knobs since then. It’s amazing to see that, much like today, designers were embellishing products with motifs of our favorite furry friends. It really makes me wonder about the designer and the realization that our motivations are really not that different today than they were back then. I’m always seeking a connection with the past and I spend a good deal of time looking at design history through outlets like antique shopping, thrifting, even collecting old catalogs and design magazines.

outdoor view of mountains and various scrub plants

Photo: Amy Biller Switzer

5. Nature

I’m constantly in awe of the natural world and I always say that if I wasn’t a designer, I would have been a marine biologist. In fact, nature and coral specifically, helped to inspire the Galapagos Collection of door hardware that we launched in 2022. Organic textures and materials are something I’m trying to weave into my work more and more as well. I’m also fascinated by how other designers interpret their affinity towards nature, in other nature-inspired products, like the mid-century Aurora clock.



Work by Will Zhang:

two hands holding a spoke-shaped bronze door pull

Spoke Knob \\\ The Spoke Knob deconstructs the concept of traditional door hardware by stripping away excess material, leaving a single spoke to bridge the body of the knob with its base. This inaugural design by Will Zhang, celebrates a decade of Industrial Design at Emtek by re-envisioning what a modern door knob can be.

three metal door pulls on black background

Emtek Select Collection \\\ The Emtek Select program offers a new level of customization for hundreds of unique combinations, made just for you and your home. Mix finishes, textures, and styles with ease across Levers, Knobs, Cabinet Pulls, Cabinet Knobs, and Appliance Pulls. New Select Lever and Knob options, like Black Marble and Terrazzo, will be available through Emtek later this year.

T-shaped door pull in gold

Ace Knob \\\ The newest addition to the Emtek Studio Brass Collection, the Ace Door Knob. Visually impactful but accessible. The design mimics the profile of a T-cabinet knob, but with interior or exterior door application and scale.

five different pull know designs in various finishes on white background

Stradella (Schaub Cabinet Collection) \\\ Stradella offers a variety of Made-in-Italy, sandcast, bronze edge pull designs. Inspired by the Striation texture of the Italian Alps, Stradella provides a rustic modern cabinet edge pull profile in a classic bronze material that will develop a sophisticated patina with age and use.

Kelly Beall is Director of Branded Content at Design Milk. The Pittsburgh-based writer and designer has had a deep love of art and design for as long as she can remember, from Fashion Plates to MoMA and far beyond. When not searching out the visual arts, she's likely sharing her favorite finds with others. Kelly can also be found tracking down new music, teaching herself to play the ukulele, or on the couch with her three pets – Bebe, Rainey, and Remy. Find her @designcrush on social.