Hong Kong designer and contemporary artist Freeman Lau is highly dedicated to the promotion and cultivation of the design industry in the Greater China region and throughout Asia. He is Founding Associate and Vice Chairman for The Design Alliance Asia (tDA Asia), Secretary General of the Hong Kong Federation of Design Associations, and Partner at leading firm, Kan & Lau Design. It is through this work and other related projects such as book publishing and his contemporary art practice that he continues to explore how Eastern culture can be shared with other parts of the world through design.
“I do feel that Chinese-speaking people, or huaren, share a kind of common culture that is from the East–basically, dominantly from the Chinese culture,” Lau explains when asked to define the idea of huaren design. “But if you talk about Malaysia, Singapore, or other regions in Southeast Asia,” he continues, “they have quite a fusion of art and cultures, too.” In Singapore, he notes, designers regularly mix aspects of Chinese culture with those of Malay or Indian culture, or other Asian cultures, in their design. This, he says, creates a design language that is unique in the global market. “Even in Hong Kong,” he continues, “there are some quite different designers–they develop their own choices around how to interpret Chinese design or Chinese culture.”
Within China itself–with its epic population of over 1.3 billion people and its shared language of Mandarin Chinese–there are stark cultural differences between the north and the south, the east and the west. “Shanghai, of course, is much more international,” Lau notes. “In Beijing, the population is more academically focused; Shenzhen is much younger… And we haven’t even begun to explore the middle or the southeastern parts of China, where they also have their own cultures. The history [of central China] is even longer than Beijing’s–we’re talking 5000 years and more.”
For Lau, the role of a designer is to share his or her culture through design. “I think what is most important is to understand our own culture,” he explains. “What comes from our own culture is our way of living, and what comes from our way of living are the things we use and how we use them, so we have to learn from our own culture first.” He believes that if Asian designers wish to depart from the Western design aesthetic and techniques that dominate the global design industry, they should look to their past and consider why and in what ways local objects and artifacts were made: “What are the materials, what is special about those materials, and what makes them different to those from the West?”
Through his own design and art work, Lau attempts to interpret Chinese culture on a modern level. While his designs are typically created to suit the needs of one or more Chinese markets, many of his products and projects are also appreciated in Western or international markets. Lau cites his collaboration with Malaysian pewter gift and homewares specialist, Royal Selangor–a company that he has designed numerous products for in recent years–as an example. The company, which has been run by a Malaysian family of Chinese descent for four generations, often incorporates Chinese cultural elements into their products, which are manufactured using Malaysia-born techniques. “From the product, you can see that there is a strong Chinese heritage, but the product itself doesn’t come from China,” Lau says. “[Royal Selangor] have shops all over the world, and it’s an interesting experience–how I interpret Chinese elements through a Chinese-yet-not-Chinese brand, and then [the products are] exported to different parts of the world.”
What does Freeman Lau feel the future holds for young huaren designers? “There were some designers, in the past in Hong Kong, whose products were only for export. Back then, they really had to tailor [their designs] for the States or Europe, but that was some years ago,” Lau explains. Today, local designers are starting their own brands and looking to Asian markets for sales. That the market in the Greater China region is not yet mature is both an opportunity and a challenge for these designers. For example, says Lau, “The quality of manufacturing in China is still not as high as in Europe or the States. A designer may have a great idea, but it seems he gets lost because he doesn’t know how to get it made. If designers can be more humble and more willing to learn about the process of manufacturing, they may discover something that will make the production or the quality [of their product] even better.”
About Freeman Lau
Freeman Lau is a Hong Kong-based designer and artist who has received over 300 art and design accolades for his work. He is the designer behind the world-renowned Watson’s Water Bottle, and his ongoing chair design series, “Chairplay“, and other art pieces are held in the leading international museums and private collections. In recent years, he has achieved numerous significant design awards including being named Best Asian Designer at the 2014 Asian Designers’ Invitational Exhibition (Korea), and receiving a Bronze Award at the International Design Biennale Warsaw 2014 (Poland). He has also taken home a Red Dot Design Award in the Communication Design category (Germany), and was presented with a Distinguished Publishing Award for his highly acclaimed book, “Rethinking Bamboo” (2013), at the Hong Kong Print Awards.