Toy designer draws on creativity and commerce

Toy designer Michael Lau believes in making the most of his life and career, writes Rachel Mok

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 12:34pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 12:34pm

For Michael Lau Kin-man - the so-called "godfather of toy figures" - time is money. "Time is precious," the artist says, half jokingly, near the end of this interview. "There will be a few less drawings done the longer I talk with you."

Word has it that Lau is arrogant and a difficult interview subject; his quick mind and sharp wit can leave the unsuspecting speechless amid an awkward silence.

If you really love something, do it from the second you open your eyes in the morning until you sleep
Nichael lau 

Given his valuation of time, I suggest it was unwise to stay up until the early morning to catch World Cup matches as he did during the tournament that finished last month. But he has a different way of looking at it.

By his reasoning, if he lives to be 100 years old he can experience the quadrennial soccer festival only 25 times. "We don't start watching it immediately after we are born and not many of us live to be 100 years old, so we don't actually get that many chances to watch the tournament," he says. "So why not make the most of it?"

Lau has applied this mental arithmetic to his life and his profession, planning every step in his two-decade career. He first shot to fame with the Gardener vinyl-toy figure series in 1999. Since then, he has held several toy exhibitions, and been commissioned to work on campaigns with international brands including Nike and Levi's. But these days he is not interested in leading or following any trends.

One of the first things he says is: "Are we going to talk about trends in this interview? I haven't looked at any in a while." And that's why he doesn't, like many of his peers, sport tattoos. "Are you kidding me? Permanently inking on something that may be outdated tomorrow?"

Accordingly, Lau's latest project, A Walk in Fashion, a campaign commissioned by Causeway Bay's Fashion Walk, is a look back at a classic: the street installation series, on until August 31, features new characters inspired by the iconic British children's book series Mr Men & Little Miss as designed by Lau. These colourful and all-smiling characters are quite a contrast to Lau's cool and chic Gardener series, but the young-at-heart artist enjoys the creative process no less.

He has always been fond of the Mr Men & Little Miss series, he says, as he sees them as classic characters. "I always like digging into a classic, whether it is old toys or vintage furniture. So when I looked into this project, I saw it as a chance to reinvent a classic through storytelling, design, spacing, colour and so on."

The toy designer has always been adept at combining creativity with commercial success. "I knew the two could come together from the first day I entered the business. It is silly to separate the artistic and commercial sides."

However, he disagrees with the idea of a "creative industry", saying: "Creativity doesn't necessarily mean something practical or commercial. A naughty idea is already creative. If you decide to make this your work, you've got to treat it as a business."

In Lau's eyes, the personality who best represents creativity in Hong Kong is filmmaker Stephen Chow Sing-chi - along with users of the notorious local forum Hong Kong Golden.

He says Hong Kong doesn't have strong roots and traditions - and that has been good for cultivating creativity. "We don't have the burden of culture and are free to learn whatever we want, and from whoever we want. We are like a melting pot, always creating something new."

Asked for advice for young talent, Lau urges them to be more self-critical. "Don't complain that no-one respects your work. You think you are great? Go online to check other's people work and look at your own work again."

He says young artists should look to the outside world for inspiration. "Be aggressive and go as far as you can. If you really love something, do it from the second you open your eyes in the morning until you sleep."

His solo exhibition in May, "Remember - Disc, Time - Table", showcased 44 artworks to mark his age. The show saw the designer return to his artistic roots - drawing - and reflected his views on the passage of time and life in general.

Since time and discipline are his obsessions, what better way to illustrate this than through a solo exhibition with time as the subject?

"If I had been lazy or careless even a tiny bit during my career, I would not be where I am now, talking to you. You practically have no future if you spend too much time playing around in your 20s. You will never get that time back."


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