Free by name and nature

Designer Freeman Lau chose his name to reflect his core value, writes Kate Whitehead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 2:40pm

Designer Freeman Lau Siu-hong is known for taking everyday objects and giving them a new spin, altering our perception of the seemingly mundane.

Even if his name isn't familiar, his work will be. Take the Watsons Water bottle, perhaps the best known of his rebranding exercises. He spent an intense six months working on the project that was launched in 2002.

"We set out to change the perception of people drinking water. In the past, advertising told people to drink water after doing sports. We wanted to show that water is something you need to drink every day," says Lau.

He redesigned the bottle, giving it a curvaceous form that didn't just look good but made it stronger and easy to hold. The original screw-top lid was replaced with a moulded cap completing the design aesthetic and also serving as a cup. And the green colour that the company had long used for branding was updated to a fresh shade of lime. It was no longer a boring bottle - it represented a lifestyle. He clearly hit the mark because the design spawned a series of copycats on the mainland and in Thailand, Malaysia, Europe and the US.

Lau has an easy manner and a ready laugh. He had a happy childhood growing up on a public housing estate in Hong Kong and remembers playing, drawing and entertaining his younger siblings with stories based on his pictures.

By the time he reached middle school, he had a keen interest in design and read all he could on the subject. An article in a local magazine by Kan Tai-keung - an icon in the city's design industry - convinced him to study design and he applied to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Years later, after he completed his degree, his teacher set up an interview for him at Kan's practice and the two gelled immediately. "He liked my work. We both have a similar style, using Chinese culture with design and making it look contemporary," says Lau.

When we talk about design we don't say 'Is it beautiful or not', we say 'Is it right or wrong?' Of course, it must be aesthetic, but what we're asking is 'Are we using the right strategy?'
Freeman Lau

He got the job and worked his way up to become partner. Kan and Lau Design Consultants has been going strong for 17 years. "Kan and I have a very good long-term relationship. It's like husband and wife - stronger than husband and wife," he says and laughs.

It comes as no surprise that freedom is hugely important to Lau - after all, he branded himself with the concept. As a teenager, searching for an English name, he flicked through a "name your baby" book in a bookstore and was drawn to the name Freeman.

In the lead-up to the 1997 handover and the years after it, much of Lau's work centred on the notion of freedom. "Some of my friends and I were very concerned about the change and the identity of Hong Kong. We found a way of expressing our concerns. For a creative industry, the freedom of speech and expression is a core value," he says.

In 2002, he co-founded the Hong Kong Design Centre, a non-profit organisation that set out to promote the industry. "I started the centre with a group of friends. It's a bit different from other designers' associations because we try to promote design to the public sector and government as well as others about how to use design to promote their business," says Lau, the centre's vice-chairman.

Running through his career highlights, Lau doesn't speak so much about colleagues and clients as about the friends he works with. Many of his clients have become close friends and he credits them with teaching him many valuable lessons. "My clients … tell me about their business and their problems and from them I've learned a lot about the secrets of their success.

"When we talk about design we don't say 'Is it beautiful or not', we say 'Is it right or wrong?' Of course, it must be aesthetic, but what we're asking is 'Are we using the right strategy?'," he says.

He's now working with good friend Kurt Chan Yuk-keung, a professor of art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Dutch designer Michel de Boer to provide the branding for the Kai Tak development. The idea is to use design to express the core values of Kai Tak in the public spaces - through the signage, commercial billboards, public art, public furniture and street signs. "Through design we want to create one unique language for Kai Tak," says Lau.

The idea was first pitched for the West Kowloon Cultural District. It didn't make the cut for the district's master plan, but Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Tseng Yuet-ngor liked the concept and suggested it for Kai Tak. The first phase of the project will be completed in summer.

Lau has worked on public art and sculptures and curated numerous museum exhibitions, but it's rethinking simple everyday objects that gives him the most pleasure. A consistent theme throughout his work is the chair. In Lau's eyes, a chair isn't simply a piece of furniture, something to sit on. "When you think of your favourite chair, it may be the chair in the office, at home or in the boardroom. The chair you like most also represents you. You encounter it every day, it's very close to you and expresses who you are."

His 2005 painting Chair Play shows a long line of chairs zig-zagging over a mountain ridge much like the Great Wall. By putting the chairs together, they communicate a group or a voice, he says.

So what's Lau's favourite chair, the one that says something about him? The intertwined chairs, he says, referring to his 2011 award-winning his-and-her chairs, called Dik Dak. "Two legs of each chair are intertwined together. It expresses the intimacy of two people when they come together," he says.