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06 Aug 2015

Michael Young: the Hans Wegner of carbon fibre

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After Reykjavik, Brussels and Taipei, Michael Young now runs his studio from Hong Kong. Passing through London, he talks about global inspirations, how to collaborate across continents – and whether he’d ever come home

Category: People

EOQ 4a chair group shot

“i’ve always had it in me to be nomadic,” says Michael Young as he excuses his jet lag, after arriving in London via New York and Paris. The Sunderland-born, Hong Kong-based industrial designer describes how he left college before finishing his exams to go to the Stonehenge Free Festival in 1984.

“I don’t think I ever went home. Maybe I’m scared of permanency. Permanency is responsibility,” he laughs.

Yet it’s this roaming spirit and curiosity for the new that has turned out to be Young’s greatest asset as a designer. After graduating from Kingston University in 1992, he briefly worked for Tom Dixon’s studio Space before setting up his own practice, supported by a Crafts Council grant.

“I knew I was unemployable from birth,” he jokes, “because I have the attention span of a peanut. I realised I had to start making things myself and selling them.”

What he made was a departure from the anarchic design scene that dominated the 1980s, which Young remembers as “a bit post-apocalyptic”, characterised by creatively repurposed salvage such as Ron Arad’s concrete wares, Danny Lane’s sculptural glass furniture, Jasper Morrison’s Flower-pot table made from a stack of terracotta pots, and Tom Dixon, who stole marble from banks to make into chairs.

In contrast, Young’s work was more pop and plastic with soft forms, a break from the edginess of Arad’s work and the restrained minimalism elsewhere on the market. Hence he found himself at the crest of a wave that now typifies 1990s British design history.

14.03 The Floor Seat for Cappellini (1996)

The perfectly ovoid Smartie-like polyurethane Floor Seat (Cappellini, 1996) was cute, surreal and came in a rainbow of colours. The Magazine sofa (E&Y, 1994) comprised smoothly sculpted plastic sections attached with tubular steel. When the latter came out, Young says you couldn’t move around Notting Hill or Tokyo without seeing one.

2 5 1The Magazine sofa (1994)

In the V&A’s exhibition British Design 1948-2012, it sat next to Tom Dixon’s Jack light (1996), one of Dixon’s best-known products. “I read a review when [Magazine] went into the V&A, saying it looked like something from a 1970s trash club. To a level it does, but it was a revolution at the time; someone was doing something new.”

Young was suddenly on the global stage, touted as the next big design star. His work was exhibited in galleries worldwide – starting with his earliest piece, the Woven Steel light, which was taken up by Centre Pompidou. Japanese company Sawaya & Moroni got in touch, leading to pieces such as the softly curvy Wood chair and bench, and he started collaborating with Italian brand Magis, designing fun, vibrant pieces like the MY082 Trestle (2000), Yogi range (2002) and Magis Dog House (2001).

Yogi 3Yogi Family seats and tables (2002)
Magis Magis Dog House black CMYKMagis Dog House (2001)
ds24fWriting Desk for Established & Sons (2005)

“I was very fond of that project because it was so ridiculous.” He later worked with the likes of Established & Sons, Swedese and Poltrona Frau; meanwhile Young’s itchy feet took his studio to Reykjavik, Brussels and Taipei in the space of a few years, finally settling in Hong Kong in 2004.
With hindsight, he says he felt simultaneously limited by European manufacturing, and excited by the possibilities of new technology further east.

“I felt like I’d taken it as far as I could here,” he says. “It’s pretty tough making stuff in the UK. Everyone was always on a tea break when I was trying to make things. There didn’t seem to be enthusiasm to push boundaries, whereas in Asia the thirst to build business and try new things was omnipresent.”

The move triggered a new stage of Young’s portfolio that quickly branched in a dozen different directions, from MP3 players, speakers, headphones and watches, to clothing, sex toys, cars and bicycles. Having Chinese factories on his doorstep, he became a bridge between European design and Asian manufacture, with an insight and access to technology that was out of reach for most of his contemporaries.

ODM 2011 black fullMY03 Hacker watch
EOps O 01Noisezero O+ Eco headphones
EOps i 2011 plug 03Noisezero O+ Eco headphones
091102 portable 03i24R3 portable wireless speakers (2009)

“I don’t want to work on projects that anyone can do,” he explains, hinting at that aforementioned short attention span and constant craving for newness. He prefers to explore the capabilities of materials and processes and apply them in new ways. For that he thanks his homeland for instilling inventiveness. “I think it’s the way I developed in an ad hoc way in London, trying to make castles out of sand. You had to be resourceful to survive.”

