x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Unyieldingly modest

Chi Wing Lo’s designs reach beyond clichés. The so-called ‘Chinese designer’ has made his mark with distinctive yet humble pieces, writes Selina Denman.

The Fota lighting series will be presented in Dubai for the first time at Downtown Design at the end of the month. Courtesy of Chi Wing Lo
The Fota lighting series will be presented in Dubai for the first time at Downtown Design at the end of the month. Courtesy of Chi Wing Lo

When Chi Wing Lo first presented his work in Italy in 1995, much was made of him being “the Chinese architect and designer”. This referred more to his nationality than the nature of his work, he says, but there were still those that were happy to overstate the Chinese influence in his creations.

“There was nothing Chinese about [my work], but it got accepted globally, including in the Far East. In retrospect, I suppose they also saw the soothing composition, calm lines, subtle details, hidden ingenuity and the way wood was worked and jointed, and could not categorise it except by attributing it to my Chinese origins.” In this way, his work was, and remains, fresh in the context of Italian design.

In fact, Lo is a decidedly international designer. Born in Hong Kong, he obtained a master’s degree from Harvard, has taught at the Syracuse University in New York, and has spent the last 20 years designing and creating in Italy, although he is quick to point out that he has not exactly “settled” there.

“I have not really settled in Italy, although I live and work in Europe while travelling extensively to the rest of the world. A little distance is rather important to allow one to think away from a too-defined circle surrounding design. I left Hong Kong in 1981 [but have] often returned in recent years, always as an outsider, knowing that whatever Hong Kong could give me it had already given me a long time ago.”

Lo’s projects include homes in Beirut, Dubai, Istanbul and Beijing; he was nominated for the Mies van der Rohe Prize in Architecture in 2009, has exhibited his sculptures in Taipei and Hong Kong, and launched an eponymous furniture line last year. These pieces will be presented in Dubai for the first time at the end of the month, when he exhibits at Downtown Design from October 29 to November 1.

There is something comforting and all-enveloping about Lo’s furniture, from the cradle-like Rima bed to the encompassing, semi-circular Deka chairs. There is also a simple solidity, as highlighted by the Kalo two-seater sofa and the Elxi chairs, and a sense of practicality – the Mazi cabinet, Vasi table series and low Pnoi tables all speak of flexibility and versatility.

“Our 2013 collection involves comprehensive items that carry with them beauty and poetry in our living, dining and sleeping quarters. Through these works, we wish to set a level of excellence in craftsmanship,” says Lo of the new line.

So how has “the Chinese designer” managed to carve a place for himself at the upper echelons of Italy’s design industry? “I suppose you have to be 200 per cent better, when the Italians are already so competent in whatever they design and make,” he says. “It was a huge risk for any supporter and producer of my work in the 1990s. What could this Chinese do, anyway, when Italian design had been flourishing everywhere in the world?

“I was not really needed, nor did I have then a place in that very competitive context. I remember the first series of furniture, which was designed as though it was for myself, as I had zero idea about market trends. My innocence, if not ignorance, saved me and has guided me along since. I think you just have to trust yourself, and to believe in what you can do, patiently, diligently, consistently.”

While the words “high-quality design” and “China” have not always been comfortable bedfellows, Lo is set on crafting a new design vernacular that carries an essence of China but reaches beyond the traditional clichés. “Design is a relatively new phenomenon in China,” he points out. “There is still this period of adjustment now as to how much they should look to the west in order to redefine their cultural identity in this moment of prosperity. Design plays a very important role in this transition.

“As I have often said, it is not the motifs of China’s past that we should look to, but the spirit of her culture, her people, her long-famed tolerance, calmness and humility. I look forward to the day when we say that this object is very ‘Chinese’, and it is not red nor has a dragon on it. In a way, that is what I have been trying to achieve for a long time. One cannot quite point a finger to my work to say that this is Chinese, but there is in it a spirit that resonates from west to east and vice versa.”

Timelessness and durability, in both design and creation, are the cornerstones of Lo’s design philosophy, he says. The aim is to be classic but not classical and modern but not outdated; to create works that “will outlive me, my children, my grandchildren”. He is a big proponent of quality over quantity and believes that the whole design industry could benefit from a more measured approach to its output. “Strange to say, but I must say that we have designed too much and have created a dangerous form of cultural and visual pollution. Look around; there are just too many gadgets, unnecessary items, white elephants ... often too loud so that we cannot but be overwhelmed by their ostentatious presence. Design should enhance, never override; it should sit back, [be] a little shy. To design is to improve upon something, accepting that every one of us has the obligation to help to move a tiny little step forward in the slow evolution of design.”

There are many things that Lo would still like to design – or at least explore, like a car made of wood, an airplane crafted out of stone, or a bridge composed of glass. “It is this paradox that could question our conventional choices, that could push the limits of our available resources and materials. It is not unimaginable to have a skyscraper made solely out of paper?”

These are lofty thoughts. But when it comes down to it, Lo’s approach to design is as simple as can be. “To design is to give,” he concludes.

Downtown Design will be open to the general public from 5pm until 8pm on October 29 to 31 and from 12 noon to 6pm on November 1. A four-day pass costs Dh50. For more information, visit www.downtowndesign.com.


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