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Designer is busy as a bee

Published on Thursday, 17 Mar 2011
Michael Leung, creative director of HK Honey
Photo: Edmund So

Known for his award-winning “HK Honey” venture - a honey and beeswax product operation that seeks to spread the merits of local produce - Michael Leung has been promoting the value of product design, preserving cultural heritage and raising social awareness through his work.


Born and educated in Britain, Leung says the project is an example of a “social cultural organisation”. Incorporating the artistry of traditional wooden beehive making, honey production and soap and candle making, the initiative engages unemployed, middle-aged women in the production process.


Since coming to Hong Kong in 2009, Leung has worked with local artists and designers and breathed new life into products with interesting forms, packaging designs, display and brand-building materials. “I want to establish more social cultural organisations to put designs at the forefront, add value to design and innovate,” he says.


How would you describe your style?

I do not have an established style. My approach seeks to use the right form and materials for designs and update culture. One needs to look beyond what meets the eyes to understand the meaning behind the products. My designs have multiple layers. Apart from attractive appearances and interesting use of materials, there are interesting construction, collaboration with local craftsmen, and the exploration of issues such as social responsibility.


What has shaped your designs?

After graduating from Ravensbourne [in London] in 2005, I worked for the high-profile Droog Design in Amsterdam on an internship for seven months. It is a unique design company specialising in conceptual designs with a lot of meanings and story telling. I learned to apply concepts and meanings behind the designs, such as reflecting social and cultural issues. The designs sometimes explored a particular material or examined a special type of human behaviour.


During this period, I collaborated with designer Joris Laarman on a project for Delft University of Technology on a range of furniture and domestic objects designed for a single person living by himself. These were designs emphasising the beauty of the materials. One of my designs at Droog, a wooden USB, was put into commercial production by Lexon in France.


I joined Motorola Design Studio as an industrial designer in London in 2006, working on a diverse range of “concept future devices”, including mobile phones, office phones and wireless routers. I mostly thought about how people would use these devices in the future. I developed new shapes and forms for mass-market phones. I worked with the engineering teams in France and Italy and learned about the details in design. I worked with various forms and gained a better understanding of materials. Although we took a more rigid and industrial approach [to design] at Motorola, I have been able to apply such skills as meticulous attention to details and balancing shape, form and colour, to my work now.


You set up a studio in 2007. Why did you move to Hong Kong?

Many projects at Studio Leung explored the link to Chinese culture. I decided it would be more inspiring for me to be in China or Hong Kong. Initially, there was a cultural shift for me in terms of the individuals working with me and the pace of work. [But] it is a positive environment for me to grow, not just in terms of career, but personal growth as well. I have been able to work with traditional craftsmen plying their trade on Shanghai Street, such as master metal craftsmen and wooden beehive makers.


What is the message you want to convey through your design?

I try to understand the context of an object and then reinterpret it in a different setting. Take the reinterpretation of the iconic red plastic lampshade seen everywhere in wet markets. I changed the material into paper and enlarge the size to bring it into the domestic landscape. Another example is the Printable Offerings project completed in collaboration with Nicolas Cheng. It reinterprets a traditional ritual [of people burning paper offerings for the deceased] and aims to reduce impact on the environment. Designs of the offerings have been uploaded [to] a website. When people want to get them, they can simply download the files for free and print them out. It helps to reduce the carbon footprint incurred through mass production, transportation and retailing.


Why did you choose to teach design at PolyU?

It is important to give something back when I come to a different place and add something new to the design education here. I am sensitive to the Chinese culture and at the same time very English as well. I can understand the thinking of local students and introduce a more European approach to them.


What is your advice to students?

Many Hong Kong design students have a detachment from working with materials physically. They focus on working on designs in three-dimensional computer programmes. I want to push their thinking into the physical space by encouraging them to do more prototypes in physical materials with their hands.


What are your plans for the near future?

I will spend six months in Shanghai from July onwards. Part of the Young Design Talent Awards requires the winner to explore the design scene abroad. I plan to work for a design consultancy in the city to learn about design from a business and strategic point of view. So far my experience has been in-house designing. On the side, I plan to work on my projects, including an exhibition for HK Honey in collaboration with beekeepers in Hangzhou.


Role call

  • Leung is a visiting tutor on the BA and master's courses at PolyU, where he also completed his master's
  • Leung has been involved in the designing of the signage at MTR stations and the store front for DFS Galleria Hong Kong, among other projects in Hong Kong
  • He took home the DesignSmart Young Design Talent Award from the Hong Kong Design Centre and a cash prize of HK$500,000 last year
  • “HK Honey” won the Creative Lifestyle Award from City Magazine this year


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