Hong Kong interior design

Design demystified in M+ collection Hong Kong show

A lot of people don’t really know what design is, says curator of first show of design items from future Hong Kong museum

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2016, 5:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2016, 5:18am

“Is it possible to let a sketch become an object, and to design it directly into space?” asks Swedish design group Front. Apparently, it is.

“[Front] went to a 3D-motion-capture studio and, using an electronic pen, they hand sketched furniture in mid-air. The data was then transferred to a 3D printer. And voila!” says Aric Chen.

Chen is lead curator for design and architecture at M+, which has inaugurated its first design exhibition, “Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection”, featuring 120 of the 2,500 works of design and architecture it has collected in the past four years. The exhibits date from 1937 to now, and include the Stockholm-based designers’ “Materialised Sketch of a Chandelier”.

An historical showcase presenting several contextual vignettes – such as a post-independence India room, or one showing Hong Kong’s manufacturing history – the exhibition also aims to present experimental works, including for example a series of first-edition emojis.

“A lot of people don’t really know what design is,” says Chen. Given it is continuously evolving, he says, it is perhaps not surprising that even those in the industry have trouble defining it.

His working explanation, however, is that “design is the articulation of the human realm”, which allows him and his colleagues to bring to light a series of idea-driven real-world applications.

Just like Front’s chandelier materialised from thin air, “A-POC Queen”, by Issey Miyake, shows a concept brought to production. In 1997 Miyake began to “articulate” single pieces of thread to create his “A Piece of Cloth” collection, in collaboration with engineering designer Dai Fujiwara. The process produces a continuous stream of tubular fabric with cuttable blueprints (of a dress, a shirt, etc) that customers can choose from, bringing cutting-edge innovation to the mainstream consumer.

Apart from examples of the avant-garde, more conventional items are also on show. A Hong Kong household favourite, the ’50s-made rattan chair, manufactured by Kowloon Rattan Ware, sits with a watermelon-patterned plastic ball. The latter carries a romantic design tale of its own. The story goes that engineer-turned-industrialist Chiang Chen was inspired by a visit to Chongqing, where he saw the Jialing river emptying into the Yangtze and how distinct colours interlaced before merging. He went on to invent a bi-colour injection process able to mould two plastic colours at once. A playground icon, the plastic ball, was born.

“There is no checklist or points system to establish that a work is an important work of design,” says Chen, who has been curating design for 25-plus years (in Beijing, New York, Chicago and Amsterdam). “With Japanese design it is a little easier because there is a more established design history and canon, especially in 20th-century design. For others, we might need to look harder and deeper,” he says, encouraging the confusion people expressed ahead of the show.

The work of Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen doesn’t help clear the uncertainty, though it fuels anticipation. Their designs are created only to accommodate choreographies based on the production process. The duo then teaches the choreography to assembly-line workers in a factory in China’s Guangdong province.

“It brings up questions of Taylorism [management theory named after American mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor that analyses workflows in order to improve economic efficiency through labour productivity], scientific management, and assembly-line production with the relationship between labour and the object. Design can make us think about all these different things,”says Chen.

Singapore-based conceptual artist and designer Hans Tan illustrates this further. He buys Peranakan porcelain vases on which he applies vinyl dots. After sandblasting the vessels’ surfaces, the unprotected areas are restored to white. Leaving colourful dotted patterns behind, though not as colourful as the original, he claims an industrial reinterpretation of the vases.

Then there’s a piece inspired by Rem Koolhaas’ Beijing landmark. For “I AM A MONUMENT – CCTV Wardrobe”, Li Naihan created a human-scale replica of the building as a wardrobe. “The initial inspiration of the loop shape refers to the 24H news loop,” says Chen. “She designed it so that you do a loop around the wardrobe as you get dressed. First the socks, then the underwear, then there is the shirt, and the pants, and last come the shoes.”

It’s clear that design can also be practical.

Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection runs from November 30 to February 5, 2017 at the M+ Pavilion.