Holding up a printed piece of pink card, Henry Steiner furrows his brow and evaluates his early work. “If I were doing this today, I would have the logo in black and these decorative motifs in white,” he says.
59 years after the fact, Steiner does not spare himself the critical eye that he casts over all graphic work. Putting the card aside, he inspects a plastic shopping bag. “This looks nice,” he says. “Better than the paper one over here. There’s more contrast.”
Shifting from thick to thin, the logo in question curves and tapers before terminating in sharp serifs – a spindly, almost calligraphic wordmark, familiar to all as the logo of the department store Lane Crawford. “They were British, as you can tell by the name. And they wanted to look like a fashionable department store,” says Steiner. “I just wanted to have something simple and elegant. I suppose a bit British.”
Founded on Des Voeux Road in 1850 by two Scotsmen, Thomas Ash Lane and Ninian Crawford, Lane Crawford stood for staid British luxury. It was and still is a cornerstone of Hong Kong’s retail landscape. In contrast to local competitors like Wing On and Dahua Domestic Products, Lane Crawford offered aspirational foreignness. As a draper, wine and spirits merchant, outfitter, tailoring service and auctioneer of antiques, Lane Crawford was the height of opulence. But by 1964 its owners felt the store needed a change of image. “It was so… crude. So clunky, you know?” says Steiner, pulling a chair over and inviting us to sit.
Steiner’s office brims with the eclectic esoterica of a collector with a predilection for symbols and type. A vintage Shanghainese poster hangs by his desk, while a mechanical calendar displaying blackletter numerals occupies a shelf behind it. A stone artefact covered in hieroglyphs takes pride of place. “As you can see, I’m big on type and alphabets,” he says with a casual wave of the hand. “Everything I do is visual and involves writing. Images. Symbols.” In spite of this, it is not any underlying meaning or rich symbolism that the designer seems to relish in his distinctive Lane Crawford wordmark, even if he does concede that its form is very fine.
“It’s Caslon and Baskerville Italic – very popular at the time,” says Steiner. Designed in the 1700s in London and Birmingham respectively, the two fonts underpinned Lane Crawford’s image of Anglo prestige. Coiling tendrils of decorative floral motifs complement the overall visual identity, mirroring the wordmark’s spindly form and evoking the Arts and Crafts stylings of the English textile designer William Morris. “I forget where I picked them up from,” says Steiner. “I just wanted to have something that was vaguely decorative and that’s it.”
He is reluctant to contrive meaning for the sake of it: “I’m kind of cynical about this, I suppose, or ready for comments. It’s a game we play.” For Steiner, there is always substance behind the work but it isn’t always easy to explain. “It’s not just ‘I had a feeling.’ There’s thinking behind everything here. Sometimes business people have no visual aesthetics and so you give them something that they can explain. ‘Oh well you see, this represents the beads on an abacus’ or something like that.” But Steiner is not in the business of cute backstories. His interest, as far as Lane Crawford is concerned, lies elsewhere: “Sometimes it means something and sometimes it doesn’t. I do what I think is appropriate for the client. Not making it look like something else. I just try to bring out the [client’s] personality. I try to articulate exactly who they are.”
Moving away from talk of fonts, forms and quaint underlying meanings, Steiner leans forward in his seat, becoming interested as he reveals what makes him tick – understanding the personalities behind brands and divining exactly how to articulate them graphically. “It absorbs me. I think about it on the weekends. I need to know the client. I’m not just going to give them a rubber stamp [and tell them to] go ahead and go away. I do what I think is right.”
The Lane Crawford brief came in 1964, just a few years after he had arrived in Hong Kong from New York in 1961. Even at this early stage, the designer’s skill and professionalism commanded unquestioning respect from most of his clients: the Lane Crawford logo that we know today was his first and only iteration. No revisions were required. “I told them that’s the way to do it and they trusted me,” he says.
It was at Yale that Steiner came under the tutelage of the renowned graphic designer, Paul Rand. Responsible for such iconic brand identities as IBM, UPS, Westinghouse and ABC, Rand instilled in Steiner a concept that the younger designer would build on and take with him to Asia. “He was big on contrast,” says Steiner. “It’s something that is automatic for me and I think for him.”
The visual culture of Asia and Hong Kong in particular would feed Steiner’s sensibilities as he honed what he calls his “cross-cultural design style.” By comparing aspects of East and West, Steiner plays on contrasting differences while emphasising underlying similarities between cultures. The result is a cosmopolitan visual language that reflects the international nature of Hong Kong, a visual language that Steiner would pioneer in shaping the city’s visual aesthetic as it entered the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s.
Lane Crawford’s quintessential Britishness falls on one end of Hong Kong’s multicultural spectrum. But it led directly to another brief that epitomises the other extreme: a logomark for Chinese-owned department store Shui Hing. In 1965, Shui Hing had no branding to speak of, and on seeing Steiner’s work for Lane Crawford, they approached him. He recalls the project with enthusiasm. “That was a good one!” he exclaims.
Shui Hing was Lane Crawford’s equally sophisticated Chinese counterpart in every way. Whereas Lane Crawford was situated on the island, Shui Hing was based in Tsim Sha Tsui, a stone’s throw from the Peninsula Hotel. While Lane Crawford used British imagery in selling European wares, Shui Hing drew on Chinese symbolism and imported high-end American goods. “[The logo] is a plum rose,” says Steiner, “which represents China.”
Roughly contemporaneous, these two departments store briefs were polar opposites on the spectrum of Hong Kong’s identity. Over the course of his career, Henry Steiner the Austro-American-Jewish graphic designer, would synthesise these disparate influences into one visual culture to represent his adopted city of Hong Kong. “Cross cultural design,” he reflects, “it’s me.”
Copyrights of all artworks and works shown in the photos are owned by Steiner&Co.