Asking a designer to reveal their favourite object is almost akin to enquiring if a parent has a favourite child. But it is a question worth pursuing because the choice reflects a great deal about the person, their values and aesthetic. And when it comes to something that hails from Hong Kong, it also reveals their personal relationship with the city.
In the first of a series on great Hong Kong design, we turned to tastemaker Ross Urwin, co-founder of Infrastructure creative agency, to share something close to his heart. Urwin is exposed to the very best of design in his work and is renowned for supporting emerging creatives in Hong Kong and China, so a treasured custom-made neon light installation that he commissioned as a gift for his work and life partner Darrel Best is an intriguing choice.
The idea came about in 2014, when Urwin had just left Lane Crawford, where he had been creative director from 2007. One of the last projects he had led there featured several enormous custom design neon signs that were handmade by an old master in a tiny workshop in Sheung Wan.
“I am quite impulsive, but over the years I have learned not to buy things just because they are beautiful,” he says when asked if it was difficult to decide on a favourite piece. “We come across good designs every day in our business advising artists and designers how to build and present their brand, so a piece has to be very special and meaningful before we want to live with it in our own home.”
The piece reads “Snook,” a nickname that Urwin uses for his partner. He says he knew the personal message would be an unusual gift, but he didn’t want anything too showy, so he mounted the neon sign on a 50cm by 40cm Perspex panel which can either hung on a wall or propped up on top of a table. It took about ten days to make.
“Darrel has impeccable taste,” he says. “Before we started Infrastructure he worked for Kelly Hoppen Interiors and Timothy Oulton as brand director. And I knew he would love the fluid, simple lines and the way the design is actually a written message.”
Urwin says that just like the neon still found all over Hong Kong, his piece is not just an artwork but actually a light too. Many traditional neon signs across the city have already been replaced with cheaper LED and new regulations on sizes and installation have meant that the number of neon light masters is dwindling. Their significance has been recognised by M+, the city’s museum for visual culture in the West Kowloon Cultural District, which has a collection of Hong Kong neon signs including Sammy’s Kitchen’s iconic neon cow and a Kai Mee Mahjong School neon rooster. In 2014, it held an online exhibition, NEONSIGNS.HK, and invited the public to submit photographs.
The painstaking process of making a sign involves twisting turning a glass tube at very high temperatures. The maker then attaches a rubber tube to the glass tubing and blows into it to create a curved shape. Then electrodes are added at each end and the air is extracted from the glass tube before either neon or argon gas is pumped in to create a red or blue colour. Different coloured glass tubes and powder can be added to create a wider range of colours. What makes this all especially tricky is that neon is very fragile.
Urwin and Best say that they have never decorated their homes with an obvious theme or style in mind; instead, comfort is always top of their list. They have advised a number of hospitality, lifestyle and fashion labels such as Atelier Swarovski, Tai Ping, Design Shanghai, The Beast and Kelly Hoppen, on how to develop their own brands and projects, so authenticity is at the core of their lives, both professionally and on a personal level. Their Hong Kong home, for instance, has an eclectic collection of 20th century and contemporary furniture and art – a mix of inherited pieces, vintage finds on their travels and investments such as Peter Beard photography.
“The neon sign is one of those things that we would keep wherever we live and I think it will always look right at home with our other belongings,” says Urwin. “Funnily enough we don’t own a lot of local Hong Kong objects even though we represent a lot of young Chinese designers and are the creative designers of Design Shanghai. We could pack up our home and move anywhere in the world and the mix of things would reflect our lives and interests. I think that is how it should be.”
Urwin has always collected classic designs and they have a collection of mid-century modern furniture and objets. “Craftsmanship is also very important to us, and the neon sign is almost like architecture,” he says. “Mid-century pieces often took time to design and make — sometimes years — and that is how we work. We want everything to be perfect.”
This doesn’t mean that well-considered contemporary pieces do not have a place in their home. The couple recently bought a late-Federation home in the Byron Shire in New South Wales, and says that integrity is the most important element irrespective of when something was made.
Urwin also enjoys collaborating with creatives and in the case of the neon artwork, he especially appreciated the handmade feel of the piece. “We appreciate a handmade aesthetic,” he says. “We’re currently working with an incredibly creative carpet designer called Omar Khan, whose work contains all the elements that are important to us. I have to believe in the person, the design ethos and the potential behind their product – it is not just about beautiful things.”
At Infrastructure, Urwin says they both work across multiple sectors, taking a holistic approach to design outcomes from branding and strategy and product development, to the creation of events, interior design, styling, and curatorial projects.
Lighting is often an important part of their projects, whether it is staging large-scale events such as Design Shanghai or creating retail environments and interiors or installations such as the Zaha Hadid exhibit Urwin curated last year at the HOW Art Museum Shanghai.
“It helps that our work is a lot about placement and imagining a piece within a store or space, making sure that it fits with everything else,” Urwin says, adding that this applies especially when renting their home as many people do in Hong Kong. “You have to make the rental space your own but also need to think about flexibility when you next move.”
Urwin believes that the neon sign would work almost anywhere in the world. Two years after he gave Best his gift, he commissioned one for a friend in Scotland. “He always says ‘Hiya’ so I had a neon sign made saying that and he loved it! He put it up right next to his Tracey Emin collection.” Urwin laughs.
At a time when we are all becoming much more aware of the merits of buying less and investing in good designs that will last for a long time, Urwin says he takes particular pleasure that after many years of giving gifts to his partner, Best says the neon sign is his favourite. “I hope we’ll still have it when we are in our 90s,” he says. “It will be the perfect memento of our time in Hong Kong.”