William To’s favourite locally conceived piece is an elegantly simple aluminium dining chair with slender bent legs designed by Hong Kong-based British product designer Michael Young. “I fell in love with the chair but also the story behind its design and making,” he says.
To is the Executive Director of the former Police Married Quarters (PMQ). He began his career in advertising and brand development, which led him to the Hong Kong Design Centre, where he is the head of Business of Design Week (BODW), Knowledge of Design Week (KODW) and the Design for Asia Awards. Since joining the PMQ in 2014, To has played a pivotal role in introducing a new generation of young designers and creatives to each other and the public in its cultural hub of design studios, shops and restaurants, exhibition space and library.
Over the years, many Hong Kong creatives have benefitted from To’s passion for putting together users, designers and makers, so it seems natural that this is how he found his favourite piece. Eight years ago, To invited Michael Young to present his approach to design to a group of local industrialists and manufacturers at a BODW event showing the power of contemporary design. Straight after the talk, a young man approached Young, explained that his family business manufactured aluminium and invited him to work with them. The serendipitous result was Chair 4A, which now has pride of place in To’s Tai Hang Road apartment.
“It was the first article that this family manufacturing business had produced that included a design element,” he recalls. “Michael was able to help them produce something so beautiful that it was sold at Lane Crawford.”
To says he was especially keen to demonstrate how design can transform a business, and to see the manufacturers realise the power of working with a designer like Young. “Michael sees things in a fresh way and understands how to maximise the mastery of these makers who are experts at working with aluminium,” he says.
Indeed, it was this expertise that initially persuaded the designer to leave London in 2006 and set up a studio in Hong Kong, close to the factories of the Pearl River Delta. His portfolio reflects an inventive approach to design, ranging from an award-winning watch for Oregon Scientific, a 3D-printed shoe, and a hand-blown dining table leg created for the crystal glass house Lasvit. In his most recent design, Woven Image, acoustic wall panels are manufactured from PET and come in two-dimensional patterns that the designer describes as “wonderfully mathematical.”
To was intrigued that Chair 4A’s simple classic form could be reimagined as sleek and contemporary by using extruded and stamped recycled aluminium, belying the expertise in its design and making. The chair is hand finished before applying one of a variety of treatments such as anodised or powder coating.
Young says that he realised that depth of knowledge and engineering skills of the local manufacturer would help him to design “a state-of-the-art and relevant chair. The tooling is complex, but we created a chair that lasts a lifetime,” he explains.
That is just as well, because To eschews interior trends, especially when it comes to his own home with its panoramic views over Happy Valley. When he first saw the chairs, he noticed that they were extremely well made. “It is a very simple form, but there is a little twist on the legs which is very functional yet also makes the legs look light,” he says. “It takes someone with serious knowledge of machine work and aluminium to know how to make this.”
“We are swamped with images of beautiful things,” adds To. “But I am beginning to learn to identify what is decorative beauty and what is actually real – something more than skin deep. It is important to remember that design is not just about aesthetics.”
At home, he has six chairs – two with tan leather upholstery on the seat. “The seat has a lovely line that starts quite thin and then becomes thicker,” he says. “The leather and contrast with the aluminium is just so beautiful. They are very light too so a very practical addition in a home.”
Although he admits to finding the beautifully designed objects he sees at work and on his travels tempting, To usually relies on instinct when purchasing. Ensuring new designs fit harmoniously with the look and feel of his home, an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary with curvaceous and geometric, simple and ornate sitting side by side is more important. “The dining chairs for example are a very simple form and in brushed aluminium so although the lines are very contemporary, they are also timeless. I never get tired of looking at them,” he says.
To’s decorating strategy is based on the belief we need to have things that reflect our lifestyle – and he loves to entertain. The chairs’ neutral tone and simple shape fit perfectly with the minimalist Piero Lissoni glass dining table that To purchased from the Italian designer. He recalls how at the time he had plenty of options for dining chairs but was entranced by how Chair 4A went beyond good design to showcase the strength of Hong Kong and what happens when we employ design in the right way.
“These are the things that we can design that are good enough to present to the international market,” he says. “We can be loud and proud with something that represents Hong Kong.” But to be successful it means continuing to invest in design thinking at home, especially with younger generations. “We are not necessarily training young people to be designers per se but to have an open and creative mind.”
Still, To says there is reason to be hopeful, pointing to the recently opened Centre for Heritage, Art and Textile (CHAT) in The Mills, which offers numerous workshops that have proven popular with young creatives, from embroidery, patchwork and weaving to mending fabrics.
“It is nice to see the old Hong Kong, where we were making things for everyone in the world, to remind us of what we were,” says To. “We can’t afford not to understand our own roots and where we come from and how the city evolved. As a designer, it is particularly important to bring a sense of belonging and a sense of grounding.”