words Marcus Fairs
“I don’t feel any great loyalty to the west,” says Michael Young, rubbing his hand through his hair so it sticks up in the air.
In the past few years the nomadic designer has shifted his base from London to Reykjavik to Brussels and then Taipei – and he has just moved again, with his wife and children, to Hong Kong.
Young is one of the most visionary designers of our time, but his nonchalant modesty – and his habit of changing cities every couple of years – means his foresight has perhaps not been widely noted. Now, while the rest of the design world frets over the Chinese threat, the Sunderland-born designer has seized the initiative and is working directly with manufacturers in mainland China.
“They’ve got the best equipment, the best factories,” he says, easing into a sofa in the lobby of the Grand Hotel on Milan’s Via Manzoni and ordering cappuccinos. The furniture fair is in full swing and although it’s 11am, we’re both still jaded from our respective rounds of parties the night before. “But they don’t understand design,” he continues, “so I can really offer them something they want – how to work with designers instead of copying other people’s ideas; how to export correctly.”
“I find Chinese manufacturers really nice,” he adds. “They’re not these people that we’re told are taking over the world in a really horrible way. They’re really enthusiastic.”
Young has always been a step ahead. His much-copied Woven Steel light catapulted him to fame within months of leaving college in 1992. Then, at a time when fellow young British designers were marooned in the recessionary fug of mid-1990s London, and when working for Italian brands was seen as the epitome of glamour, Young was jetting off to bubble-era Tokyo, where hip Japanese brand E&Y was manufacturing his radical Magazine sofa and table.
Magazine’s bright colours, rounded corners and plastic finishes were a clean break from the sober, minimal look that then dominated the showrooms. Similarly, his 1996 “Smartie” pouf for Cappellini pre-empted the fad for blob-shaped furniture around the turn of the millennium.
But Young later tired of the design merry-go-round, in which young designers often work for brands for next to no money. “I’m quite uncomfortable with the whole Italian design system,” he says, abandoning the ineffective cappuccino remedy and instead ordering us hair-of-the-dog prosecco. “Design was brought in to help manufacturers sell products more easily after the Second World War. There was no money so they didn’t pay them much. But that system’s 40 years old. Once I give a design to a manufacturer, that’s the work done. They should pay me. I shouldn’t have to wait ten years to get these little dribbles of payment.”
Despite his hangover, Young is warm and approachable, yet his congeniality masks a buccaneering entrepreneurial streak: while other designers mount please-do-not-touch exhibitions at trade fairs around the world, Young sets up stall like a market trader, flogging his own-brand watches, USB devices and even babies’ dummies from a trestle table (at the inaugural 100% Tokyo show last autumn, his subversive “100% Bollocks” T-shirts were a bestseller). The move to Hong Kong is partly to be nearer the factories that manufacture such products.
“I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of you know,” he says, as we realise the prosecco was a mistake and both begin to feel queasy. “Any way of making money out of design is good news. I can make more doing this myself then if Seiko phoned me up and asked me to design a watch. I’ve got really good relationships with the manufacturers. I wouldn’t get that in Italy.”
Young, 39, studied furniture and product design at Kingston University in London and then worked for Tom Dixon for a few years, whose salvaged metal creations had inspired Young to study design in the first place. “Tom was really laid back and really philanthropic,” he recalls. “He liked helping young people even though he was quite young himself at the time.”
He later set up his own London studio and got his big break when he began working with E&Y. “I was so broke in those days I was living on people’s floors,” he says. “Sitting on an aircraft for 13 hours getting free beer and peanuts became a form of survival.”
Appropriately, the resulting Magazine range was championed by newly launched style magazine Wallpaper, and Young found himself touted as the design world’s brightest young star. “It was on every page of Wallpaper; it was in every magazine; every shop. I equated that level of publicity with being wealthy but I was actually getting poorer at the time. It was very confusing.”
Magazine gave Young his first experience of seeing his work copied by others – something that still bugs him. “It caused this whole wave across London of people doing lounge design, doing things with rounded corners. It became so fashionable that the whole of London started doing it and my work just started to lose value. The second object I did was Cappellini’s Smartie – it was a round disc object, it was a revolution, the new bean-bag of the 90s. Then of course it got copied by about 20 different companies. It’s like the Tree [a tree-shaped coat stand] we did for Swedese – it’s copied so much now the original idea just fades into insignificance.”
He recently had a similarly bitter experience when a well-known American technology brand produced a product remarkably similar to his USB Bracelet – a digital storage device that doubles as jewellery. “I read some chats on the internet and it’s like, who copied who? There’s this confusion, which is a shame.”
Young’s globetrotting life changed dramatically when he moved to Reykjavik in 1998 after falling in love with Icelandic artist and designer Katrin Petursdottir. “It was purely just a love thing. I never thought I’d be in love and all of a sudden I was, so I thought I’m just going to enjoy this. I was a bit tired of London anyway. And I did more work in a couple of years in Reykjavik then the seven years previously because I wasn’t going to parties all the time.”
Reykjavik was an unlikely base for his ongoing work for international clients including Cappellini, Magis, Rosenthal and Mandarina Duck – although he also designed Reykjavik’s Astro Bar during his time there – but as he says: “By the time I went to Reykjavik I had been flying around the world constantly so I could see myself living anywhere.”
Reykjavik was followed briefly by Brussels – where, struck by the cheap property prices and a peculiar belief that the Belgian capital was “the future”, he bought a huge house. “So I have got this massive place there that I’ve never lived in, not even stepped foot in. I thought I’d set up an office there but I suddenly thought, what am I doing in Brussels? I started doing all these things in Asia and I thought, let’s go look over there.”
So, in 2002, he took his family to Taipei, where he had a growing number of industrial clients including electronics brand Kuro, for whom he designed an MP3 player. The move marked the start of Young’s engagement with mass production. “I wanted to educate myself on how this whole industry works. It really wasn’t just chasing work though – it was to enjoy travelling around the world. I guess I’m just curious and I kind of realise I can’t keep moving around forever so I’ll do it all now.”
Despite the growing band of jet-set designers who work for global brands, Young believes in the importance of day-to-day relationships with manufacturers. The Milanese furniture industry has always thrived because of its dense concentration of brands, designers, prototyping workshops and factories. Despite industry’s rapid migration eastwards, received wisdom has it that a combination of email and air-miles will allow European designers to retain their pre-eminence. But Young thinks otherwise.
“I’ve just designed a bike for [Taiwan-based multinational] Giant. They would never be able to do that with someone in London. They don’t have the understanding of design or the financial resources to fly designers business class to a meeting. There’s a level of personal interface you need to really work with these companies. You can’t do it unless you’re on a one-to-one basis with them and in that time zone.”
Taipei is the location of one of Young’s best-known recent projects – the striking, Corian-clad 2005 interior for the Dr James Clinic. But it didn’t take Young long to realise he’d moved to the wrong country and, in 2004, he relocated once more to Hong Kong. “I decided after one and a half years that I needed to be somewhere more civilised. We were going to Hong Kong every weekend, just for dinner. It’s an hour and half away. We’d just go there and have fun and then we just fell in love with Hong Kong, and now we’re there.” And it’s no accident that on his new doorstep lies the vast Chinese mainland with its burgeoning manufacturing capacity, low cost base and design-hungry businesses.