Furnished with all the details of the East

IT took a return trip to Hong Kong for Suzanne Watson to realise how much her vision had changed.

Since she started designing furniture for Blue Orange, her company in England, she has gained a new-found appreciation for local craftsman.

She's back to learn from the furniture polishers along Hollywood Road; to look closer at the hints of architectural details of her former neighbourhood, Tai O, on Lantau; and to study the joinery of tables, crafted by Shanghainese carpenters.

Previously, the graduate of the John Makepeace School of Furniture Design, ran an interior design studio in London.

Concentrating on other people's designs got old fast, she found. Before she opened her own company, she travelled to clear her head. In 1988, she worked in Hong Kong as an art and design therapist in a drug rehabilitation centre.

Her fluency in Cantonese is returning with every tradesman she meets in Macau and Guangzhou.

Those elements generic to Chinese and Japanese design, the inspiration that underlies the works produced in her East Sussex studio, deserve first-hand study.

If there is interest in her custom work, such as The Pig (a kitchen table in beech), Deck Disaster (a laminated deck chair with coloured slats) and Syzygy, a coffee table with a ripple-cut glass insert, she would gladly commute to Asia.

The name, Blue Orange Design, comes from her philosophy to get people to think differently about familiar things. What looks like hat boxes in plywood with kid-leather lids and parachute webbing handles are storage containers.

One commission, a kitchen table, combines the practical with whimsy. ''The client was a retired couple, with three grown children. They were literary types, with books and papers all over their house. Judging from their lifestyle, it would be ridiculous to design something fine.

''They wanted a table they could use in preparing food, like a butcher's block. But something that could be used for a sit-down dinner party.'' She designed a straight forward, rectangular-shaped table in beech with oak legs, an updated version of the butcher's block. Watson's humour can be found and experienced around the foot area.

She sculpted threads from stainless steel and twisted them like an amusement park ride. Then, each was threaded with hand-blown glass balls the size of tennis balls. ''You can play with them in stockinged feet. Or rub your foot against one for a massage.'' One couple in Mid-Levels ordered a drinks cabinet. It had to complement their existing furniture, a blend of Chinese and Asian pieces. ''I can't stand heavy pieces myself, great lumps of furniture that visually deceive you that they're lighter than theyreally are.'' She lightened her design in rosewood by raising it on long, skinny legs. Ebony and silver added elegance.

The deck chair was a struggle. The classic design was never too loving to anyone's spine or posture. Her version, Deck Disaster, respects the lumbar curve, supports the head and is made with materials that flex and give.

Ms Watson has the height and presence of a model and the kind of capable hands that could handle an octave and a lathe with finesse.

Creativity and a bent for manufacturing can be traced in the family tree. Her mother is a fashion designer; her father, a photographer. Her name of her grandfather, Everitt W. Vero, can be found inside crash helmets, riding hats for royalty, jockey skulls and polo helmets.

Working with clients is a process of mutual education. ''They know what they want functionally. And visually, they know what they don't want.'' Her job is to listen between their lines.

So far, no complaints or returned goods. ''I always make a model first, so any changes are made then.'' Her home, a worker's cottage she shares with another furniture designer in East Sussex is filled with old pieces, usually heirlooms from relatives and friends. Though a turn-of-the-century folding table fails in terms of function and it's terribly wobbly, Ms Watson loves it. ''The old lady who gave it to me was very special.'' ''I would never buy anything modern. I just couldn't. I'd have to make my own. Just like my clothes.

''I used to make them all. Now, I don't have time.'' Being female in what once was a man's trade rarely raises eyebrows.

''We're accepted by contemporaries,'' she adds, referring to her flat-mate. ''Older people usually make a comment or two. Something like, isn't it odd to see you in a man's job.'' For more information, contact Blue Orange Design at tel/fax: 804-6558.