What China doesn’t have is the subcultures of New York, London and Paris, he says, where broke and struggling designers learn creativity and innovation out of desperation, like the design equivalent of how punk rock started.

“I’ve always had a keen eye for bringing different processes together, which grew out of that experience,” he says. “I think it’s inherent in a lot of older-generation designers, like Jasper Morrison, he can always surprise you, and Tom [Dixon], he’s an eagle eye.”

Giant citystorm 00City Storm bicycle (2007)

So these factories became his playground. In 2007 he worked with Taiwanese bicycle company Giant to develop the City Storm, an award-winning bike built from a lightweight aluminium frame. During the early design stages, Young called in a few favours, and his friends in a carbon fibre factory let him experiment. This stuck with him, so when Michigan-based office furniture behemoth Steelcase approached him to work on a new materials-driven product, he had just the thing.

lessthan5 w05 hi 2400 1792 90<5_MY stacking chair

A year and a half later and the collaboration with Steelcase’s Coalesse brand came to fruition at Salone del Mobile 2014, where the <5_MY chair was launched. Entirely made from carbon fibre, the stacking chair weighs (as the name suggests) less than 5lb (2.2kg) but supports up to 300lb (135kg). It arrives on the market this summer, therefore is in abundance at the company’s Clerkenwell showroom during onoffice’s interview with Young, and prompts the same reaction of impressed surprise in everyone that picks it up due to its uncanny lightness. Beyond that, it’s also a beautifully pared-back and classic shape, and comfortable.

“You couldn’t make this in plastic,” urges Young. “This is hand made and there’s a lot of craftsmanship. It’s more akin to how Hans Wegner worked in wood.”

Young’s grasp of carbon fibre and its production techniques are no doubt what pushed this project forward, and the story comes neatly full circle in that it’s made in a factory that manufactures bicycles. Yet he is enduringly modest about his involvement, saying it needed the power and force of an enterprise like Steelcase, and the extensive knowledge of the bicycle producers, to become a commercially viable, mass-produced product, as opposed to the few unaffordable alternatives made by aeronautical and Formula One manufacturers.

Still, despite Young’s reverence for the object, his playful, mischievous demeanour shines through in the photo shoot, when he holds it aloft with casual abandon, gripping it by the leg like a hammer, or attempting to balance it on his finger like a basketball.

EOQ 4a chair group shotChair 4a for EOQ (2012)

Meanwhile, other recent work has included an extruded and stamped recycled aluminium chair named Chair 4a for EOQ (2012), a project that in fact led Steelcase to Young’s studio in the first place, and is now specified in IBM’s offices across the US. There’s also the Bramah pendant (2012), a lampshade with over 100 extruded fins, inspired by mechanisms for distributing heat on car parts, which has been specified in all Barclays’ banks.

Bramah Cream 2012Bramah pendant (2012)

This year he launched a water purification system for Diamond Water – in response to “questionable” water-refining processes in many Asian cities –which is not only technologically advanced but also designed with the typically pleasing contours of a Michael Young product. Currently he’s working on a new faucet brand, developing everything from the name, logo, packaging and brochures to the taps themselves.

Coral top3
Diamond Coral Purification system for Diamond Wate (2015)

In the same organic way his work has evolved as a by-product of his global exploration, so has his studio. His seven staff – a comparatively small number considering the studio’s output and renown – have been picked up along the way.

“I’ve never looked for an employee, we’ve just grown organically by accident.” They are by no means left behind while Young traverses continents, either. During the interview he checks his phone to keep up with the studio’s instant message conversation; one colleague is in Paris, one in Sydney, another back in Hong Kong, yet they are in the midst of developing a new project.

“It just works because we’re glued and we’ve got a system, so we can manage to be viral,” he says. “I use my staff as my pencil, but in a nice way,” he smiles, meaning that they are an extension of his mindset.

When asked if he’ll ever return to the UK, Young speculates for a moment about a country cottage with a fireplace, but within moments his thoughts flit to San Francisco and New York.

“The US design scene is really starting to flourish. Not in a modern way – it looks like they started where Raymond Loewy left off,” he jokes. “There’s this cool energy, it’s historical and it’s got wheels on it. It’s going to boom over there, you can see.”

So perhaps that’s where Young’s travel bug will land him next. After the interview, he’s heading back to his hotel room at the Dixon-designed Shoreditch House, on the street where he once lived in a squat years ago, bumping into old friends still on the UK design scene, “just looking a little greyer and older,” he laughs. “I love the culture here. It always feels like I’ve come home.”

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