Suddenly craft seems to be everywhere. The design industry is experiencing a revival of interest in traditional making techniques, but it’s nothing new for Chi Wing Lo. Craft and tradition have always been at the heart of this award-winning architect, designer and artist’s creative approach.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lo says he did not follow the usual path to becoming an architect. After leaving school, he worked in construction, where he became fascinated by the ingenuity and patience of local craftspeople and their understanding of materials. “I practically grew up on a construction site, so I was always in the workshop, making things with the craftsmen,” he says. “That not only showed me the practicality of making, but was also a source of design inspiration.”
By his mid-20s, his growing interest in design and sculpture led him to study architecture at Harvard, where he graduated with a master’s degree and the best thesis prize in 1988. Thereafter, Lo moved to Europe, and he now lives in Athens and has a showroom and workshop in Milan. The decision to have his designs made in Italy was reached in large part due to the culture of craftsmanship there, and the expert artisans with whom he could work on his designs. “In Italy, there is great pride in making the best out of an idea – from the city and architecture, food and fashion to cars and furniture,” he says. “Generation after generation, this passion in craft inspires everyone serious about design.”
A hands-on approach
Lo worked for Italian design brand Giorgetti for two decades, including a stint as art director from 2004 to 2006 before creating his own furniture brand, Dimensione Chi Wing Lo, and home accessories range, 1ness. In all of his work, design and creation are inextricably linked, and the understanding of how something is made is vital. “It is a holistic process and there is a lot of going back and forth. It takes time to develop something so you have to cultivate a team that shares your passion,” he says.
The iterative making process, which builds in a degree of experimentation, inevitably takes longer and is more difficult, but Lo says the practical knowledge, especially an understanding of materials, gained through seeing the real thing is essential for good design. “We all feel frustrated to begin with, but we still go through the process because they understand that when someone like me thinks the joint on a piece of furniture has to be a particular way, they should persist, and so the joint becomes a feature,” he says.
A good example is Lo’s geometric [银装素裹] tea set (pronounced ngan4 zong1 sou3 gwo2 in Cantonese, meaning “silver wrap”) made from silver with ebony accents, which was shown at London Craft Week in 2017. Traditional casting would show imperfections in the silver, so Lo worked with his craftsmen to build individual components using milling machines, and then weld them together. The intricate process, which also included hand-polishing the surfaces, allowed for higher precision and clarity of form.
Lo believes that being part of the making process is key to design innovation. “You could design something from a distance, and just send it to the workshop to be made, but the interaction between the designer and maker is critical,” he says. “That is why I believe that it is important to be on the ground. I never give in, but I never insist. This is the way to develop objects that bring out the potential of craft, and moves craft forward closer to the spirit of our times.”
Aric Chen, former architecture and design curator at M+ and now the general and artistic director of the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, notes that Lo’s seamless integration of design innovation and craftsmanship is what makes his work so intriguing. “What has always struck me about Chi Wing’s work is its profound connection between concept and craftsmanship – in fact, with him, the two are really the same,” he says. “It’s not that he has a concept that is then executed through amazing craftsmanship, but rather the craftsmanship is very much intrinsic to the concept, and in this way you get a kind of object-poetry.”
One of the ways Lo achieves this is by recontextualising traditional crafts, such as the double-sided embroidery of artisans in Suzhou. Lo had seen a young embroiderer work on a 1.5-square metre piece of silk, and calculated it would take her almost ten years to finish as the embroidery involves a painstakingly slow technique in which the stitching is on both sides of transparent silk fabric.
Wanting to keep this traditional craft alive, but concerned about the time it would take to embroider a large double-sided pattern, Lo developed a design that would allow her to focus her skills on a small, but important element—two crabs playing with a large stone—leaving the rest of the area on the screen without any embroidery as an “an imaginary playing field for the crabs.” This compositional technique of leaving an area within a scene untouched is highly valued and often employed in Chinese painting and calligraphy.
“It took her two months to complete, and retains the essence of the Suzhou double-sided embroidery, which is juxtaposed with a contemporary technology of expressing the large stone by silk-screen printing,” says Lo of the screen, which is a work of art as well as an item of furniture used to define interior spaces. “It has more meaning because it is a design that replaces tedious labour with the joy of craftsmanship.”
Although he recognises that the link between craft and culture is a complex one, Lo believes that contemporary designers can play an important role in preserving traditional crafts. “For me, it is about moving between tradition and the contemporary, and reinterpreting craft with new technological know-how and modern sensibilities.”
