Career Advice Successful entrepreneurs’ story

Got the white stuff

Milk Design founder Lee Chi-Wing has built his business on a simple philosophy, writes Wong Yat-hei.

What connects a calcium-rich beverage with the design of consumer goods? The answer is obvious to Lee Chi-wing who, in 1998, established his own design house, Milk Design, with the aim of creating products that were both simple and human. "I think design needs to be closely connected to our living condition - just like milk," he says. "My design concept is creating products that make people comfortable. A successful product is one that makes people's lives better through creativity."

Lee's passion for product design was cultivated from an early age. Both his father and grandfather were professional sculptors, and the young Lee would watch them as they worked. "That inspired my interest in, and sensitivity towards, three-dimensional objects, and later my passion for product design," he says.

Growing up in Hong Kong, Lee graduated from Polytechnic University before going to Paris to further his design education. "The school in Paris provided a very liberal place to learn. There was no concept of what classes you had to take because you belonged to a certain year. Students in year one, two and three attended classes together, depending on their interests. My creativity was inspired through such a liberal learning environment."

After returning to Hong Kong, Lee started worked for a multinational company, but was soon told the company planned to transfer him to the US. "I was reluctant to go because I was just back home from Europe. So instead I started my own business, as there were some clients that said they would support me if I opened my own design house."

Lee steadily built his reputation as a product designer for several years, after which is began to think about creating his own brand. In 2002 he launched Feelgood, a lifestyle brand that sells bathroom products and fragrances online.

"It's a designer's dream to have his or her own brand," he says. "We can have total control over what we want to do. I want my brand to be closely related to life; I focus on making bathroom products because the bathroom is a personal space for one to relax in."

Hong Kong is a mature market with sophisticated consumers, Lee says, but he wishes consumers had a deeper understanding of design. "The media promotes many designers' products as trendy items, and consumers love them because it is hip to own such products.

"This is perfectly fine, but I think more should be done to let consumers understand a product's design concept and the thinking processes behind it. More resources to educate the public on design concepts will open the minds of consumers and provide the basis for designers to create more innovative products."

Although Hong Kong produces many designers, Lee does not see product design as a popular choice for students. He predicts this will change as more local businesses move to build their own brands and no longer focus on manufacturing.

"I think this development is in line with the development of our economy. Hong Kong does not have a very long history of producing original products, but that is changing. More companies are looking for original design, and the demand for product designers will go up," he says.

The challenge for the industry, he says, is for it to develop its own identity. "Local designers have many brilliant ideas, but we have not yet developed our own identity. Fortunately, many young designers are aware of this situation and are eager to include local elements in their work. [However], Hong Kong people think highly of imported goods. This is a mindset that cannot be easily changed, but we are ready to prove them wrong."

Lee, too, embraces the chance to promote local culture when he can.

"My favourite project [I have done] was the plastic in-flight tableware I designed for Cathay Pacific," he says. "I applied a semi-transparent rice pattern on porcelain bowls. I was delighted to work on a project that allowed me to bring local culture to the rest of the world."

Lee says he is currently designing tea utensils for a local homeware brand. "Chinese tea is world famous, but because of the hectic pace people live at today, making a cup of Chinese tea the traditional way has become a luxury few can afford. My work will focus on designing tea utensils that are simple to use. Modernising traditional culture is a design concept that I love," he says.

Lee says listening to clients is essential when working on commercial design projects. "Every designer has ideas of their own, but they should not forget that their design is to serve the basic needs of people. Designers have innovative minds, but not everyone is as open-minded as a designer. Communication with clients is very important, especially for young designers."