Modular kits to suit modern ways of living
Hong Kong, with its high proportion of rented accommodation and transient population, would seem an obvious market for modular furniture.
The system, which was invented in the 1930s, uses uniform pre-fabricated components that can be assembled in a variety of ways, affording flexibility and ease of assembly and transport. Although many people here will have had first-hand experience of such furniture in their workplaces, applying the concept at home has yet to catch on.
'It is slowly becoming more popular,' says Monita Yick, a partner at Elite Global International, a furniture supplier based in Wan Chai. 'We have been stocking the Swiss modular brand USM [www.usm.com] for nearly 10 years, but it has taken a long time for people in Hong Kong to realise its potential.'
Yick says most people first encounter USM's modular approach when they pass her showroom on Morrison Hill Road. 'We get a lot of passing trade, with people dropping in to find out what the furniture is. Most people associate modular furniture with office environments. They're really surprised when they see it being used as a home product.'
Although it is growing in popularity among locals, in Yick's experience the furniture produced by USM is most commonly sought after by young, Western professionals.
'If you move around frequently, it's quite difficult to justify the expense of custom-made furniture but with modular designs you can tailor the components to suit your needs,' she says. 'People who buy USM products are typically appreciative of design but looking for something they can customise.'
The products come in 15 colours and the panel sizes start at a tiny 2cm square. Price wise, it's not a particularly cheap method of furnishing a home. Given the nature of modular furniture, there is no typical item, but Yick explains that the components to build a standard television cabinet would cost about HK$20,000.
'Most people come to buy something special,' she says. 'People are just starting to realise how flexible it is and, I think, very soon we're going to see modular furniture becoming extremely popular in Hong Kong.'
Yick suggests that familiarity with custom-made, one-of-a-kind pieces is the reason modular furniture lacks a faithful following in Hong Kong.
In Europe, tailor-made products are much more expensive and modular brands such as IKEA, Wickes and Hygena are more commonplace.
Hong Kong designer Tim Ho recognised that to appeal to Hong Kong's more expensive tastes, modular furniture would need to be presented as a luxury item. Six years ago he changed the focus of his business from graphics to furniture design, renaming his company Tim Ho Steel (www.timho-steel.com) and specialising in high-end stainless steel products, many of them modular. 'I think nimble, modular arrangements are extremely suitable for Hong Kong apartments. Housing here is so expensive and homes are seldom spacious. Furniture that can be assembled in a multitude of combinations is extremely desirable.'
By using stainless steel, Ho believes his products are extremely durable and long-term value. The most popular items, he says, are shoe cabinets, steel bed frames and dining tables all using the same components. Pricing is similar to USM's, with a typical cost of HK$10,000 to HK$20,000 for items such as a dining table or television stand.
For those prepared to order from overseas there are international brands that offer specialist luxury products.
One in particular, Italy's FEG, has a range of modular storage cabinets called Cargosystem (gruppofeg.it).
Perfect for Hong Kong's increasingly popular industrial spaces, the Cargosystem design comprises free-standing wall components with built-in storage. Walls can be constructed by combining individual components that include basic shelving, television stands and sliding doors.
Modular designs aren't restricted to storage and solid structures. Soft furnishings also can be found, such as the Zip Zip sofa, a fun offering from German firm Pling Collection (pling collection.com).
This approach to seating comprises oversized floor cushions that can be zipped together to form a sofa. Meanwhile, United States brand Flor (www.flor.com) has reinvented the carpet tile, taking this familiar office feature and transforming it into a design-savvy modular floor covering.
The latest collections feature contemporary print patterns, vivid colours and heavy woollen weaves.
For one Hong Kong designer, though, the modular concept stretches way beyond simple furnishings and interiors.
Tony Yam is a partner with Hong Kong-based Y Design Office (http:// ynotwhy.com), who believes full modular homes will be the next step in the concept's development.
'You can already see the tell-tale aspects of uniformity in apartment construction today,' he says. 'There are very few modern apartment developments that offer a great variety in design. They have the same layouts, the same kitchens and the same bathrooms.'
Last year, Y Design Office's Unit Fusion apartment concept for a fully functioning modular high-rise created waves in the design community.
The design visualises a block of nearly 2,000 flats across 75 floors. Available in 18 sizes, ranging from XS to XL, each unit has the same component parts. These homes are 'plugged in' to a central column that provides the essential utilities.
Unit Fusion allows homes to be moved not only around the tower block but also to anywhere in the world that has such a project. Obviously passionate about the concept, Yam believes Hong Kong is a viable first choice for such modular accommodation, which could help to alleviate its high-density housing problems. He adds the cost of transporting the materials for such a project would also favour Hong Kong, because of its proximity to manufacturing hubs on the mainland.
Although it seems far-fetched, Yam promises that the technology is already available.
He says: 'IKEA and Muji are already looking into offering a complete modular home.
'Around the world people are already adapting shipping containers into livable spaces and prefabricated housing is extremely common. The technology is ready so I expect to see it become a reality in the next five or 10 years.'
He is convinced that, while the city has yet to embrace modular interiors, fully modular living may be the key to the future of Hong Kong's residential architecture.
'It might seem futuristic,' he says, 'but fully modular living is not only possible, it's the next logical step for our city.'