As part of our Milan review we asked Mark Simpson, Design Director at BDP, and emerging designer Lucy Kurrein (Mixology Newcomer of the Year 2014) to meet with leading designer Michael Young to discuss his work and the new <5_MY chair he has designed for Coalesse, a division of Steelcase.
Mark Simpson: Michael Young is a UK designer who, for the last 20 years or so, has been operating out of Hong Kong, working for an impressive and diverse array of international clients. We are also joined by Tim Elms, Global Product Marketing Director for Coalasse.
The discussion begins with us explaining that, unlike the rest of the people he would be repeating himself to all day, we are not design journalists. Mix HQ had rather relished the prospect of a young and emerging designer, in the form of Lucy, tagged with a grizzly old Geordie bloke, interviewing a superstar designer from Sunderland.
And indeed that’s where the discussion initially goes. Michael, spotting the northern twang, asks ‘Where are you from?’
‘South Shields,’ I answer. ‘I’m from Whitburn,’ he replies. For those who don’t know, South Shields is a town of around 150k people at the mouth of the River Tyne. Locals are generally referred to as ‘Sandancers’ due to the close location of a rather fine beach where the Great North Run ends up.
Whitburn, around four miles or so from South Shields, is a small village – near Sunderland but officially within the Borough of South Tyneside – does that make us both Sandancers? ‘I’m a Mackem!’ is Michael’s firm response.
So now we have the awkward situation of two people from ‘South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough’ – one of whom supports Newcastle United, the other a supporter of Sunderland AFC. That in itself is not uncommon in South
Shields, families there are very often divided by which team they support, a bit like Milan…but smaller. And colder.
‘I don’t understand how anyone from South Shields can support Newcastle,’ Michael says. Well, I thought probably because it’s on the River Tyne and not the River Wear, but I decline to get drawn on local semantics.
Instead I offer an olive branch in saying that my father’s butcher shop, the snappily titled ‘Fulwell Pork Stores’, was on Sea Road in Sunderland, close to the old Roker Park ground and sold the finest Saveloy Dips in the town. Indeed my grandmother worked at Whitburn Golf Club, where she served none other than football legend Bob Stokoe – the manager of the 1973 FA cup winning Sunderland side. We wonder whether our fathers may have both used the Jolly Sailor pub in Whitburn. My dad drank in most of the areas pubs, so it’s highly likely.
Saveloy Dips, incidentally, are a local delicacy of the North East, a soggy mess of bread bun, unfeasibly pink sausage, pease pudding and stuffing, all dunked in meat juice. Absolutely delicious. We both agree that we could murder a Saveloy Dip. So that’s alright then.
At this point I felt sorry for Lucy and Tim listening to this banter and thought we’d better talk about the chair.
It has to be said it is a beautiful piece of furniture and, apart from its elegant lines, we are immediately struck by its weight – or lack of. It weighs only 2.3kg or 5lb of sausage in meat money. It is also incredibly strong, able to support 136kg – or two large pigs.
‘The chair’s structure and form was developed as a result of working with a factory that is known for exceptional high performance bicycles,’ Michael explains. ‘This technology is ideal for the development of an exceedingly lightweight stacking chair. We wanted to design a carbon fibre chair that is truly functional and ergonomic.’
Tim explains that, because of the unique manufacturing process, Coalesse were also able to offer the chair in customised finishes – in small batch numbers using an online tool. This in itself is quite unique and offers the buyer or specifier an amazing range and the ability to produce one off, collector’s pieces.
So what does it cost? What is its market?
Tim explains that the retail list price is 1,200 Euro’s – currently around £850, so it’s not cheap. It’s not seen as a mass market, specifier product – it’s unlikely, for instance, that it would be used for a 300-seat staff restaurant; the price would be too prohibitive. It is however likely to be used in high-end environments by clients interested in its uniqueness, its technological advancement and of course its beauty and incredible lightness.
