Hong Kong-born Chi Wing Lo makes a name for himself in Italy as designer
Hong Kong-born Chi Wing Lo and other luminaries from Asia wowed with collections showcasing tradition, technology and a can-do attitude
At this month's annual Milan furniture extravaganza, known as the Salone del Mobile, all roads seemed to lead to Chi Wing Lo.
The Hong Kong-born architect and designer has spent the past 30 years living in the United States, Greece and Italy, including 20 years as art director of luxury Italian brand Giorgetti. Now he has launched his own collection, Dimensione Chi Wing Lo (or "the world of Chi Wing Lo"), in collaboration with Italy's Maroni.
The results are some of the most elegant pieces of furniture around. By showing the collection at the trade fair and in the museum setting of Milan's 18th-century Palazzo Morando, in a show called Essences of Timelessness, Lo teased out the functionality and poetry of the collection in two different settings.
Timelessness in design is elusive, but can best be described as objects "that appear to embody past, present and future - the three domains of our existence", Lo says. "It is the simple, natural and true considerations that make furniture last longer."
His furniture, made from durable, tactile and natural materials, including leather, wood, stone and metal, seamlessly combines craft, manufacturing prowess and technology.
The new collection includes a tall cabinet with curved jewellery trays, which can be opened to create different shapes or locked shut, and a curved desk with an ingenious lighting system that prevents shadows while writing.
His circular cabinet with a revolving round door and soft internal lighting of different colours was arguably the most spectacular piece. "It's a sort of frame within a frame," Lo says. "When you move the wheel you get different compositions."
His work could also be seen at another prestigious Milan venue during the furniture fair, the Triennale Design Museum. There he showed a collection of enigmatic and fantastical sculptural objects made of wood, which might have represented boats, fish and even flying contraptions that straddle the worlds of art and design.
He was also the curator - along with Chinese singer-songwriter Zhu Zheqin (aka Dadawa) and Ross Urwin, Lane Crawford's former home and lifestyle creative director - of the Kanjian Creation exhibition.
Kanjian, a new platform for the creation and production of contemporary design pieces using traditional Chinese crafts, such as lacquer, bamboo and embroidery work, showed pieces by Lo as well as by Rossana Hu, Jeff Dayu Shi, Shen Baohong, Tom Dixon and Hong Kong-based Michael Young.
The designers prepared for the project by visiting felt masters, saddlemakers and jewellery makers in Mongolia, as well as artisans practising the centuries-old art of indigo calico dyeing in Nantong city in Jiangsu.
Standout pieces were Hu's and Young's experimentations with the Chinese cloisonné technique and Shen's circular wooden boxes with copper handles.
"Our idea was to create something that would protect the dying crafts of China, but that was very design-led," Urwin says.
A percentage of the profits will go back to the communities where the pieces are made.
Other Chinese brands continued to shine this year. Shanghai-based Stellar Works returned to Milan with pieces by Yabu Pushelberg and a series of dining and lounge chairs by Neri & Hu.
The latter belong to the same family as the utility bar stools the duo launched with Stellar Works last year. "Nowadays it is no longer about every chair matching around a dining table," says Lyndon Neri, a Philippines-born Chinese educated in the US.
He believes the brand is turning on its head the notion that China can make only disposable mass-produced items. "They are really trying to make a statement that 'Made in China' does not have to be a bad thing."
The Hong Kong brand EOQ, whose products are available in the new Hong Kong design store Archetypal, showed a different side of designer Young. They feature the brand's signature computer-numerical-controlled milled aluminium, encased in hand-blown glass to great effect.
"Our factory in Dongguan does a fantastic job on anodising and extrusion," says Matt Pepper, the company's brand director. "If we'd taken this design and tried to develop it in Europe, no one would have touched it; it's so specialised. People in Europe nowadays don't have the time or money to take on those risks."
As Stellar Works and EOQ both show, the ability to innovate and experiment in manufacturing in China is second to none.
That is something London-based designer Christopher Jenner found when looking to make his hand-blown triple-layered Urbem glass lamps.
Inspired by the industrial aesthetic of Milanese street lighting in the 19th century, the lighting collection plays brilliantly with convex and concave forms and was on show in Milan in a mesmerising installation called The Cloud.
All the manufacturers Jenner visited in Italy said the lights were too large and complex to make.
"The development costs were totally out of reach; they wanted to make 10,000 units at a time for it to be a viable proposition," Jenner says. "European design has become quite lazy in that way. If there is no return on investment they are not ready to take a chance."
He opted for a glass-blowing and glass-cutting factory in Jiangsu, where the staff work in the rice paddies in the morning and blow glass in the afternoon.
The can-do approach of the staff was appealing, he says, while their response to innovation was "refreshing".