Working between cultures
But Lo prefers not to be limited by a single cultural craft context. Lo recalls his surprise when, 30 years ago, he was one of the first Chinese to work as a designer in Milan, and his designs were seen as Oriental. “I’ve never designed with what could be seen to be Eastern elements – there are no dragons, or red or gold in my work, but they looked at it, thought it was calm and modest, and immediately connected it to their understanding of the East.”
His cultural ambition has always been to find a common design language that is understood by all. “I don’t make a conscious effort to design with or without an Asian look or feel,” he explains. “Of course, some of my work, like the ink stones and tea sets, reflects those qualities, but I don’t start a design thinking that it must relate to a culture. When you design a chair you don’t know who will use it, and I like the idea of an international design language that addresses different cultures.”
Lo’s transformation of the InterContinental Hong Kong shines a light on how this works in practice. The hotel, which will reopen as The Regent Hong Kong at the end of 2022, stands on the Kowloon waterfront, and has sweeping views across the Victoria Harbour from North Point to Central. The view could not be more representative of Hong Kong. “I wanted to accentuate that particularity of the harbour view, and make the experience more special than a postcard of Hong Kong, which meant that I had to reframe that view to bring out the genius loci of the hotel,” he says.
Standardised luxury hotels abound in Hong Kong, and Lo’s first hotel project (he is responsible for both architecture and interiors) is designed with the intention of offering a different perspective in redefining an urban retreat. He believes that living away from Hong Kong has transformed his vision on how to express its culture in a deeper, more nuanced way that goes beyond the obvious, although he accepts the inevitable influence of his childhood on his work. A recent exhibition of his sculptures, Angels From Infinity, held during the Kwai Fung Salone at Tai Kwun, showed a collection of eleven evocative sculptural works in bronze and Canadian maple wood. He called them angels because they remind him of the models he used to make while growing up. “They were the ones that came to my rescue and set me free in the mundanity of time and space,” he says.
Advice for the next generation
At the same time, Lo was invited to participate in a project designed to bridge heritage and innovation curated by Marisa Yiu, lead curator of the Hong Kong Design Trust Futures Studio programme, at the newly opened Hong Kong Palace Museum. Lo was invited to be a mentor to a group of young Hong Kong designers reimagining Chinese zodiac animals. The project was inspired by Project Twelve, a creative exercise produced by the Culture Laboratory Limited and sponsored by the M.K. Lau Collection Limited in 2008, in which one Asian artist or designer was invited to create a sculpture based on the Zodiac animal of that year.
Yiu says Lo’s contribution to the flagship programme was invaluable from both a practical and philosophical perspective. “Chi Wing is so inspiring on many different philosophical levels, so it was invaluable to have him participate in our flagship programme,” she says. “His persistent questioning about the absence and presence of materials in the designs was inspirational for young designers.”
Lo, who designed a strikingly contemporary goat zodiac sculpture in oxidised bronze that expressed the geometric outline of a goat’s features in 2015, says his advice to the young designers was to stay close to their heart, and not to limit themselves by following what he and other designers had done before. He encouraged them to develop and work with new, unusual materials, and drew attention to the importance of considering the meaning of forms and avoiding “tired clichés.”
Heeding his advice, designers Florian Wegenast and Christine Lew produced “Auspicious Cheese,” a bowl engraved with the Chinese character for goat (joeng4 羊) that reflects the influence of goats on food culture, and takes inspiration from a traditional Chinese cheesemaking process. To create the bowl, Wegenast and Lew—whose work often combines sustainability, craft processes and social innovation—created a recipe that extracts casein, a clay-like milk protein mixture, from goat’s milk to form a moldable material similar to clay.
“One of the most important lessons Chi Wing shared was that, as a designer, he always strives to inject the qualities of modesty and tranquillity into what he designs,” Yiu says. “He called it a kind of indulgence or preoccupation, but stressed that together they create the essence of what ties all of his work together like a family of modest and quiet people.”
Looking to the future, Lo believes it is important to nurture and educate young designers, and to ensure they can develop their talents and retain skills for a new generation. “Design is an expression of a personal dream, so I don’t like the idea of being a master telling them what to do,” he says. “I believe that everyone has their own path, and that is why they need to look deep inside themselves. It is not just about learning a craft. Self-discovery is crucial, so my involvement is to help them to explore and understand themselves better.”
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