Michael Young interview

Mar 12, 2009
  • Article by Andrew Mackenzie
  • Designer Michael Young

AM: I’d like to talk to you about two things: your work as a designer, and how this work is influenced by where you work, given your experience of living and working in a number of quite different cultures. Firstly, the objects you design cover quite a range, from bikes to furniture to cigarette lighters. Is there a connection between these products, or key criteria as to why you take on a new project?
MY: Design is about evolution and for me my last design usually leads on to new thoughts about new objects and new industrial materials. I like jumping from product to product and find everything interesting. I’ve never had to chase after a client. There’s always been a continual evolution of new challenges and people saying “Do you want to do this?” and what have you…

AM: One of the qualities I’ve seen in the work, and indeed the way you talk about it, is an association with human qualities such as humour – some of the objects seem to almost have a smile. Is this an important quality in your work?
MY: It’s something that was important when I was younger, but less relevant over the last five years or so. Although I do still think objects need to really communicate to the buyer, and that is where the humanity comes into it. But recently my work has become much more process led than form led.

AM: Am I right in thinking that part of the advantage of being based in Hong Kong is your proximity to where a lot of the designs are manufactured and the processes involved in that?
MY: It’s a contributing factor. I like being around all of this industry in China and I’m intrigued by the development of manufacturers into their own brand. I find it a lot more invigorating than working within Europe. I still work for European companies, but I don’t find it psychologically challenging because a lot of companies are so highly developed in Europe; it’s just a formula, you know, we’ll work with that designer, this designer and do a bit of marketing… for me being out here is not about style. Style to me is something from the Renaissance, which design seems to have become in Europe, whereas in China it’s very much about industrial production and innovation and for me, that’s what design is. So to be here is way more exciting.

AM: It’s interesting and almost counter-intuitive. There is a common perception of design production in China as being very industrialised, but also to some extent, a less creative pursuit. China is often thought of as a fast and loose knock-off culture. But what you’re saying is that the formalised design process that might reside in Europe is not the same in China. It has its own kind of vibrancy.
MY: I have a very different view about this question of China as a knock-off culture. I’ve lived out here for years, and frankly I see as much copying going on in Europe as I do in China. It is all around us. All the design players in Europe are affected, and designers copy each other all the time. Obviously there are a lot of European iconic brand designs being copied, which gets a lot of attention, but I don’t actually blame that on China. If you don’t value design, how can you value whether copying is good or bad? So it’s actually just part of an evolution in industry that is inevitable, and I don’t actually mind if my stuff gets copied. I realise it’s something not for me to change; it’s actually just part of a longer vision of the future.

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AM: Do you have design companies over there in China? Are there other designers who are actually engaging in a hands-on way with the processes of development and manufacturing, in they way you are?
MY: There are quite a few people actually trying to take this on board, and obviously most of the large companies manufacture over here anyway. But I don’t think there’s anyone trying to do what I’m doing. I don’t know whether I’m a little bit mad! There are a couple of companies who set up over here, and the majority have actually failed through arrogance. You get all of these large industrial companies who have come in and try to charge Chinese clients the same, and they don’t really have a great service to offer anyway, so they normally go bankrupt pretty quickly. I think to succeed over here you really have to have some knowledge of, or something to offer the client in terms of marketing and new markets. So you can’t just be a designer out here; you have to have a something of tradable value and a good network around the world, and that helps me survive a lot out here to combine both things.

AM: I guess this relates to the connection between design practice and business practice, which is a budding interest here in Australia. But there’s still not strong support for, nor promotion of, the connection between business and marketing and creative development. Were you aware from the beginning that it was pointless to sit in the studio and make objects without some kind of marketing and business plan?
MY: To be honest, I was the worst businessman on the planet. I didn’t care and I wasn’t interested and I had no idea whatsoever. But I think I always had a do-it-yourself approach. Looking at my last 14 years – if you can get past seven years, you must be doing something right, and I think I’ve actually learned how much I’m worth to companies. I know how much their turnover is. I know the value of a lot of things so I know how much I can charge. I’m not afraid of all of that. So I’ve had to learn survival and now I think I’m pretty good at it. It’s hard to act like a serious design businessman when you’re 30-years-old and you’re talking to someone who’s been in the business for 50 years. They don’t take you that seriously, but by the time you get to 40 I think they’ve got to.

AM: Do you think it’s important to have some companies out there that act as quasi-patrons, who have belief in a young designer and actually take something through to production, with all the risks associated with that. Did you have anyone like that?
MY: I was pretty lucky, in that the first stuff I ever made was just this woven steel stuff, and it’s all I could afford to do or manufacture, but it actually got taken up by galleries in New Zealand and around the world within the first year. The following year Cappellini made a few things, and then after two years, I guess I got a lot of help from a company in Japan who effectively did patronise me a bit. So I had a little bit of support beyond the means of most other designers for two years, but it was still a slim living.

