Michael Young’s design career has taken him from the UK to Iceland, and now to Asia. Around a decade ago, he moved his studio to Hong Kong because of the city’s proximity to Shenzhen’s booming industrial and technology sectors. Now his business is helping Chinese brands to expand into new markets. The main concern in his latest product design project — Zens — is cultural identity and the concept of “Asian living”.
“I think the whole context of using Chinese decoration as a foundation to design work is becoming extinct because that older generation who buys into dragons is dying,” says Young. “Our new consumers don’t really have the same values, so design and communication is becoming global. I’m doing one project with a Chinese company, which is cool. It’s for Asian living, trying to retain the concept of Asian living and what it stands for.”
When you strip Zens down to materials, it is clear that he is trying to dissociate from the global. Like many designers across the world, he is turned off by the presence of Ikea. His new eco-friendly, “Asian living” collection features lighting made from archetypal materials, such as bamboo and iron. Elements of European minimalism meet traditional Asian patterns on bone china tableware.
“I designed a collection of bamboo lighting to bring awareness to a new generation of consumer,” he says. “[Chinese consumers] should hold this material in higher regard culturally, like Scots pine, Harris tweed, or Portuguese olive oil. It’s not something that should be taken for granted. As soon as we educate the next generations on the value of natural resources, design can only improve.”
He thinks that materials, generally, are often undervalued in Asia, particularly those that represent cultural heritage, and he fears that globalization is destroying the variety in Asian visual culture. With the exception, that is, of technology. Investment in Shenzhen from companies like Apple, Samsung, and Huawei, can be attributed to globalization.
Despite the amount of investment from global corporations, and third generation Chinese who return from studying in USA to setup new brands for export, he laments at the playing it safe attitude of Chinese investors.
“I tend to find that Chinese companies will not take chances,” he says. “They want a specific answer. They want to know exactly where their money is going, and how long it’s going to last for, so it’s a bit of an odd moment really, but we [Michael Young Studio] are certainly using the technology we’ve got in China for overseas companies.”
If you look at the full range of his design portfolio, you will see an amalgamation of elegant form, cultural signifiers and bleeding edge technology. By positioning himself on the fringe of Southeast Asia and China, he has access to a rich treasure trove of visual stimulants, as well as state of the art manufacturing facilities. Over the next decade, he sees China as the epicenter of design innovation.
“I said a long time ago, [the Chinese design industry] will take twenty years,” he explains. “People call me arrogant for saying that, but I started working in Tokyo in the nineties and there wasn’t much design going on there. It’s omnipresent now.”
From Young’s point of view, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are in completely different situations concerning design, with the smaller regions depending on China’s mighty industrial capabilities. Although he has reservations about the effect globalization has on design in the region, he notes that, conversely, regional developments also arose from international influence. While he does not condone the means of colonialism, he thinks its legacy should be respected.
“Taiwan is a special, little enclave because it has been influenced by Japan quite a lot,” he says. “I would say that Taiwan, for me, probably has one of the most highly developed design industries in Asia. There are good designers in Taiwan, and there is good craft technique and technology being used.”
In Taiwan, the problem for the design industry is somewhat different to that of Shenzhen and across China. Looking back over the past decade he notes the development of Taiwanese creative industries, beginning with the bookshops, cafes, and bars that began to dot the island’s cities. “From there,” he says, “it just went bang!” Still, he has one criticism.
“I know that it probably sounds quite rude, but I hope – I wish people would stop designing tea sets,” he says, laughing. “I think that’s about the only piece of advice I could give a young designer in Taiwan.”
About Michael Young
Michael Young was born in Sunderland in 1966, in a small industrial city in the northeast of England. He graduated from Kingston University in 1992 and the following year, he founded the Michael Young Studio. After nearly a decade working between the UK and Iceland, Michael was enticed to Asia by his passion for pioneering technology, and in 2006, he set up a studio in Hong Kong. His commercial practice focuses on product, industrial and spacial design. He has worked on campaigns for Zens, Diamond Water, Jougor, Iitala, and EOQ, among others.