What do a rice cooker, a plastic lamp and an emoji have in common? They’re all design objects – and they’re all featured in Shifting Objectives, a showcase of M+ Museum’s growing design collection, which finds itself in the middle of a globe-spanning web of people and ideas.
“It’s a fairly new thing, having a design collection of this scope, not only in Hong Kong but in all of Asia,” says Aric Chen, the museum’s design and architecture curator. The exhibition is a chance to revel in the beauty of furniture like Miss Blanche, by Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata, a clear plastic chair in which roses are trapped like insects in amber. It’s also an opportunity to see the design process behind seemingly mundane objects like household appliances and plastic toys.
But for Chen, the show is a window into something even more ambitious: an attempt to position design as a central part of life – and Asia as a central part of design. That mission hasn’t been easy to accomplish. When he first came to Hong Kong four years ago, Chen kept meeting ordinary people who seemed confused by his job. “Their reaction was, ‘Oh, so you’re designing the building,’” he says. People were intrigued by design, but they hadn’t been given a chance to contemplate it.
Chen has been thinking about it for a long time. He grew up in Chicago, just three blocks away from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, which is considered one of the finest examples of the Prairie School, the first uniquely American style of architecture. “Chicago is a city that just justifiably proud of its architecture,” he says. “So [my interest] has always been there.”
When he was a teenager, Chen left Chicago to study architecture and anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, before moving to New York for a graduate degree in design history at Parsons. Afterwards, he interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I decided I didn’t want to work in a museum,” he says. He did a stint in design PR, which convinced him he wanted to be a journalist, not a publicist. He began writing for the New York Times and other publications while working as a freelance curator.
Then, in 2008, he moved to Beijing. “It was a mid-life crisis,” he says. That might be overstating things a little – Chen was only 34 at the time. But it was a buoyant time for China and Chen wanted a change of pace. “It was a moment that design was becoming a real buzzword in China,” he says. He worked as a creative director for 100% Design Shanghai and Beijing Design Week, which is what brought him to the attention of Lars Nittve, the Swedish curator who had taken the reins at M+. Nittve offered him the chance to build a design collection from scratch – something most curators can only dream of doing. It was enough to convince him to set aside his reservations about working for a museum. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he says.
Chen had always worried that museums worked at a glacial pace, but it turns out his fears were unfounded, at least as far as M+ is concerned. With a huge collection to build before the museum opens its doors in 2019, things are moving quickly. Everything outside of the museum is another story. Before he moved to Hong Kong, Chen had heard of the city’s reputation as an hyper-efficient place with a laissez-faire approach to governance, so he was shocked to find the reality was just the opposite. “Hong Kong has an astonishing amount of bureaucracy,” he says.
It was bad enough for Nittve to quit his job last year, blaming construction delays, administrative hassles and hyper-critical politicians. According to several M+ employees, Nittve’s departure left the museum in a state of disarray, but Chen says the recent arrival of Suhanya Raffel as Nittve’s replacement has infused the institution with fresh energy. He is even optimistic that he can do battle against the government’s red tape. “Highly bureaucratic organisations and dynamic cultural institutions are fundamentally incompatible, so we have to make sure we don’t lose sight of what we’re here for,” he says. “It’s about maintaining a certain level of endurance, because you don’t want to adjust too much to this bureaucratic system.”
Chen is able to soldier on because he has a collection to build – and an audience to engage. He describes the collection as a mix of canonical objects by major designers and the vernacular design that underpins our daily lives. When people look at the Toshiba rice cooker on display in Shifting Objectives, they might be tempted to ask why it is special. Chen’s response: “Imagine life before or without it.” The rice cooker is a particularly pertinent example, since it was the first step many Hong Kong families took towards middle-class prosperity, something Yoshiko Nakano outlines in her book, Where There Are Asians, There Are Rice Cookers. “If it looks normal now, it’s because it was so influential,” says Chen.
Some of the other everyday examples design are a set of neon sign sketches from the Nam Wah neon light factory, iconic 1960s-era Red A plastic toys and decorations, and even the Watermelon beach ball, which was made with a locally pioneered two-colour blow-moulding process that gave the ball its distinctive lollipop appearance.
“They’re familiar to a lot of people, but we’re trying to go beyond nostalgia and look at it through a more design frame,” says Chen. That can be more challenging than would expect. Few of Hong Kong’s industrial companies kept archives of their designs, and even objects like rice cookers can be hard to track down. “Everyone had one but it’s really hard to find one in good condition.” It’s unlikely than any family in 1960s Hong Kong thought their kitchen appliances would be worth preserving. “It requires a lot more legwork and research,” says Chen. “We have to write the stories ourselves because they’ve never been told before.”
That’s equally true for some of the other areas covered by the collection, including Mao-era design from mainland China – not just propaganda posters, but household objects manufactured with revolutionary ideals in mind. China’s shanzhai culture of copied objects is another area that fascinates Chen.
All of this might seem like a broad scope, but part of Chen’s goal is to highlight the connections between disparate objects, designers and places. One of his favourite pieces in Shifting Objectives is a vine-like light stand by Charlotte Perriand, which is displayed next to objects designed by her frequent collaborator, Le Corbusier, who designed the utopian Indian city of Chandigarh. Born in France, Perriand had a longstanding relationship with Japan, and she eventually settled in Brazil. The light on display was inspired by a trip to the Amazon and it incorporates shades designed by a Japanese-American artist.
For Chen, it’s an example of how design is a process rooted in both the local and the global. “Good things happen when borders are open and not closed,” says Chen. The same can probably be said for a design collection.
Shifting Objectives: Design from the M+ Collection runs until February 5, 2017 at the M+ Pavilion in the West Kowloon Cultural District. Click here for more information.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the connection between Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Chandigarh. We apologise for the error.