Hong Kong’s Latitude 22N Puts Porcelain on the Map

 Latitude 22N’s story is in the name. Latitude to reflect the diversity of cultures and geographic locations of the co-founders; 22N for the latitude of Hong Kong. This design brand has infused Hong Kong’s design community with excitement over its innovative porcelain lighting, dinnerware and home décor, along with bespoke design projects for artisanal brands like local boutique hotel Tribute and vegetarian restaurant Grassroots Pantry.

The brand was founded in 2008 by designers and artists Julie Progin, who was born and raised in Hong Kong by Swiss parents, and American Jesse McLin. The two met in New York, where they both studied at Parsons School of Design. Back in Hong Kong, they set up shop in a bright, airy studio inside an industrial building in Chai Wan that McLin refers to as their “research lab.” Stark white walls provide a luminous backdrop to ceramics in various states of production.

1400_933_enterThe space is currently dominated by huge white vases suspended from the ceiling from their latest exhibition, Fragments, which captures the break and decay of porcelain moulds to create a memory of what otherwise would be discarded. The limited edition pieces were inspired by a trip to the ceramics community of Jingdezhen, where mountains of broken moulds and porcelain pieces dot the landscape of the city where this highly prized ceramic was first developed. They are about to be part of M+ museum’s debut design exhibition, Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection, at the new M+ Pavilion in the West Kowloon Cultural District. Progin is clearly thrilled by the recognition. “I’m very proud of being local, to work with local culture and be recognised for that,” she says.

Business is brisk: there’s an order of bell-shaped lamps waiting to be shipped to a hotel in New Zealand and the designers are collaborating with private dining/pop-up kitchen Sook on a set of dinnerware, among other projects. But the two are also focused on their own artworks, some of which, like the vases, were inspired by trips to Jingdezhen, where they work with several family-run businesses to produce their wares. They have been busy documenting the changes as the city grows and transforms. “Every year we go back, Jingdezhen is almost a new city,” says McLin. “It’s important every year to record it and note why it is changing. There are some losses of interesting sights that are now high-rise buildings but they’ve also put a huge amount of money into saving the ceramic history. Part of the trip is documenting what’s left because we know next time we know it could all be gone.”

_mg_0600A collection of irregularly-shaped porcelain vessels sit on a shelf in the studio. They were also borne out of a trip to Jingdezhen. “In the production process of the cups, they use plaster moulds, and once the moulds have been used too many times, they throw them out and the moulds start deteriorating, and eventually become nothing due to natural erosion,” says McLin. “We rescued 501 of these old moulds, which didn’t make a dent in the pile – there are mountains and mountains of them – then carefully cleaned and poured liquid porcelain into them. The porcelain records where the water line was. It freezes that decaying process and challenges the idea of what is a designer, as these were designed by nature, not a human.”

It also raises questions about mass production, as producing 501 pieces reaches the level of mass production, yet each piece remains unique. “It’s something to contemplate rather than use – the cups are not little sake cups, which everyone wants them to be,” says McLin. “The idea is to see that all 501 are unique and look at that uniqueness in and around mass production.”

McLin says Hong Kong is becoming more receptive to artisanal products such as the custom porcelain tableware it created for Tribute, whose blue and white patterns were inspired by local architecture. “I think Hong Kong entrepreneurs want to build a stronger sense of community, and local craft and local design is a really important aspect of that. There’s a lot more emphasis on using local design in their property development or restaurant.” Progin chips in. “It’s good branding, as it brings value to a place and makes it different from being in a hotel in, say, Singapore.”

McLin believes the transformation is partly down to the influence of Art Basel launching its inaugural show here in 2013. “With Art Basel being so established, the Hong Kong community started to respect creative fields more – I think there was less value placed on it before,” he says. “But it’s also the pride of being from Hong Kong and putting more focus on that. Instead of just buying foreign luxury products, local consumers are looking out more for local brands, and to the high-end brands and young designers in China.”

McLin says the Hong Kong art community is characterised by a refreshing openness and people are very keen to talk about who they’ve been working with. “The general attitude in Hong Kong is much more about sharing. When I was working in New York for a designer, everything was, ‘Hush hush, that’s my secret, I’m not gonna share.’” Progin agrees. “There’s much more of an openness when it comes to talking about projects, and that’s how we got to work with Tribute, just through people talking about our work.”

1400_933-jj-2The two say that what makes Hong Kong so special are the opportunities they’ve been given to work on a variety of projects with architects, designers and commercial clients, from the handmade kitchen utensils that form a wall installation at Grassroots Pantry to a poster for local restaurant The Night Market featuring Progin’s illustrations. “It’s been amazing for us, meeting all these people who believe in what we do, and who can see it adds value,” says McLin. “Something like that would be very unlikely in New York, especially if you’re first starting out, and these kind of projects would never have happened so quickly there, either.”

Nevertheless, it can still be a challenge to make clients appreciate that custom-made porcelain doesn’t come cheap. “It’s not like ordering your white wares in Shanghai Street – it really is a labour of love,” says Progin. “Our hand-carved plates may look like they’ve been pressed in a mould and come out of a machine because they look so perfect, but that’s because it’s extremely skilled craftsmanship.”

There’s a world of difference between the mass-produced and the artisanal – and that’s what they’re keen to get across, she adds. “The value of the handmade spoons and forks for Grassroots Pantry, for example – that touch of the hand, the human element. You can’t buy that in IKEA. It’s important for people to see that, touch that, and that’s why we always encourage people to stop by our studio. Anyone who comes here understands what we do very quickly.”

Fragments by Latitude 22N will be on display at Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection at the M+ Pavilion in the West Kowloon Cultural District from November 30, 2016 until February 5, 2017.

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