Hong Kong’s star designers in the spotlight in Milan
From furniture and jewellery, to a trench coat that becomes a hammock, the diversity on show in Hong Kong exhibition at Salon del Mobile fair reflects city’s multicultural heritage, curator says
Hong Kong’s diverse cultural landscape produces designers whose works reflect a melding of influences beyond the East-meets-West aesthetic and some of the best grabbed a global spotlight in Milan this month.
An exhibition titled “Confluence 20+, Creative Ecologies of Hong Kong” – staged to coincide with the annual Salone del Mobile design fair – brought together an eclectic collection by 20 of the city’s leading creatives.
Master furniture designer and maker Samuel Chan, presented works at the city’s Triennale Design Museum alongside creations by up-and-coming young, local designers.
The trademark minimal designs of Hong Kong-born, British-educated Chan were a perfect example of the synthesis of influences: new forms produced using traditional woodworking techniques, with a nod to East and West, his collection included one of his best-known works, a tall, handcrafted shoetree storage cabinet created in collaboration with London-based shoe designer Beatrix Ong.
WATCH Kingsley Ng’s “Poetic Tram”, with a compartment turned into a camera obscura
“The title of the exhibition reinforces the notion of ‘confluence’ being about ideas and concepts, about homes and heritage, about people and stories,” says the exhibition’s curator and designer, Amy Chow. “Its unique multicultural heritage has made Hong Kong an international creative city with its own model of creative economy.”
The exhibition, by the government-funded Hong Kong Design Centre, also marked the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty.
“It is a good time to look at where Hong Kong’s design is today. Many local design companies were set up around 1995, 1996, or 1997 so we can also see the evolution of their design philosophy,” Chow says.
A minimalist tea stall by product designer Lee Chi-wing and fashion designer Lo Sing-chin’s, multi-functional, shape-shifting creations – including one that transformed from a trench coat into a hammock – highlighted the exhibition’s diversity, with artists, architects and furniture designers shown side by side.
Jewellery designer, art historian and cultural consultant Lo Kai-yin also showed her contemporary accessories and jewellery that blend traditional Chinese craftsmanship and iconic forms.
Lo, who studied European Medieval history at Cambridge and is a principal lecturer on cross-cultural exchange at London’s Central Saint Martins, presented her work in the context of the Silk Road trading route. She explored how the knot motif, one of eight Buddhist emblems that symbolises eternity, recurs in locations as diverse as mosques in Iran and Syria, and Celtic churches.
“I was so intrigued that I began to trace its history and development beyond religious art to everyday art that makes it still relevant as ‘good design’ today,” Lo says. “The links are continuous, relevant, traditional and current.”
Tradition also met contemporary in designer-artist Freeman Lau’s collection of modern gold and white ceramic plates, decorated in bold ink calligraphy brushstrokes, part of a long-term collaboration with master Taiwanese calligraphic artist Tong Yang-tse.
“When all six plates are seen together you can appreciate the energy flow of the brushstrokes,” Lau says.
Nearby, Hong Kong designer and brand consultant Alan Chan’s “Silkroad” furniture range included a curvaceous walnut two-seater Victorian courting bench with a delicate backrest inspired by a Kyoto bamboo forest.
“The S-chair is more than just furniture; it is a modern interpretation of an attitude of life, encouraging people to share and exchange cultural beliefs and ideas, just like that of the Silk Road where East meets West,” Chan says.
Contemporary porcelain accessories and lighting design studio Latitude 22N showed their “Fragment(s)” porcelain vases.
“The vases reflect the historical, political and social forces of the porcelain industry of Jingdezhen,” say the studio’s founders, Julie Progin, who was born in Hong Kong, and her life and work partner, Jesse McLin.
The work is already part of Hong Kong’s M+ collection of design objects. “The Fragment(s) vases stand out for how they rethink, and in fact, reverse, the making process, turning imperfection into beauty, and serial production into uniquely crafted pieces that then actually grow through decay,” says Aric Chen, lead curator for architecture and design at M+. “From doing something as simple as casting new porcelain vases from broken moulds that have been reassembled, they have captured a great deal of complexity.”
The exhibition included James Law, who explored architecture’s role in the future city, with a 450 sq ft lightweight, prefabricated aluminium shell “pod”. To illustrate the different uses of a flexible and mobile form in a city with a notoriously high cost of living, Law showed a series of pods reflecting typical Hong Kong spaces, including a dim sum shop.
Hong Kong’s distinctive character was also featured in Stanley Wong’s (aka anothermountainman) playful “redwhiteblue” series, featuring artworks and vases made out of the city’s iconic three-colour striped bag material.
“The pieces are transformed into a symbol for the city’s vibrancy, versatility, and toughness,” Wong says.
Nicol Boyd and Tomas Rosén’s installation also sought to reflect a sense of Hong Kong life by staging a dai pai dong furnished with their trademark minimalist designs, including a pendant light that evokes a classic local butcher’s light, a steamer set, and a steel stool inspired by the traditional street stall’s ubiquitous plastic seating.
“We felt the show was an opportunity to think about how we see Hong Kong,” says Boyd. “There is so much cultural and social value in these street stalls. There is something charming about the cheap plastic stool. It is desperately ugly but super functional and pragmatic, so we wanted to reinterpret that in a new landscape. Upgrading the material changes the way people look at it.”
“The exhibition also shows how Hong Kong’s design scene is in a constant state of becoming,” says M+’s Chen. “It’s diverse, probing and open-ended, which is what makes it exciting.”
A highlight of the exhibition was the series of interactive installations that allowed visitors to experience or participate in the design.
Interdisciplinary designer and artist Kingsley Ng transported visitors in his “Poetic Tram”, a 25-minute ride from Milan’s Duomo to the Triennale in a closed compartment transformed into a camera obscura – an exploration of light, sound, space and time.
At the Triennale, graphic font designer Sammy Or created a video that detects visitors’ motions to generate moving clouds and other weather conditions, composed of Xin Gothic Chinese characters, while Gary Chang gave a glimpse of innovative solutions for compact living spaces.
An unofficial prize for creativity, however, goes to young textile designer Elaine Ng Yan-ling for her use of human interaction technology. Three chandelier-like interactive lightweight textile structures were implanted with sensor-controlled 3D-printed robotic arms clad in knitted fabric.
Inspired by bioluminescent sea worms, the “creatures” responded to the presence and movement of visitors through light, sound and movement.
Ng graduated from Central Saint Martins with a master’s degree in Design for Textile Futures and relocated to Hong Kong in 2014 to start her studio, the Fabrick Lab. She says she was drawn by the city’s increasing importance as an arts hub and its access to a wide range of materials, technology, micro factories and workshops.
The design diversity on show in Milan will also be seen in exhibitions planned for Hong Kong, Seoul and Chicago later this year.