Nicole Teng is a Taiwanese artist and owner of Brut Cake, an innovative lifestyle brand of creative furniture, housewares, and textiles made of local handmade materials. Nicole has been donned The Creative Upcycler, collecting and selling items that others deem trash and turning them into one-of-a-kind creations.


I am Nicole Teng. My Chinese name is Teng Nai Hsuan. This November, I turn 40, although in my mind I do not have this sense of aging. It is not about me trying to stay young; I just simply never notice time passing.

I collect abandoned old furniture. In my culture, we believe that the spirit of the past lives in old objects. People buy IKEA furniture and throw away their old art-deco furniture. When I see those abandoned objects, I see the spirits. My idea was to reveal them to the rest of the world through creativity. I use old Chinese hand-woven fabric to make images with patchwork, then reupholster the re-claimed chairs. The materials I use are all representations of their time periods. Through this process, I extend the life of these abandoned materials. My desire has always been to do something positive for this world, to capture a sample of time and preserve its spirit in my own way.  This is my way of doing that.

I am a second child. I was born and grew up in Kaohsiung. It is a very normal industrial city in Taiwan. I have two sisters and one younger brother. I am a so-called “typical second child”: the especially naughty one vying for attention, often feeling ignored by parents. This also incidentally leads to seeking recognition from friends, career, and so on. 

I am never satisfied with what I have done. I am always hungry. I always want more. It can be a hard way to live, but it's taught me humility and driven me to continuously better myself.

My father worked in another city and only came home on weekends, so my mother assumed the role of disciplinarian of their four children. To us, Dad was the fun one and Mom was the harsh one. You could say she was your typical Tiger Mom. Academics were top priority, and we had to be at the top of our class. If not, we were punished. My mother had a saying: “There is always a sky beyond this one.” Meaning: You may think this time you are good enough, but there is always someone better. I was always seeking her approval. It was rare for my mother to give me compliments or kisses, but when she did, they were treasured — even to this day.

Ever since I can remember, I have been the “ugly” child in the family. I was skinny, short, sickly, and very much a tomboy.  I have a cousin who is only one month younger than me but who was always taller, more fair-skinned, and prettier. On top of that, she was an excellent pianist from an early age. My mother often compared me to her. Often she said, “You must work harder to make up for your shortness and your dullness.” In her mind, she was “helping” me to be better.  

Growing up, we never received the toys or the beautiful stationary we wanted. Not because my parents didn’t want to give things to us, but because they were not able to. But I never noticed we were living in poverty. I filled life with my imagination. If I wanted toys, I made them myself. No one taught me. I used old calendars to build houses. LED games? No problem. I created my own versions and pretended my way through the rest. I even made my little cousin a dress from a shipping bag! I was always making something out of nothing.

In high school movies, there is always a cheerleader and her followers. In my movie, I was not the cheerleader. I was the class clown standing next to the cheerleader. I never felt bad assuming my role. In fact, I was an excellent clown. I knew how to make other people laugh and this made me an irreplaceable member of the group. I was not pretty, so I found other ways to shine.

Why do I have to try so hard to stand out, to be recognized? The true question is, do I need recognition from myself? And do I get it?

My motivation sounds childish, but my willingness to work extra hard to get recognition came from my “ugly duckling” spirit. This is a gift that has helped me to overcome so many challenges. Even now, when I face hard times during my career, I remind myself of my ugly duckling spirit.

I fell in love with an artist once, but he didn’t love me back. I know the golden rule is that if you work harder, you will get what you want. But in love, this golden rule does not hold true.

Although I graduated in Communications with a focus in Advertising, I’ve wanted to be a painter since I was three years old. It was the way I expressed myself. No matter how hard the day was, at night, painting was my way out.

After years in Advertising, I quit my career and got a job as a gallery manager and curator, starting from ground zero. The gallery was located in a true local neighborhood, of which I had a 360-degree view. I could often see whole families of three generations living in a tiny, single room apartment. Even though the space was small, it was set for full-functionality.  It was very normal to see men take showers outside, neighbors play ma jiang and cards in the lanes, and children do homework on the street. There was no privacy; the whole world was an aquarium open for everyone to see. The place was full of life energy. Those local residents were all creators; they created their comfortable life with very few resources. I learned a lot from this aerial view.

The real challenge to an artist is how to use limited resources to create the new. It is how to “think out of box” to show the power of what an original creative idea can do.

The voice that says “You are never good enough” still lives within me. I am constantly evaluating my personal achievements, even though I have surpassed my own goals. I may sound lost, but I assure you I am not.  I may not know the end, but I am very aware of my beginning, and it humbles me, guides me. I accept that I will always be in the middle of my journey. I know the future is full of surprises, but time and spirit will guide my way. There is no such thing as failure, as long as we keep moving on. 

What is Brut Cake? “Brut” is a reference to the nineteenth-century art movement labeled in France as “Art Brut.” The title means “raw art,” “original art,” or “rough art.”  Creations from this movement were all very strong, original, rough, and imperfect — but with a genuine heart. “Cake” represents the sweetness to be found in daily life. I guess, I am Brut Cake.




The trace of a man’s past will always be there. Every lesson and learning in life, no matter how small it is, will shape and build upon the way we are. I am still that little girl building houses with old calendar paper. I am still trying to get attention for the things I do. And that's not such a bad thing.