Objects of desire

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2011, 12:00am


Inside a Sheung Wan art gallery, thousands of US bank notes hang on the wall folded like origami into a circle. Two metal spears radiate from the centre. On the ground below, a gleaming chunk of aluminium rests on a pedestal. Though this sounds like a contemporary art installation - and the price tags are comparable - the former is a wall clock and the latter a chair. Design maverick Michael Young unveiled these limited-edition works as part of his first solo exhibition in Hong Kong earlier this summer.

Hailed as Britain's most inspiring designer in 1997 by Terence Conran, Young's furniture has been making waves since his student days. Months after graduating, his Woven Steel lamps were acquired by the Centre Pompidou and the Louvre museum catapulting him to international fame. Today his work is exhibited worldwide and regularly appears at auction. In 2010, his Chinese Times Clock, from the same series as the USD money clock, sold for US$195,000 approximately double its estimate at the Vienna auction house Dorotheum.

Young, 45, is part of a growing breed of designers who are pushing the boundaries of furniture making. Creating highly aesthetic objects in limited editions, their work is often dubbed as 'design art'. In recent years an increasing number of gallerists have turned their attention toward these visually seductive objects. Instead of conventional paintings and sculptures, they are making room for upscale furniture. Fuelling the demand is a global collector base recognising the value of contemporary design. Among the most prominent adherents are billionaires Francois Pinault and Bernard Arnault.

'During the last 15 years there has been immense growth in the market appreciation of progressive design, encompassing not only furniture, but also lighting, metalwork, glass and ceramics,' says Christie's London senior specialist in decorative arts and design, Simon Andrews. The demand for design art in particular began to escalate in 2003. The market reached fever pitch in 2007 when the futuristic Pod of Drawers cabinet by the Australian designer Marc Newson sold for a record price of US$1.05 million at a Christie's auction.

In Hong Kong, however, contemporary design has a limited presence in the art scene. 'Ben Brown did a show with Ron Arad but otherwise the closest you get to being creative in furniture are stores like G.O.D,' observes Young. The exhibition of Arad's furniture in 2009 was the first major presentation of an industrial designer prior to Young's show.

Young waited for years before agreeing to a local exhibition. 'There was nowhere that was an international platform to actually do this. I wasn't going to show it in a shopping mall. I wanted people who were interested in media or design to gather,' he says. Only after The Cat Street Gallery opened its second venue The Space, a 4,000 square foot converted warehouse, did Young see scope for an exhibition in Hong Kong. The owner of the gallery, Mandy d'Abo, leapt at the opportunity to show his work. 'Michael is a true visionary. He saw the opportunities for design in Hong Kong years ago, something a lot of other European designers are only catching on to now,' she says.

Having established studios in Iceland, Belgium and Taiwan, Young moved to Hong Kong in 2006 on an impulse. 'Its a city where you don't hold back,' he explains. 'When you speak to people, they ask, 'What do you do? Where do you do it? And how much does it cost?' And they'll say that in the first five minutes. If you said that to someone in London they'd probably be embarrassed.'

Shortly after arriving in the city, Young began to explore manufacturing hubs across the border. Experimenting with new technologies, he developed the PXR-5 watch and City Speed bicycle which spread like wildfire through the international design community.

The 24 pieces exhibited at The Space are his most recent works inspired by Hong Kong and China. They range from a high-tech web-like installation to a table made with knitted newspaper. At the root of many of the objects are ancient Chinese building techniques. 'People have heard of very iconic things [from China] like dragons, peacocks, ink, tea, chopsticks but so much more went on than just decoration,' he says. Young cross-pollinated traditional Chinese architectural motifs with his experiences in the studio and came up with a series of prickly, angular glass vases. The production of most objects in the show was labour intensive and time consuming. Young explains that over the past 20 years limited edition furniture has come to be seen as more visual and people value the craft and innovation behind each work. 'Craft was once for people living in the forest carving objects because they had no money but now the whole world has changed,' says Young. 'Craft has become of value where mass production has become for people without money.'

For many, limited edition objects hold a certain appeal due to the finite production. Andrews says editions can run as low as six, eight or 12. This can suggest a sense of exclusiveness. According to d'Abo, the same reasons apply to investing in artwork as they do in limited edition design. 'For those who already understand why you would pay $90,000 on a piece of art, it isn't a huge leap for them to see why you would also pay that for a chair,' she says referring to Young's aluminium Hex chairs which sold particularly well.

In terms of prices, the objects in the show begin at $9,000 and climb to $270,000 for the lattice-like Tittot Cylinder Vase.

As the local market for design art gathers momentum, shows such as Young's are paving the way. With the influx of international galleries more design exhibitions are surely on the horizon. In the meantime, Hong Kong-based Young is getting ready to hit the road, taking his works to the Design Miami fair this December followed by a string of shows across Europe.