Minding their Business

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, December 5, 2008
Asia’s designers find a silver lining in the credit crunch

Speakers at Hong Kong’s Business of Design Week have long pushed design as a money-making tool, but this year audiences will probably be listening to the advice more closely than usual. With big business in trouble, the question on everyone’s lips at the event, December 8 to 13, will likely be, how are we going to weather the storm?

Developer Morgan Parker thinks designers are in for a leaner time. Having spent more than 13 years in Asia developing luxury real estate, he is now the president of Taubman Asia, which is behind Macao Studio City and Seoul’s flashy Songdo IBD Shopping Center, both still underway. “Business is the origin, the genesis of design. We use design to improve the world around us but it really starts with the consumer,” says Parker, who will be showing the firm’s retail projects at the event. “It’s a mistake to think otherwise. Iconic buildings around the world come from a social need, and the architects are influenced by society around them.”

A look at any city’s landscape can give a hint of the design to come. Find a building from the 1950s or 60s and you’ll notice a kind of austerity: simple, efficient shapes and durable materials. Modernist, Brutalist and Bauhaus schools of architecture were partly the design world’s response to a time of tight budgets, and the buildings stand in contrast to the grandiose skyscrapers that have been erupting in Dubai or Shanghai in the last decade and a half. Architecture may be able to revitalise a city, but only if the city can afford it. “We’ll see materials change; architects who specify expensive kinds will see the [materials] value engineered out of the process,” says Parker. “Designs that are structurally complicated will be simplified.”

The developer’s greatest concern is that projects are not rushed. In the construction industry time may be money, but careless mistakes can be lethal.

For Asian designers, who have started to turn heads with daring, complex work, this aesthetic cool-down could be a blow. Until recently Hong Kong architects had been flocking to the mainland for briefs that demand bigger, bolder buildings. An exploding luxury market has had interior and industrial designers creating just as hard. But though work may be starting to slow, industry insiders are sounding convincingly optimistic.

“I’m actually looking forward to it,” says Wong Mun-sum, whose firm WoHa designs buildings and interiors from Singapore. “I think in the boom architects and designers have been spread quite thinly, and they’ve been trying to do too much. This kind of adjustment will go back to the pace that we should be moving at.”  The architect, whose studio was born out Asia’s economic recession in the mid-nineties, fondly remembers a period in which projects could be lingered over.

Also, if adversity is, as they say, the mother of invention, there could actually be more innovation on the way than ever before.  “I think designers will have to think twice about how they can make their ideas stick out better,” says the director.  At the speakers’ forum he will be showing how WoHa has done just that.  Last year the firm won numerous awards for No. 1 Moulmein Rise, Singapore, a high-rise complex with “monsoon windows”, horizontal sliding windows that can stay open without letting rain in. This year its Newton Suites project [pictured], Singapore, won another slew of awards, and was chosen as one of the world’s top five high rises by the city of Frankfurt, for its use of community gardens in an apartment complex; there’s a garden on each of the 36 floors and a 100m high vegetation wall. Both, Wong says, came from the idea that western high-rise formulas need to be reworked for the Asian lifestyle and climate. “In a boom period there’s a lot of repetition and pushing projects out too quickly, meaning that a lot of ideas are not developed,” he says. “Now, hopefully, there will be more discourse.”

Other designers agree, from Hong Kong interior designer Kenneth Ko to homegrown graphic whiz Raman Hui, who is based in Hollywood. “Now is a great time for restructuring and rethinking the basic fundamentals of different businesses” says Hui, who worked on Disney’s Shrek movies. “Even though the economic environment might be very challenging … that makes everyone more critical and serious about the creative business they’re doing. I hope this period will stimulate creativity.”

Ko, meanwhile, thinks that the period could be useful for the mainland by forcing a much needed “time out” for its generation of breakneck designers, who can now stop, take stock and reassess their priorities. Many people on the mainland, opines Ko, haven’t yet gained a deep enough understanding of the quality of life.  Without this, he believes there cannot be good design. “The problem is the blind leading the blind,” says Ko, who has an office in Shenzhen. “China is developing too quickly and its people are not going through an educational period. In Europe people may be introduced to culture as teenagers, or even younger, but here in China they come from the countryside, go to university and expect to bring out good design.” Ko hopes that the mainland’s young designers will start to travel and gather life experience before returning to the drawing board; his talk at BODW, he says, will be on how to enjoy life; a brave message for a time of tightening belts.

Michael Young, a British Hong Kong-based industrial designer and a speaker at the event, believes that a change of tack will be necessary for design businesses that aim to stay ahead. He advises them to choose their sector carefully and make the most of emerging technology.  “I have watched design become a tool for communication over the years and this is how companies must see their products, to stay ahead of the game,” he observes. “They can choose to enter the higher end and offer good ideas, or compete at the lower end by price competition.”

“Here in Hong Kong we can integrate with advanced technology; partnership is more important than ever. Designers have much more to offer, we must assist in marketing and sales as well.”

Because just as design studios will be struggling to stay ahead, so will every kind of business, which may be the industry’s saving grace. Among the many changes in our world since the last major recession is the utter reliance of business on branding; design has become the ultimate marketing tool. As long as this doesn’t change, the status of the world’s creative minds should be secure; they will simply have more time to enjoy it.