Familiar pattern: How tradition has influenced artist Kan Tai-keung
Legacy is a theme that runs through the illustrious career of designer and artist Kan Tai-keung. Lauded for his work that fuses elements of traditional Chinese culture with Western influences, “Uncle Kan” is a dedicated educator who has been an inspiration to the new generation of Chinese designers.
“I believe that in each era certain things can be appreciated for a very long time, even after the passing of that period. The Chinese culture is rich and deep; there are so many different layers to it [that may manifest themselves] as a pattern, a way of thinking or an attitude towards life. This is what has been passed on to us, from generation to generation,” he says.
Kan, who is from Panyu in Guangdong province, came to Hong Kong in 1957 at the age of 15. He was a tailor by day and a painter by night before moving into design in the late 1960s. The brain behind an array of brand logos, stamps, magazines and posters, Kan has won hundreds of awards in the past 45 years. He was the first designer to receive the “Hong Kong Ten Outstanding Young Persons” honour in 1979 and the first Chinese to be included in Who’s Who in Graphic Design of Switzerland
in 1995. In 2000, he was selected as one of the 2,000 outstanding artists and designers of the 20th century in Britain. In 2010, he was awarded the Silver Bauhinia Star by the Hong Kong government. One of Kan’s most successful designs is the Bank of China logo. It comprises a circle encompassing a square and resembles an ancient Chinese coin, which references the bank’s function. The design was inspired by the age-old concept of fangyuan (“square-circle”) that describes our ancestors’ curiosity in and understanding of the unknown universe.
“The design is clean and simple. When people look at it they know what it represents. There is a modern touch, too. The dimensions of the square are that of a computer screen,” says Kan, who is director of Kan & Lau Design Consultants. “The logo has been around for over 30 years. I think it will remain representative in the next 50 years.”
Believing that more young people should have the opportunity to study design, Kan tried his hand at teaching in 1970 and has since taken an active role in promoting design education in Hong Kong, the mainland and abroad. He is a popular speaker, adviser to design associations and a prolific writer. Kan recently retired from being the dean of the Cheung Kong School of Art and Design in Shantou.
“I learn so much from teaching young people. I do a lot of research as I prepare for class, and when I discuss matters with my students, I am absorbing new ideas from them as much as they from me,” Kan says. “I want to let them know that designers should be concerned about the environment and should care for the disadvantaged.”