Design Anthology spoke with Hong Kong-born, Athens-based designer Chi Wing Lo during Business of Design Week 2015
Tell us a bit about your early years and your journey to becoming a designer.
I’m the third of six and the eldest son. The eldest son in society here is important. But there was not so much pressure in my family — just don’t steal, don’t do drugs and it was alright. It’s not like that now, with the one child policy, and we put all the effort into that one child. But at least how I grew up was not like that. It was more of a laissez-faire policy, like the British and Hong Kong.
What I have been interested in, since I was a child, was always the creative aspects of study. The other subjects — I failed all of them practically, not exaggerating. And I guess the creative parts were perhaps the only thing remaining that I had passion for.
It was not a normal development for a child at that time, but it gave me a very different experience from the rest. It was a messy period, nothing straightforward. You slowly find your interest and the beauty of that, although you’re late, is that once you find your interests and it’s clear, the rest is easy.
How old were you when you began your studies at Harvard?
At that time, I’d just finished my undergraduate, so around 30. I’d been working a couple of years in Hong Kong before, and when I went to American I needed to unlearn — unlearn meaning, and to start from the very beginning.
How was the approach different?
In Hong Kong education at that time, the idea was that learning a skill to ‘make a living’ was far more important that creative cultivation, and that part of the education I still feel is missing today, critically. It was painful in the first year because I was more senior than my classmates and you have to make an adjustment to reorient all your focus to something that you’re not good at. That adjustment took me a couple of years and then of course after that I got it and you start to fly again.
How do you reconcile your Chinese heritage with the Western approach?
The first few years, I didn’t really carry it with me that ‘this is who I am, this is what my culture is’ because at that time I was trying to be with the local mindset. The more you define yourself and impose the perspective of ‘this is where I come from’, it doesn’t do any good in the situation.
This is the problem of a society that is open to all the cultures — they are still defending where they are from, their origin. I think part of the beauty of the education in the US is that you’re exposed to that multicultural blending of everyone together. I think what is better in that society is not so much where you’re from, but how to together build new things out of all these mixtures of different ideas. That I think is a very important part of the education.
Who had the greatest influence upon your development as a designer during this period?
I never really had an idol or someone that I would say, ‘I would love to be like him’. I would more look at the pieces of work that different people had done and that had left an impression on me, and that included masters from different parts of the world — from the very unknown to very known.
Even now, I don’t care who people are, but I more care about what they do and I think that sort of set the priority for me, more than just fame.
Apart from idols or icons, was there anything else that really influenced your development as a designer?
In the university you meet different types of personalities. You have different types of classmates from all sorts of backgrounds and a dynamic mix that, I guess, all comes together to make that kind of path in front of you. It’s like a pin ball machine. When you pull the trigger, the ball spins everywhere and in a way, all the things happen in the way naturally.
What does the title ‘designer’ mean to you?
Designer? I think designers should have nothing to do with design. Because design is too specific and a designer is someone with some idea of how to live better. It doesn’t have to be a kind of training — I don’t think it’s necessary. Just a good idea: how to open a door and not to make it slam, but to close perfectly. Sometimes to design is not to give a solution, but to give an idea.
If someone has an idea and executes it, then perfect. Some design very well but then their great idea is destroyed in execution. A designer is someone who is very sensitive to how things are and able to identify certain things to improve upon. They are in a constant process of improvement, no matter how perfect things are.
In thinking about design for its utilitarian purposes, preventing the slamming door for example, is there a larger purpose in design that you think about?
I think that the reason design is a little bit more objective than art — I don’t want to mix with art because that’s another level of discussion — is because it’s something that is situated between you and me. It’s something you can offer and you can use. I think design has a kind of obligation to start with this.
Now, why people choose a certain shape for a sofa or put the legs on the chair in that way — that’s a design choice and adds another element to the design. And it’s not just useful, but pleasing and not just to the eye, but to a level that can touch your soul. That, of course, is another level of design.
If it’s not something that moves you as a design, then it needs to be useful to start with. Not an object that is dangerous to use, creates problems or collapses — it should not have those problems. It doesn’t have to be a lot. And then when you have the skill, sensibility and observation to elevate a piece to become more than just sitting comfortably- then great!
Do you see yourself as an Asian designer, and if so, what does that mean to you?
Sometimes I don’t want to put my picture up and be identified as a ‘designer from Asia’. In my very early years working in Italy, I was called ‘the Chinese designer’ for two purposes: for identification and for promotion. But I don’t like to think that way — that design has a kind of boundary. Good ideas are applicable everywhere. And once you say ‘Asian designer’ then people start to look at the designs in a certain way — ‘Does that look Chinese where the motif is coming from?’ — and it doesn’t appeal to me.
