M+ has collected thousands of objects from the archives of Henry Steiner, Hong Kong’s pioneering graphic designer. And if you visit the museum’s archives — an airy, serene space with a view over Victoria Harbour — you may come across some blank sheets of paper filled with doodles.
One of them contains two line drawings of a Chinese dragon chasing a pearl, which seems to be an early sketch of the creature that ended up on the HK$50 note that Steiner designed for Standard Chartered Bank. And on the reverse side, more sketches, this time of an evolving logo for the Far Eastern Economic Review.
“That’s how I work,” says Steiner, sitting in his office on Conduit Road, examining a photo of the doodles. He tweaks and refines until something just seems to click. In the case of the Review logo, it was the contrast between a slender serif font and a chunky sans-serif one. But that would change as Steiner kept tweaking the logo over the years. “They let me do that,” he says.
Over his long career, Steiner has worked for banks and property developers, hotels and private clubs. But some of his most underrated work was done for magazines that were part of a thriving media ecosystem that emerged after World War II. As nearly every other part of Asia laboured under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, Hong Kong was the region’s freest and most lively place for journalism. Steiner wasn’t heavily involved – but his work is nonetheless a glimpse at a media landscape that was a central part of Hong Kong life for many years.
It’s the reason Henry Steiner ended up in Hong Kong in the first place. He was living in New York when he was offered the opportunity to work as design director for The Asia Magazine, which was distributed as a weekly supplement in English-language newspapers across Asia, including The Bangkok Post, The China Post in Taiwan and the Weekly Okinawa Times. He arrived in 1961 on a nine-month contract that was later extended to two years.
Instead of the magazine itself, he mostly worked on the things that helped sustain it: media kits and house ads that were meant to attract advertisers. He describes this work as “fairly bland,” but even a cursory look at his output from these early years shows how Steiner was laying the groundwork for his future practice. There was amusing ephemera, like an ad sheet for a special issue on aviation that was arranged to look like an airline meal tray, or a magazine-branded calendar featuring a different pretty Asian woman for every month of the year (it was the 1960s, after all). But there were also house ads that revealed Steiner’s fascination with juxtaposition and contrast.
“We were playing with East meets West,” he says. In one advertisement, leather loafers are paired with geta, or Japanese wooden sandals. Another pairs a white coffee mug with a porcelain teacup with a floral pattern. It’s an early take on what Steiner would later articulate as “cross-cultural design,” something that came to define his particular sensibility as a designer.
This early work also offers a glimpse into some of Steiner’s creative influences and obsessions. One Asia Magazine house ad, with the tagline “There is a new Asia and a new Asian,” pairs a woodblock print by 19th century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro with a photo of flight attendants. It was around this time that Steiner visited Kyoto and came across Japanese prints for the first time. “I was astounded,” he recalls. “I said, ‘You can buy these things?’” And buy them he did: over the years, Steiner amassed a considerable collection of woodblock prints.
Steiner says he had a “soft spot” for printmaking that went back to his days as an art student at Hunter College in New York. But he was particularly taken by the Japanese prints because, despite their venerability — “I thought these things only existed in museums” — they had an appealing irreverence and cheek. “They have a charm to them you don’t see in Western art,” says Steiner. “They make fun of themselves. It’s charming. It’s playful.”
That echoed what Steiner was trying to achieve through his work. Although his logos and graphic identities are known for being rather sober, much of Steiner’s other works — particularly advertisements and magazine covers — are clever if not outright funny. Working on magazines allowed Steiner to return to his art school roots, but with a sense of purpose he never had at Hunter College. “I enjoyed it but got very frustrated because I had no message to give,” he says. “No emotional message. It was easier for me to solve a communication problem.” Whether it be an ad or a cover, the goal was the same: “The instancy of communication. Just having a glance at something and getting a message.”
And it allowed him to flex his creative muscle, as with a painted Asiaweek cover that depicted the Pope perched atop a colourful tapestry. “I painted in university but I sucked,” says Steiner, chuckling. Working on a weekly deadline gave him the motivation to incorporate painting, illustration and other artistic mediums into his work.
Whereas Steiner’s involvement with the Far Eastern Economic Review was limited to the logo, some advertising and a handful of covers, he designed the cover of Asiaweek every week in 1981 and 1982. The magazine had been founded in 1975 by New Zealand journalist Michael O’Neill and Indian journalist Thayil Jacob Sony George, who banded together “to give Asia a voice it has lacked too long,” as O’Neill once said. The pair were convinced that the growing — and English-literate — middle class in Southeast Asia was hungry for critical stories about their countries. And British-controlled Hong Kong, with its high level of press freedom that contrasted with the strict controls imposed by countries like Singapore or Malaysia, was the best place for the magazine to be headquartered.
George and O’Neill had met while working at the Review, which was launched in 1946 by Eric Halpern, a Jewish refugee who had fled from Vienna to Shanghai before the war. (Despite their shared origins, Steiner and Halpern don’t seem to have crossed paths, as Halpern retired in 1958, three years before Steiner’s arrival in Hong Kong.) The Review’s “honesty and independence were established through its coverage of the Vietnam war, the Malaysian race riots in 1969, and the disturbances in Hong Kong both in 1966 the Star Ferry riots and during the Cultural Revolution,” wrote Philip Bowring, who edited the Review from 1989 to 1992, in a column for the South China Morning Post.
“It quickly became viewed with hostility by governments around the region, not least in Hong Kong [where] the press remained relatively free while the situation elsewhere in the region was dire; Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia all in the grip of authoritarian regimes, the media being gradually squeezed to death in Singapore, and muzzled in Malaysia and the Philippines.”
The Review served as the inspiration for a host of other publications, including The Asia Magazine and Asiaweek. “They brought improved standards of journalism, provided independent media in countries where the local ones were controlled, and encouraged the development of a cadre of Asian journalists who would flourish in their own countries,” wrote Bowring.
Those publications laid the groundwork for Hong Kong’s role as the capital for English-language media in Asia. Along with homegrown publications like the Review, the city hosted bureaus for just about every major Western news outlet. By the early 2000s, that vibrant scene had already begun to dim as declining ad revenue and a poor global economy led to consolidations and cutbacks. Asiaweek, which had been purchased by Time Inc. in 1985, was shuttered in 2001; the Review ceased being a newsweekly soon after, although it survived in one form or another until it was finally killed by owner Dow Jones in 2009.
Hong Kong’s recent political crackdown has done away with much of what was left. In 2002, the inaugural World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong 18 in the world. By 2023, it had plummeted to 140. News organisations such as Time and The New York Times have shuttered their once-robust local offices.
It’s undeniable that Hong Kong’s days as a hub for international media are over. But there are reminders of that history everywhere — and especially in the Steiner archives.