Even if you’ve never heard of Henry Steiner, you know his work. He designed the HSBC logo, which adorns countless bank branches, airport jetways and football jerseys around the world. He created logos, brand marks and other visual identities for Unilever, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Lane Crawford, San Miguel and Vitasoy. If you’re in Hong Kong, there’s a good chance his work is in your pocket right now: Steiner designed the city’s Standard Chartered banknotes.
“Henry’s work is remarkably consistent for its point of view and visual clarity,” says Tina Pang, curator of Hong Kong visual culture for M+ museum, which has collected Steiner’s archives. “It appears simple and direct, and even effortless but the process behind it is based on accumulated experience and research.”
That’s one of the reasons why we’re embarking on a deep dive into Steiner’s portfolio over the next few months. As his design studio, Steiner & Co., prepares to mark its 60th anniversary next year — and Steiner prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday — we want to explore how his vast body of work has evolved through the years and what it says about Hong Kong’s own transformation in that time.
“I think Henry’s legacy is one that should be recognised globally rather than just in Hong Kong,” says Pang. “As an Austrian emigré to the US, then making Hong Kong his home, he has lived his entire life between cultures. His mindset of having appreciation, respect and understanding of the parity of different cultural systems is above all else what defines his works. We are fortunate that he came to Hong Kong at a time when clients were more open and receptive to new ideas and approaches.”
Steiner was born into a Jewish family in Austria in 1934. His mother was a seamstress and his father was a dentist. They lived in Baden bei Wein, an affluent spa town just outside Vienna. But their comfortable life was shattered by the Anschluss, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. Steiner’s mother had heard what the Nazis were doing to Germany’s Jews, and was terrified for her family, so she began desperately searching for someone who could sponsor them for an American visa.
They found their saviour in a Hollywood film producer named Julius Stoeger, who spent his summers in a house near the Steiners. He was reluctant at first, but when he saw a photo of four-year-old Henry — whom he mistook for an adorable adopted Chinese boy — Stoeger agreed to help the family. The family was able to escape Austria just as Europe descended into war.
When they arrived by ship in New York, an American immigration official suggested the Steiners change the name of their boy from Hans to Henry, to avoid sounding too German. Although his parents struggled to adjust to life in the United States, eventually leading to their divorce, Steiner thrived, winning a place at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School before going onto study art at Hunter College. He was more interested in illustration than in painting or any other form of visual art, so when someone suggested he continue his studies at Yale University’s new masters programme in graphic design, with modernist designer Paul Rand among his professors, he jumped at the chance. He followed that with a Fulbright Fellowship to continue his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.
When he returned home to New York, something dawned on him. “I didn’t like it anymore,” he tells us in his office. “I was a real New York chauvinist but when I’d seen a bit more of the world, I thought, it’s not that exciting anymore.” When he was offered a job as design director for The Asia Magazine, a new supplement that would be distributed inside English-language newspapers across Asia, he jumped at the chance to move to Hong Kong for nine months.
He never left. Although his initial impression of Hong Kong was that it was a kind of colonial backwater, he soon realised it was on the verge of becoming something exciting. “We didn’t know it at the time but it was just beginning to wake up,” he says. “It was just the right time to start off in Hong Kong.”
After a year and a half with The Asia Magazine, mostly working on house ads that he describes as “fairly bland,” he began working on freelance projects. One of his earliest gigs was a logo for the Hongkong Hilton, for which he doubled the letter H to create something that represented the growing hotel brand while also evoking the Chinese character for double happiness (hei2 囍). He founded his company — initially called Graphic Communications — in 1964, a year after the Hilton opened, and soon began working with some of the city’s biggest companies.
Part of what attracted them to Steiner is that he was an internationally-trained designer with a professional, globally-minded approach to his work. There were very few other people in Hong Kong doing what he did at the time; it would be another two decades before local graphic designers like Alan Chan and William Ho rose to prominence. As Steiner recounts, there was very little awareness of graphic design as a professional discipline in Hong Kong, with most people referring to designers as commercial artists, something at which Steiner still bristles.
“It was primitive. That sounds kind of strong, but it was,” says Steiner. “There was a big difference between what I did, which was graphic design, and what people thought I did, which was commercial art. It’s not quite worthwhile, it’s not as good as art. But it’s okay – it’s commercial art,” he says.
That assessment is perhaps a bit unfair, because Hong Kong did have a thriving graphic culture rooted in traditional calligraphy, as well as something more innovative. As design historian DJ Huppatz notes in a critical analysis of Steiner’s work, “Hong Kong in the 1960s already was infused with a Chinese modern design aesthetic developed in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s.” But that distinct style faded away with the rise of American corporate involvement in Asia, with its preference for US-trained designers with a more globalised style.
The situation certainly worked to Steiner’s advantage. In his 1995 book Cross-Cultural Design, Steiner describes himself as a chameleon who adapted Hong Kong and Chinese references into the design framework built through his American and European education. “Chameleons reflect local colour, but retain their form,” he writes. “Ideally, designers are representative of their own culture yet adaptive to new surroundings. The goal is to achieve a harmonious juxtaposition; more of an interaction than a synthesis.”
We’ll explore Steiner’s ideas of cross-cultural design in depth later in our series. And while it’s one of the best-known aspects of his career, focusing too much on it overlooks the professional rigour evident in so much of Steiner’s work. “Henry’s work begins with research,” says Pang. “What is remarkable about [it] is how intelligent it is. He expresses an understanding of the business, the context in which they operate and proposes a design or visual identity that manages to be simple, distinctive, direct yet able to arouse curiosity and interest.”
In our very first encounter with Steiner, in 2011, he explained how his goal is to build “a certain timelessness” into his logos. (That no doubt reflects the influence of Paul Rand, many of whose logos, such as those for IBM, ABC and UPS, are still in use today, just as so many Steiner’s have survived unaltered for decades.) “It’s important to bring out the differences, the individuality of a company,” he said. “That can take a lot of searching. I’ve always tried to avoid whatever the mob drift of design is at the given time. After all, as Steve Jobs said, it’s not the public’s job to know what they want. In the same way, very often it’s not the client’s job to understand what they want. They know what they need in terms of recognition but how to go about it is my job. It’s like going to a brain surgeon and telling him what to do. You don’t. You tell him where it hurts and where to fix you.”
Steiner points to one of his earliest projects as an example of his approach. “The first freelance job I had was for Taikoo Sugar,” he says in his office. It’s the branding that is still found on every supermarket sugar box and cha chaan teng sugar packet today. “I wasn’t trying to do something different, I was trying to figure out what the client was really doing and how to communicate that,” he says. “I did research, talked to the staff, just got to them and then brought what was happening in Europe and North America to Hong Kong. Just common sense, rather than throwing a lot of stuff on the packaging.”
Six decades later, he is still proud of that early work and what it represents. “I think now graphic design is understood,” he says. “It’s the difference between decoration and function. Commercial art became graphic design. That was a hell of a shift. It’s so simple and yet such a big subject. I was lucky to be part of this.”
Copyrights of all artworks and works shown in the photos are owned by Steiner & Co.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Tina Pang. She is the curator of Hong Kong visual culture at M+, not the design curator.