Maybe it’s the name that subconsciously creates an expectation of juvenility, but when Michael Young jumps out of his car he transmits a youthful energy uncommon in a design veteran of his calibre. And what a car he jumps out of. The 1965 E-Type Jaguar has all the eyes in Stoke Newington popping out of their sockets.
With his cool charm, Young tries to overplay the look of utter horror in his eyes when he sees the parking in the studio’s backyard. The uneven gravel will clearly scratch the car’s exhaust when passing, but leaving it on the open road looks even less appealing. With a quick fix of yanking roadwork covers across the high point, the beautiful and immaculately restored Jag roars over into the courtyard, barely scratching its undercarriage (we hope!).
Four years ago Young moved to Asia to “get away from design”. Since then he has set up studio in Hong Kong, spent three years working in the bicycle industry and designed some sleek products and stunning interiors. His recent interior project, Skin – a clinic in Florence – was a collaboration with his then wife Katrin Olina, an Icelandic graphic artist, but, though they are still working on a joint project in Hong Kong, he says, “I have my own direction now. Working on projects with my ex-wife, such as Skin, meant she did graphics, I did materials. My current interior fit out is a whole new thing – a handmade interior.”
The fit out Young refers to is a restaurant in Hong Kong – a French couture venue that he is designing for a private client, an old Chinese family that wanted a “boutique” eatery. Everything is handmade, from the glass-blown lamps to the chairs made in Jakarta. “This project is like nothing I’ve ever done before. My own direction now is working on projects that are more material-based.” Young’s material experiments are deeply rooted in his experience working in the Chinese bicycle industry, “an experience you’re not going to get in Shoreditch,” he adds as a dig to London’s new wave of designers hunting down fame. By the end of this year, Michael will be presenting a project back in Europe that is still too confidential to talk about, but, he says, “It will set things straight, at least in my world.” What exactly he means is still a mystery, but his approach will inevitably be out of the ordinary.
Young expresses “disgust” and “embarrassment” with the UK’s current design scene: “It’s not even design anymore, it just obsession with wanting to be famous,” he exclaims. “When I started there was only Ron [Arad] running round putting stereos in concrete, Tom [Dixon] stealing marble off the steps of banks to make chairs and Jasper [Morrison] was putting plant pots on top of each other. Of course you had Seymour Powell doing their thing, but that was something very distant to our world.”
Young became famous for designing products that “put a smile on your face”; indeed he received this exact phrase as a brief from Magis, which resulted in his Yogi sofa (2002), which resembled a piece of children’s furniture. His designs, including projects for Cappellini, Magis and Rosenthal, were curvy and brightly coloured, often described as having a comic-book humour. Today, Young feels irritated by this obsolete description. “When I was younger I was just pissing around, I was just out of uni,” he exclaims. “Now I’m serious, I’m interested in production – that’s why I moved to Hong Kong.”
And indeed Young seems pretty serious about things, particularly about China versus Europe. “When I lived in London my work was more about style because I was surrounded by cocktail parties and that stuff, but detaching yourself from that, putting yourself in a raw environment, absorbing it, slowly being industrialised, that’s something else. There’s no romance about working in Asia.”
According to Young, China has received a warped reputation through biased media coverage. “People talk about the Chinese copying designs,” he states. “Yes, there is copying in China, but I have been copied more often by European designers, that’s for sure!” The problem is that there is no tradition of copyright in China. And because copies have often included famous designs that are instantly recognisable the press has highlighted the phenomenon disproportionately. “When I hear people criticise China I think: just go and live there,” says Young. “Smell it, instead of reading articles about it. There is a hell of a lot of research going on in China and if there is no culture of design, how do you know copying is wrong?”
Young insists there are as many crooks in Europe as in China. “I’ve been paid better, on time and honoured more by Chinese clients,” he claims. “I can’t remember the last time I got a royalty cheque on time in Europe.” However, despite his evident antipathy towards the European design scene, Young keeps a strong presence in Europe: at Milan this year, he launched the new Accupunto range. “I must say I worked one and a half years on this chair and I’m really happy with it, especially because the company involved is from Indonesia,” he enthuses. “I have noticed it’s best to work on your doorstep.”
In a time when the furniture industry in the UK is expressing fear of recession and scared of China, Young can’t help but reveal a touch of schadenfreude: “Europe and America have fucked themselves,” he declares. “Sorry, but their greed demanded ever-cheaper manufacturing in China, which pushed prices down to zero and consequently resulted in low quality. Then they blame the Chinese for low quality exports, while putting their own industry out of business back home – and now they’re complaining?”
Sure, that’s nothing new, but is it really all good in China? What about the cultural differences? What about freedom of speech? How does the communication work, considering Young doesn’t speak any Mandarin? “Luckily,” Young admits, “I went to Taiwan first and learnt the hard way.” He means by making a lot of mistakes, such as understanding that a contract is just the beginning of a negotiation. “I’m not saying a Chinese contract is worse than a European one, but it’s about understanding their mentality. In China it’s a lot more about good faith and keeping face. I know exactly how to humiliate a Chinese person so they wouldn’t speak to me again,” he jokes. But the biggest challenge seems to be the unfamiliarity with the culture of design. “I still get clients saying: ‘We want you to do this just like Philippe Starck’s restaurant’,” he groans, “and I’d say: ‘Why don’t you get Philippe Starck to do it then?’”
It’s hard to know how much of Young’s philosophising is in earnest and how much is about him enjoying playing the enfant terrible. From his funny designs like the Dog House for Magis or the Sabar sex toy to his new bike-inspired coffee tables, Young presents himself as the antichrist of British design. In reality he is still closely linked to Britain (after all, his E-Type lives here) and especially to British designers. Only last weekend he attended Marc Newson’s wedding, hanging out with Jasper Morrison, Tom Dixon and the like. And he has plenty of good words to say about Sam Hecht, (see onoffice cover story, issue 20): “I admire Sam Hecht, his exhibition at the Design Museum was so methodical,” he exudes. “I wish I could focus like him. Hecht has always stuck to his thing and now the world has come his way. He never bent towards it, it makes me happy to see that.” Nonetheless, it’s clear that Michael Young will be staying in Asia for the foreseeable future. “I have a dog in Hong Kong,” he smiles, “so I’m pretty committed.”