Michael, incidentally, was born in 1966, two years after me and graduated from Kingston University in 1992. He founded Michael Young Design following a stint working with Tom Dixon. He was among the crop of young designers following in the wake of Dixon, Hilton and Morrison. The likes of Michael Sodeau, Pearson Lloyd, Barber Osgerby and the Azumis becoming known around the same time. His career took him across the globe, working in Iceland and Taiwan before settling in Hong Kong, where he now has a studio of six designers.
Clients have included Hacker, Established and Sons, Lasvit, Swedese, Extremis and Magis and he has designed everything from furniture, lighting, through to products such as headphones and watches, luggage and bicycles – and even a sex toy for Sabar.
For each he looks to stretch the possibilities of technology, embracing new materials, techniques and harnessing ingenuity. It is this fascination with technology that took him to Hong Kong to work with advanced manufacturing facilities in Asia, where he regularly collaborates with cutting edge industrialists.
Lucy Kurrein: As a designer only at the very beginning of my career, how valuable it was to be interviewing a designer 20 years in and at the top of the game.
Michael arrives at 10.15am on the dot (no mean feat in an overcrowded transport route to the outskirts of Milan, assumedly after a late night, but we didn’t go into that) and launches into full flow. Charming, composed, and oozing enthusiasm, he has his story straight and was not at all thrown by Mark’s off-piste musings on the homeland – the work of a pro (Michael, not Mark).
First and foremost I want to know how carbon fibre is processed. Emerging designers don’t often get the chance to work with this material because of its implied investment costs, so how the hell is this chair actually made? ‘Strips of carbon fibre are laid into a mould; the mould is filled with a balloon which is inflated, forcing the carbon fibre into shape,’ Michael explains.
Not too much detail offered up, but it’s enough to keep me from prying further. Michael goes on to explain the level of hand sanding that is required to achieve the smooth surface finish, likening carbon fibre products to handcrafted products. ‘Handcrafting of the future,’ interjects Tim.
Mark and I like this notion, but these chairs are sumptuously immaculate, with no suggestion of a handcrafted irregularity or blemish. Is the handcrafted quality lost on the finished product? I wonder if there is an opportunity here – if the chair came off the tool with the desired surface finish, the retail price of the chair could be slashed and we could all enjoy owning one.
This line of thinking seems to be aligned with John Hamilton, Director of Global Design at Coalesse. ‘When we started the process we decided that we didn’t just want to make a carbon fibre chair and we didn’t want to make a gallery piece – we wanted to make a real, industrialised solution.’ Coalesse are definitely making steps towards industrialising carbon fibre.
How many chairs can be stacked together, I enquire – having myself spent many gruelling hours optimising stacking chairs. ‘It stacks four. Coalesse asked for a six stack, but we couldn’t make it stack six. We were happy with four.’
Michael gives us an enchanting account of his ‘poverty stricken’ student days. He modestly notes that timing has been his guardian angel as he describes the series of opened corridors firstly in Japan, through Taiwan and to Hong Kong, where he is currently based.
‘I’ve never had a strategy, it just happened.’ He admits it was easier back then. ‘I left Kingston University completely skint; I sold my portfolio for a pint, and had to walk home all the way to Shoreditch because I had no money for the bus.’ That’s a 15-mile walk! It’s hard to believe now, but remember that back then Shoreditch was a dive. ‘I started making things for Tom Dixon, I wasn’t really employable, so after that I started making and selling things myself.’
Are you choosy about who you work for? ‘I turn down about four or five projects a week.’ That’s a lot of work! He adds: ‘I don’t do interiors projects anymore, they always go wrong.’
I love his honesty.
Michael also acts as a creative director to many manufacturing companies in China, taking charge of their branding and art direction, leading them from the unknown and onto world distribution. ‘I get three months to turn a company around.’ Behind this modest and fun loving character, there’s clearly someone with a strong work ethic and business savvy.
Finally, I want to know what his advice would be to a young designer at the very beginning of their career – to which he answers beautifully.
‘Just keep your head down, and do really good design.’
What a brilliant answer, especially during Milan’s furniture fair, where showmanship is epidemic and all too often overshadows the design we’re there to admire