Diaspora diaries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 4:38pm

'Good design derives from observing the people and environment around us,' says Lantau-born Chelsia Lau, chief designer, China/Asean Programmes, Asia Pacific and Africa, at Ford Motor. 'But the intention isn't to observe and learn; it has to be more natural than that - things resonate deep inside and that's where you connect with others.'

In an 18-year career with Ford Motor, Lau's understanding of drivers' tastes and sensibilities has influenced the design of a generation of vehicles, from concept cars to the latest model Fiesta.

After attending Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute (now Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education), she was accepted for study at the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, in the United States, renowned for its car-design programme.

'Looking around the classrooms, with walls full of innovative design concept sketches you couldn't help but think, 'How can design be this wild and this blue-sky?' I was hooked,' she says. Lau interned with Ford during her years at the college, an experience that contributed to her understanding of Western management styles.

'It was about communication and encouragement of ideas. Growing up, we were taught to be a little more reserved. I soon learned not to hold back - maybe now I express myself too freely!'

Almost two decades after helping design the Ford Focus, Lau is still one of the few women in the business. Female designers have unique perspectives, she argues, 'particularly in areas like aesthetics and detail, and of course understanding the needs of the growing segment of female consumers'. She describes how her team once redesigned some climate-control switches to improve usability for drivers with long finger nails.

Even in her down time, Lau's interests remain design-oriented, and include the appreciation of Yixing teapots.

'My dream, though, is to design my own jewellery. There's a lot in common with what I'm doing today - fluid, dynamic lines, sensuous shapes and timeless appearance ...'

Poetically enough for someone who has influenced our mobility so greatly - the new Fiesta recently notched up its millionth sale - the designer regards herself as something of a nomad. As well as the US, she has made homes in Australia, Germany and Britain, and currently resides in Shanghai.

What Lau finds incredible about the mainland is the speed, even compared with Hong Kong, at which trends evolve.

'For youngsters born after 1980, every three years represents a generation gap ... and for kids born after 1985, oh man,' she laughs. 'It's unbelievable.'

Her challenge is to anticipate trends far enough in advance and to incorporate them into the vehicles she designs, knowing that her vision might take years and billions of dollars to realise. To achieve that goal, she occasionally seeks isolation.

'As a designer you need a little solitude to develop ideas and mature. Without maturity, and some courage, you can't break boundaries or reinvent yourself.'

Courage is a trait she may have acquired from her parents.

'They are so amazing and brave. They supported my passion, even though back then people had fixed ideas about what constituted a good profession - and being a designer certainly wasn't one of them!'

Lau's Silvermine Bay family did not own a car. 'My parents are so pleased when they see a vehicle I've helped design out on the road,' she says. 'But for me, it's not so much about the achievement as the reminder that I'm one of the fortunate ones doing what I love.'