AM: Was that connection with E&Y in Japan, and the work that flowed from that, partly what led to your role as creative director of 100% Design Tokyo last year?
MY: I have been lucky in that, for whatever reasons, I get a really fantastic response to my work in Japan, and have done since 1994. Should I be so bold to say, there’s quite a few followers who I’ve known for a long time in Japan, and I’ve grown up with that whole generation of people over 10 years. I think we just had a very good connection. My products sell really well there and people like them. Maybe it’s the mix of technology and something else.

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AM: How is the experience of working with in 100% Design?
MY: The first one was tricky because it’s the first time I’ve ever designed something for an event like that. My first job was to really salvage the event, because they never really did something so coordinated before. So whilst it was something very simple, [it was also] keeping it safe. I wasn’t experimental and I had a lot to learn about how to work with the scale. This year, however, they’ve asked me to do it again, so I can probably be a little bit more experimental and avant-garde. I think that’s what these events are about.

AM: That experimental versus commercial balance in a trade fair is a very difficult thing to get right, isn’t it? I found last year with 100% Design London that it almost had a split personality. There’s the commercial juggernaut that underwrites the whole venture, but then you’ve also got this curated ‘exhibition’ that is trying to find its place in the whole event.
MY: Thankfully the commercial traffic in the Japanese event is already really strong, so my job is to make a pleasant environment for them to do business in and/or balance that with a little bit of intrigue for the public and the consumers For the last three years the theme for the event has been ‘Love’ and it’s also the theme for next year as well. God knows why! But I’m pretty laid back. I can work around anything. If you sit around in a room and talk about love for long enough, there’s always some good stuff that comes out.

AM: You’re coming over to Australia in April for designEX. Do you have anything in particular that you’re interested in exploring when you’re here?
MY: I don’t know anything about Australia other than I like Australian people. I’ve got a lot of Australian friends. It’s a very connected culture, so I’m looking forward to hanging out. In my talk I’ll be talking generally about the stories behind my work, but I’d also like to focus on what I’m doing in China, with the evolution of Chinese brands and how to work with them.

AM: One subject that’s quite alive at the moment here is how the world of design engages with sustainability. Is that something that you have to negotiate, when working in China?
MY: Of course. I mean it’s something that’s quite easy to attend to because as long as you tell your manufacturer to use certain products and reduce the packaging, it’s pretty easy to make an impact. I don’t talk about it much. I do it.

AM: Are Chinese manufacturers keen to engage with this sustainable conversation?
MY: I think in a naïve way. You know, if a manufacturer in China thinks sustainability is fashionable and they can sell products, they’ll do it. But if they think it’s unfashionable they’ll stop it. I think that’s also an educational curve, but at the end of the day, in China, there are millions of people trying to make a living. Like any country, the economics is difficult.

AM: Do you miss England at all?
MY: I do. I miss the friends and I miss English culture.

AM: And professionally…?
MY: London was good in the first two years, but I find London sort of contrived. I know this sounds really arrogant, but I’m just not interested in contemporary culture in any part in my life. I hate being in that environment. I find it almost like handcuffs to me, and I don’t find it invigorating. I find individuals invigorating. I moved away from cultures for a long time and went to Iceland just to be on my own and that’s what I like about being in Hong Kong.

AM: There are some that would say that New York and London will quite soon be thought of as old-fashioned. Like Paris, they will become like an historical museum kind of playground, and that the new New Yorks are going to be the likes of Beijing, Taipei, Macau etc. Do you think there’s some truth in that?
MY: It’s absolutely predetermined. If I look at the frustrations of people I know trying to be designers in New York or London, it’s getting tougher and tougher. There’s always going to be successful cases and a reason to be in London, but for designers, it’s not a city to be in because in terms of engaging with industry, it has nothing to offer. You can’t design kettles by DHL. You’re much better off being out here in Asia. Hong Kong for me is like New York. There are different people here all the week, and it’s getting more and more people all the time.

AM: Have you cast your eye to the Middle East at all?
MY: I think so. For me, Dubai is a joke. You can’t have design where there’s no democracy, and there’s so little democracy in the Middle East that, for me, it’s meaningless. I think if you want to design something from Louis Vuitton and do a great store, then you can do it in Dubai. I like to engage a little bit more with humility than that. I think that the lack of democracy there closes the doors for me. It’s pointless. For me, for the time being, I’m quite happy to work from Hong Kong and keep developing my relationships around the world from there.

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