Throwing Shade, Casting Light: Stephanie To and Lo Yat-ming’s Hong Kong-Inspired Lighting Design

William FurnissWilliam Furniss

We’re standing in the PMQ, across from Kapok, in a room softly illuminated by the work of local design brand Light with Shade. The company’s Hong Kong nostalgia lamps pay tribute to icons of yesteryear, like Shanghainese barber shops and metal letterboxes. These retro creations sit on a table ahead of us, bathing it in a warm glow. Next to them is an altogether more contemporary collection of desk lamps fitted with URI, a series of LED light bulbs. Crafted from acrylic glass to make them appear shinier and more reflective, the bulbs are as futuristic as the nostalgia lamps are retro.

dsc05813-copyThe PMQ space is Light with Shade’s first pop-up shop, which is organised in collaboration with Kapok until 13 October – though the collection will be available later in Kapok’s outlets around the city. Light with Shade was founded by designer Lo Yat-ming and account manager Stephanie To in 2013. The pair met as colleagues in a store in Mongkok’s Sneaker Street, where Lo worked as a graphic designer and To in marketing and administration. They were initially going to open an online shop selling handmade furniture, but they were put off by the amount of space they would need to house their creations. “Renting a warehouse was so expensive,” says To.

Looking for inspiration, they headed to the trade fairs at the convention centre in Wan Chai. That’s where they discovered there was a huge international demand for vintage-style lighting. “At first, we asked the factories and suppliers to give us some samples and mainly did retailing,” says To. “Then in the second year we started to hand make the lighting ourselves.”

uri2-09-copyThat turned out to be a wise move. They realise now that their success only came about when they focused on creating their own designs. “We’ve had a rough time in the last two years,” admits To. “We started off working with companies who would have large orders — for example, 100 pieces of lighting for a new restaurant — but the orders were getting smaller and smaller because of the economic downturn.” She says they weathered the storm by extending their product range. The two are now firmly committed to focusing on new designs and targeting the local market.

To fund their venture, To and Lo two launched a Kickstarter campaign for their URI bulbs. They initially had a goal of HK$70,000 for the project, but after the first week of the campaign, the light bulbs, which feature strands of acrylic glass woven into intricate patterns to represent the different planets of the solar system, attracted much more interest than they anticipated. “We were just going to sell the light bulb at first, but so many of our supporters requested desk lamps that we developed them,” says To. “They also asked that the lamps be operated by touch motion so we did that, too. The pair ended up raising nearly HK$380,000 from more than 300 backers.

The Kickstarter campaign is just the latest development in a fortunate year. In February, Light with Shade won a Lane Crawford competition aimed at local talent and the department store will stock an exclusive collection of URI light bulbs starting in October. To and Lo are visibly excited about what the future holds for their fledgling brand – they are musing about hiring more staff and developing an app so their lamps can be controlled via smartphone.

While Lo seems worried about handling the production and packaging of the Kickstarter orders, will ship later this year, To appears unruffled by the prospect. Her level-headed approach to business is underpinned by an obvious passion for their products – although when asked what motivates her and why she gets up in the morning, she smiles and says it’s about making money. Lo, on the other hand, appreciates that he’s able to do what he wants and enjoys the process of improving his designs – perhaps a little too much for To’s liking. “I’m always pushing the deadline to make sure things go smoothly, but he never thinks that the schedule is important,” she laughs.

While To keeps an eye on timings, Lo is dreaming up different designs. He is keen to make lamps crafted from plastic or paper in the future, or do a Christmas version of the nostalgia lamps in collaboration with an independent retailer like Kapok. He pulls out his phone and swipes to a picture of a personal project he’s been working on that features dried flowers inside a light bulb. “I don’t want to sell it,” he says. “It’s just for friends and it would be difficult for something like this to go into mass production anyway.”

The reception to vintage style is much more muted in Hong Kong than it is overseas, save for a handful of hipster types and design-savvy consumers. “Locals tend to prefer something more convenient for the home than our nostalgia lamps, and something more modern too,” says To. “Foreigners are more open to vintage lighting, but we hope this will change.” There are also practical obstacles to hanging the nostalgia lamps in a typical Hong Kong flat. “Many Hong Kong people don’t know how to hang lighting, and they may rent an apartment, which means they can’t do construction, so the desk lamp would probably be a more better option for them,” she says.

uri2-02-1-copyLight with Shade already has clients in the United States and Netherlands, where its lamps add drama to restaurants and bars. But To is keen that they expand as much as possible. “I love [British homeware store] Habitat and really want to work with them,” she says. She has already been in touch with Habitat about stocking their products, and the ambitious entrepreneur plans to target bigger shopping malls and brands overseas in the coming months. As for Lo, he just enjoys doing what he loves – not that it’s ever art for art’s sake. “I always want to design something that will improve our daily life.”

Is Hong Kong a good place to be a designer? Lo pauses for a moment. “Yes, because there are so many talented designers in Hong Kong,” he says. “But due to many factors, such as expensive [rents], they don’t get the recognition they deserve because they don’t have many channels to make and show their work.”

Once the dust has had time to settle on their nostalgia lamps and URI bulbs, Lo and To hope to collaborate with other like-minded design outfits such as Start from Zero, which makes furniture with recycled wood. As only seems fitting for a brand that is so proud of its heritage, they says they are keen to work with other local creatives to promote Hong Kong design.

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