Hong Kong designer Alan Chan isn't sitting on his laurels despite 40-year career
Innovation and singularity key factors in the success of multifaceted designer, who's just ventured into furniture making and is opening spaces in Quarry Bay and Shanghai
Visiting Alan Chan Yau-kin's office in Wan Chai is a bit like making a trip to a museum: everywhere you look there are items vying for attention, from the serious (art and photography) to the curious (big-eyed, chubby-cheeked Kewpie dolls) to ephemera picked up during his travels and prototype designs created during his more than 40-year design career.
In fact, Chan has collected so many items that he is planning a book that catalogues his favourites, including photographs and anecdotes about them. One that may be included is a photograph Chan took in the US of Andy Warhol in the 1980s, although now, in an age of celebrity selfies, he regrets not having had a picture taken of himself with the pop artist.
The multifaceted designer is also busy with commercial projects across the border and the opening next month in Hong Kong of Space 27, a 7,000 sq ft venue in Quarry Bay, featuring furniture and equipment from Miele, Schiffini and Dedon, that will accommodate private functions and exhibitions for local artists.
Around the same time, in Shanghai's Jing'an district near Plaza 66, he will open a lifestyle store called Garden 27. His shop is named for its floral theme: customers can pick up homeware and choose their favourite blossoms.
Chan has also been venturing into new territory. At the recent International Design Furniture Fair Hong Kong, he unveiled the Silkroad collection, his inaugural furniture series. The first design in that collection is the S chair, a walnut-and-steel number with a serpentine shape that allows two people to sit facing each other or, if they wish, to be seated in close proximity.
This style of chair dates to the mid-17th century Europe, according to Chan, and is also known as a lovers' seat, a conversation chair or so-called tête-à-tête.
"It's Oriental but also contemporary; it could become a classic," Chan says. The idea came about two years ago when he created a pop-up store in the Park Hyatt Shanghai that looked like a living room. In the middle of the space, he placed a floral-upholstered antique wooden S chair he had found in Milan.
"Many people hadn't seen a chair like that before and were drawn to it," he says. "It doesn't look comfortable and doesn't look right, but it brings your relationship closer."
He began thinking about how the chair could bridge East and West, and simplified it to a minimal design. In Shanghai, Chan found a Hong Kong craftsman specialising in wood, with an engineering background. The prototype S chair he made, which commands attention in Chan's Wan Chai boardroom, looks seamless but actually comprises three pieces.
"The chair reflects nature, the beauty of wood, the durability of wood," he says. "This wood grows on you. The more you sit on it … the more it will develop a kind of patina. The finish doesn't stop the wood from breathing."
Price at HK$75,000, the S chair is expensive but Chan says it adheres to his philosophy that sharing makes life more fulfilling.
Another that underscores his way of thinking is a series of installations, begun in 2011, called Bridge, which explores how people and places can come together. Outside buildings, Chan placed "bridges" he made of bamboo and reinforced with "ren", the Chinese character for "people". The concept then evolved into the character for "bridge" and became a sculptural piece Chan hopes one day to showcase on a large scale at the Venice Biennale.
Shoppers who have been to Lane Crawford recently may have seen the mini version of it in the menswear department, while in the children's section smaller versions come in the form of playing blocks.
Sometimes Chan's personal projects evolve into artistic pieces that are then adopted commercially. Since 2010 he has exhibited images taken on his iPhone, some of which are abstract shapes and designs. The collages he's created from them, framed with the iPhone screen, have been part of his iEye-ai exhibitions in Osaka, Beijing, Shanghai, Milan, Singapore and Hong Kong. These led to a commission from skincare brand Fancl, which asked him to create a video for the Festival Walk concept store. His piece shows various patterns appearing to flap in the wind like two pieces of cloth, similar to noren, or cutrains at the entrance to Japanese restaurants.
Chan's fascination with the development of smartphone cameras has led him to leave his Leica at home when he travels. He remarks that he isn't the only one using smartphones to snap images - they appear as part of fashion campaigns, too.
Rather than being perfectly lit compositions, they illuminate the photographer's personality, he says. "Look at Céline's campaigns in the past two years. They are lousy photographs because the lighting is wrong and the model is not posing enough. The brand is Céline; it's not pretentious. Today it's about the personal attitude of the brand. So why not an iPhone campaign for any brand?"
His observations of advertising come from a career that started more than 40 years ago, when he worked as an assistant to heads of some of the top ad agencies. Exposure to Western design and thinking helped develop his interest in art, photography and design, and later his appreciation for Asian aesthetics and philosophy.
That combined outlook, which he calls "Oriental passion, Western harmony", has inspired his work through the decades and allowed him to expand into different areas, making his a one-stop shop for clients.
"We talk about market strategy, brand positioning, architecture, interior design, art programme, graphic design," he says. "How can any interior design firm put all this together? It's hard."
As for the state of design in Hong Kong these days, Chan is less than optimistic. "Clients haven't improved in their sophistication level, and the new generation - who are not commercially savvy - don't know how to communicate with businessmen because they are young and inexperienced. Their styles are computer driven and homogeneous."
As a result Chan looks north - with 80 per cent of his business coming from China.
Chan's own learning is on display at his office, his philosophy underpinning everything from the small to big, unusual to unfathomable. "Creativity is not just about making a presentation look pretty," he says.