Basic Instincts

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, March 27, 2009

Keeping it simple is the order of the day as people seek comfort in uncertain times

The opening of high-end serviced apartments in Sheung Wan last month saw a rare aesthetic for Hong Kong: the Yin’s 42 studios offer glimpses of brickwork, flashes of exposed piping, and baths carved out of stone blocks. This kind of warehouse-hip has been run-of-the-mill in other cities for years, yet in Hong Kong it has always struggled, and usually drowned, under heaps of suede, crystal and polished wood. Still, Philip Liao of design firm Liao and Partners thought that now might be the time to give it a go – albeit with a sanitized and slightly Zen-like twist. “I just read in a fashion magazine that power pin stripes and opulence are a little out,” he laughs. “This raw, more honest kind of living is not timed for this ‘tsunami’ but tastes are changing. Even very well paid young execs don’t necessarily want to live in a palace any more”.

Could the economic crisis have Hong Kong design paring down, aesthetically? The past fifteen years here have been a parade of unrestrained decadence: in the textures and the technology we’ve been choosing for our homes, and in the restaurants and bars we hang out in. But it appears that for some people these choices are either no longer sustainable or are being seen as less tasteful, and designers have started to respond to a different mindset. If you’ve got it, flaunt it? Not so much anymore.
“If you have it right now, probably you don’t want to show it – and if you had it, you don’t want to be reminded that you had it,” wryly observes Hernan Zanghellini, of the Hong Kong-based Zanghellini Holt Architects. “It’ll be about the simple pleasures for the next few years.”

But think modest, not minimalist. It is actually more expensive to do a flat ceiling, a high-gloss surface or a seamless piece of furniture than it is to produce something ornate. “Clients say it’s harder to make simple designs industrially because it’s harder to get the details right,” concurs Hong Kong-based product designer Danny Fang. “Flaws show up more clearly.” So although people may feel that simpler surroundings have more virtue, trends are unlikely to go too bare. What the crunch might do, says Fang, is make people more picky about quality, and less fond of disposable products; design buffs will be looking for longevity.

“When you have troubles it’s the old friend you turn to, not the trendy person you met two days ago,” opines Zanghellini, who sees us heading towards old, familiar comforts. This means more natural wood and more burnished metals – highly polished chrome and steel will be out, bronze and copper will be in – but still all in the spirit of temperance. The new collection from Hong Kong design brand Ovo reflects the move towards a simpler life: OVO Eszentials: eminent sensation will combine warm, cheering colour with smooth, sculptural forms. “When the economy is good, when people have a lot of spare money to spent, they may look for something a bit showier,” says directo Ed Ng “however [now], they may relax a bit on some of the fine details and materials.”

This paring down is already a common thread for cosmopolitan hubs, at home and at play. As one London design writer put it in a recent barometer-style table: while restaurants, pre-crunch, meant “angry telly (TV) chefs, faux-French food, rising cloches, Michelin stars, great expense”, post-crunch will bring “wood burning ovens, refectory tables and no reservations”.

In Hong Kong this has already happened, as character-heavy cubbies are replacing illusions of grandeur. English pub-style venues have mushroomed, with their polished woods and comforting leather. The Press Room restaurant won designer and artist Stanley Wong a Design for Asia Silver award last year for its classic combination of warm brick, vintage tile and wood, and restaurants like Zanghelini & Holt’s new BLT in Ocean Terminal are walking a line between distinguished and homey. The hodgepodge of used and ‘faux-used’ furniture, retro light fittings and aged wood at The Pawn in Wanchai, also by Stanley Wong, has given it a fashionable, popular old club vibe.

Materials salvaged from old buildings are now more commonly used by designers (though they do not come cheaply), as is reconditioned furniture. The tolerance for eclecticism, or as one friend put it, ‘beachcomber chic’, is rising as Hong Kong homeowners are showing a new willingness to trawl sites like AsiaXpat for secondhand pieces. All the mixing and matching has people embracing their creative streaks. The last big depression saw new technology and cold, sleek industry celebrated; this one looks set to be warmer.

At the London Design Festival last September all eyes were on craft, particularly at the mydeco design boutique, which showcased unique home-made products. Here Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek presented his handcrafted furniture out of scrap wood, and Lisa Whatmough showed her brand, Squint (pictured), which grew up around antique textiles she had collected. Similar gems were to be seen at the Milan Furniture Fair, such as the embroidered upholstered furniture line My Beautiful Backside by Ango-Indian designer team Doshi Levien for Moroso. Reports from the Maison and Objet fair in Paris last month were of soft, vintage colours in nostalgic prints and dusky faded hues: delicate pinks, pale yellows and duck egg blues, and of furniture that’s heavy and reassuring; the kind that looks as if it will last through this crunch and the next.

As that comfort factor starts to take hold (the sale of cookies have reportedly soared over the last year), designers like Whatmough are choosing to give consumers emotional engagement with products, and a feeling of sanctuary rather than new technology. Even at the high end, craft is coming back. “When we look for exclusive product, it is hard for us to go into big, mass produced collections which require huge design resource and tooling costs,” creative director of London’s the Conran Shop, Polly Dickens has explained. “So we turn to craft and produce things hand-made in small qualities with a unique signature.”

This may be disconcerting for Asian consumers, who have often associated old products and materials with poverty, but a recent change in sensibility has seen businesses and home owners more ready to accept earthier textures in among the gloss. “Compared to five years ago people’s tastes have become more cultivated,” says Federico Masin, a Venetian architect and designer based in Hong Kong. “They realise comfort or luxury has more than one face; textures and rough materials are more accepted.”
But then others aren’t so sure. “We are all figuring out the new order,” joked Jane Chang, whose Wanchai store, Flea + Cents stocks retro design goods. “Right now lifestyle gurus are taking about calm and basic styles, but I don’t think it will stay like that for long. Hong Kong people like whatever’s new.”