WITH SO MANY products designed to attract attention, it's refreshing to find a company that aims to blend inconspicuously into your life. Like the dietary staple it is named after, Milk Design focuses on devising products that you need and use every day without thinking twice about them.
The only problem is this company's products are so stylish and clever, you end up giving them more than just a cursory glance. The Bacchus line of wine-oriented products, for example, for which the company won a Federation of Hong Kong Industries award last year, is funky and functional, and its amoeba-shaped stackable wine rack (pictured, top right) can be easily extended as your 'cellar' increases.
'Design can be a daunting concept,' says Lee Chi-wing who set up Milk Design with Herman Cheung in 1998. 'The majority of people want something a bit different but not too off the wall or weird. We try to make contemporary design solutions accessible to everyone - things that fit into all kinds of homes.'
One of the company's brands, Zense (from the words Zen and sense), tries to generate 'an almost spiritual feeling of tranquillity'. Its Hookoo series (pictured, below right) comprises a rounded canister, storage box, vase, medicine chest and frosted alarm clock, all of which hang from a wall-mounted rack. Such practical objects might sound dull, but their contemporary shapes make storage suddenly seem fun.
Cheung and Lee were in the same class at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 1989, but didn't join forces until almost a decade later. Cheung set up his own company, Adda, and Lee headed to Paris for four years after he won a design scholarship from the French Government. When Lee returned to Hong Kong, he got in touch with Cheung and Milk Design was born soon after.
In addition to designing their own product lines, Lee and Cheung offer a consultancy service for companies which need product-development inspiration.
'Our mission is to come up with unique, creative designs that will stand out in what has become a crowded market. The end result can be simple but it has to be clever,' Lee says.
'Design is only just starting to be respected here. It's always been considered additional rather than essential to a product. Traditionally, local designers have had to come up with results quickly - regardless of whether quality and design are of a high standard. We never do anything quickly and prefer to place an emphasis on quality.'
The Hookoo and Bacchus lines are sold through GOD and Tint+ respectively under the Zense name, but the consultancy's moniker doesn't appear on products devised specifically for its clients.
Milk Design's portfolio of clients is an international list of household names. It designed a sleek titanium sports walkman and discman for Wilson, the tennis racquet company, and one of many gadgets it has created for electronics giant Philips is a wall-mounted phone/answering machine incorporating different fixtures such as a clock and key hook. The firm has also devised funky-looking Webcams and portable MP3 players for Hong Kong's Pine Technology, and a junior PalmPilot for American electronic dictionary company Franklin Electronics.
For some customers, Cheung and Lee design whole ranges, for others (mostly Hong Kong clients), they devise one-off gift ideas such as a CD case which transforms niftily into a CD rack.
'International companies have a better grasp of how design functions, and a much wider, long-term vision than the majority of their peer group here,' Lee says. 'That's why they'll go for a line of products. Hong Kong clients want us to think up only one thing. After China enters the World Trade Organisation, Chinese designers will have to come up with better ideas to be able to compete with the Europeans. It won't be enough to have good manufacturing facilities, but [these will have to be] combined with good designs. It will be exciting times for all concerned.'
Practising what they preach, the duo have developed a range of 'desk organisers' called pets@work, also under the Zense label. The various products in the series - there are four now, but there will be 20 by the end of the year - are shaped like a cat named Kam Kam and designed to perform such functions as keeping the computer, mouse and telephone cords tidy and holding mobile phones, keys and other objects.
The line's feline-shaped hooks are backed with a revolutionary adhesive pad. 'As far as I know, we're one of the first companies in Hong Kong to use it [the pad],' Cheung says - which means the hooks can be removed without leaving marks, and reused several times without losing their ability to stick.
It may sound like Hello Kitty all over again, but at least the Kam Kam collection comes in subtle cream, brown, black and grey and serves a practical purpose. Not surprisingly the response to the Japanese character has been excellent, and the line is set to feature in GOD, Tint+ and city'super next month. And if it takes off as Cheung and Lee hope, they might find their company isn't so unobtrusive after all.
For stockists and further information, call Milk Design, tel: 2797 8500 or visit the Web site on milkdesign.com.hk