But the reason is that so many people have tried it — tried to tie a region or identity to their work. It’s a kind of playing with motif, and motif is too superficial. I think a subtlety is more important than giving a clear boundary.
As a designer, you’re very cross-disciplinary, working in architecture, landscape architecture, objet and furniture. Are there certain first principles that bring to each of your projects, regardless of their realm?
I guess for anyone, even a writer, musician or playwright, there is always something that carries you forward.
I think I have been very consistent from urban design to jewellery. You believe in something and you believe in it all the way. You say you love a woman, not just the hair, the suit — everything. Then all the parts become whole. And the tension between the parts becomes the entity of the whole. I guess each project invites the same sensibilities in many ways, although different scales. Some people say my architecture is like a huge piece of furniture or that my interiors are like a concert hall where the furniture are the different instruments, complementing each other, talking to each other.
So we can look at design from many different levels, coming from the same sensibility. I think the result has that kind of consistency.
Are there certain qualities that you aspire to in everything from a piece of furniture to an architectural project?
I like things that are always in the background. I don’t want things to always come forward and demand attention.
I think the whole world is not made of one thing. I think the world is made of all kinds of things coming together in harmony. And if all things are trying to speak at the same time, it’s not good for a piece of music. So in my design I tend to subdue, and this is the more difficult part — to add is easy but to subdue is difficult. I like to make things what they are supposed to be and nothing more, and I use natural colour because natural colour is the most beautiful, lasting colour.
I think quietude is also important. I don’t tend to ask my architectural spaces or products to scream out. I think today everyone is screaming. I think to find a peacefulness inside yourself, the things around you are important — more horizontal than vertical.
Where do you draw inspiration from outside of your work?
I think observation, meeting people from different walks of life, visiting workshops and construction sites, talking to people who are never in the same gear as you — and bringing all these things together to work in a way in which you believe in. That’s not just an inspiration, it’s always a challenge. I guess inspiration in this world implies a ‘magical moment’. I don’t believe in that so much. I believe with enough observation, enough study that it will come. And nowadays I spend more time making the ideas more solid, more convincing.
You travel a lot for work. Do you still find inspiration in visiting new places?
I think travelling is very much a part of education. Nowadays it’s more half-half: half the time I have the quietude just to do what I believe, half time I’m on the road.
But I think gathering all these experiences of seeing and talking eventually generates a sort of volume of ideas, knowledge to make the design more concrete.
When you started out, we weren’t using computers nearly to the extent that we do today, so your career has spanned a massive increase in the use of technology. How do you feel about the integration of technology and how has it changed design and your practice as a designer?
I think technology is something I take as a convenience. In my case, I’m more interested to look at the ideas and whether the technology is from a very wise idea from the past or from the latest one that we have — I don’t really care as long as it works. Look at the pyramids — it’s huge technology to do that, to put a stone on the top. And now we have the technology to build a skyscraper with glass and metal. I cannot say that one is better than the other — it is just what was available at different periods.
The interesting part of this question is that there are many product designs that look very technological, but they are very primitive. And some look very primitive, but are full
of wisdom. There are a lot of these misconceptions about ‘technology’. The technological part is important, but it’s not everything.
What’s the distinction between art and design in Greece where you live?
In Greece, design has a capital D. I mean you wake up and go out every morning and you look at the Parthenon and you feel intimidated because the best has already been created. What are you doing? It’s a pure equation of mind.
And that was 447 BC, so like 2500 years ago that it was already there. And they just worked with stone — they didn’t have any computers. And the stones are just there, just like that, even after all these earthquakes and history’s problems, they’re still there. That’s the beauty of the ruins!
I think the idea of permanence and timelessness is still a substantial part of it. The Greek people still benefit from the artefacts of thousands of years ago — we still go to the same amphitheatre that was built thousands of years ago to listen
I mean the acoustics and to sit there with a view of the stars — what is more directly beautiful than that? Today we have all this technology with sound systems and bass, but at that time that’s what they had and it still works today. And that for me is the essence of timelessness.
Many of the designs today are worse than fashion. The moment they come out, it’s ‘next!’ We just consume and throw away. But if you look at it from an economical point of view, if everyone had the same sofa without ever changing, then we are dead and without any economy. We have to create demand. So I don’t know. I’m not a thinker in economic terms. But maybe there’s another way to build a society to have the sort of affluence to live differently than how we do now.