Writer: Amy Guttman
It’s a long way from Sunderland, one of England’s poor, Northern towns, to the high rises and high fashion of Hong Kong, but it’s been an even longer, and more unusual journey for designer Michael Young.
He is best known for his success as a Britpop designer, churning out popular products for the Conran shop, and others, before running his own gallery which became a bit of a bar-cum-social club, to designing the PXR 5 digital watch which became an instant sensation. “It was basically a five-dollar watch, but the design level took it to 120 US dollars. People were tearing them off my wrists.”
But the successful Hong Kong-based designer has an incredible story, not just of rags to riches, but of beating odds stacked firmly against him as he battled undiagnosed dyslexia from childhood.
Growing up in a small, industrial city Young was encouraged to pursue a working-class vocation. “There’s no such thing as art. You’re an electrician or a plumber. If you’re really privileged you go to university and become a doctor.” To make matters worse, Young failed very single subject at school. Instead of identifying Young’s difficulty reading and writing, he proclaimed Young to be a failure at everything. “Your son doesn’t stand a chance. He’s useless,” the headmaster told Young’s parents.
But dyslexics think in pictures and images, not words, and tend to be highly creative. Young would come to find this out on his own, after finally graduating from school, and going on public welfare to get by. The income was enough to pay for a correspondence course in interiors, inspired by his mother’s copies of World of Interiors. “I can remember looking at it and thinking, this is a lot more interesting than a maths book. It was all I knew of art and creativity.”
Young’s confidence grew as he drew pictures of furniture and other products, and he was accepted at Kingston University, the first in his family to pursue higher education. There, he focused on form, his strongpoint, rather than space, with classes in industrial design. For the first time in his life, Michael Young didn’t just pass, he was good at something.
Leaving Kingston, he says, was pivotal. “Being penniless and unemployable meant I had to make something work and that had to be making and selling things.” It’s also when he formed his point of view about design. “It’s not an intellectual occupation but one borne from instinct. One learns more about integrating over time with other systems and then great things can happen.”
Graduating amidst the 1989 recession wasn’t easy; Young knew he had to get busy making things, as well as earning money. He took a job working for Tom Dixon, learning the trade, bottom up, from cutting metal, to welding, to sourcing, and making deliveries. Eventually, he was given a shot at designing his own collection which were instant best-sellers at the Conran shop. Within two-and-a-half years his designs woven from stainless steel scraps were acquired for the collection at the Pompidou Centre.
Young was making a name for himself, and yet still, some speculated he couldn’t possibly top what he’d achieved. But the minimalist designer had more in store, much more, even if his success was founded in critical acclaim, rather than financial riches.
Producing wildly popular items for Tom Dixon may have raised his profile, but Young was still just scraping by, sleeping on friend’s floors. “The only way I could afford to eat was by going to a party and eating a piece of cheese on a stick and the only thing I could drink was the free, cheap wine. So I always had a hangover and was always starving and really, really thin.”
Help came in the form of a Japanese entrepreneur who commissioned Young to design furniture. Using just a ruler and two templates, the collection was designed in seven months. It, too, was an instant success and opened Young’s mind to the prospect of working in Asia.
With a mind miserable at numbers, Young was living a contrasting lifestyle; the darling of the design world, yet totally broke and unable to run a business.
The hard-partying London life took its toll, and Young moved to Iceland with a girlfriend, for a quieter, calmer existence where he nurtured lucrative relationships with major international companies throughout Europe, like Laurent Perrier and others seeking to establish better brand identities through design.
After establishing an office in Brussels, Young was invited to Taiwan to design for young manufacturing companies. Young learned about the local culture, appreciating the emphasis on relationships before contracts, rather than the reverse, and valued the fast-track from design to production – just days, rather than months. While Asia lacked Europe’s appreciation for design, Young felt more at ease with the collegial role of a designer in Asia, rather than the European design diva syndrome. “Taiwan was my school,” teaching Young how the industrial process and how to interact with engineers.
Taiwan was also what prepared Young for his greatest success: Hong Kong.
“I had decided it was the commercial gateway to China and possibly the world.” And so began a mutual embrace. Young began his time there designing the incredible simple, but well-designed PXR-5 watch which financed an office and an assistant.
His home for the last eight years, Hong Kong has provided a platform for some of Young’s greatest designs, as well as financial success, beginning with the design of a Taiwanese restaurant. Utilising aluminium for his 4a collection, he employed sustainable engineering skills. And, the economic downturn offered opportunity, when Young was approached by a factory during the economic downturn, who offered to produce anything he wanted. Young took up the offer and began designing for a new design firm, EOQ.
Young’s Bramah lamp will be launched at Design Junction. The lamp is elegant and minimalist, made of aluminium extrusion pipes, with 100 extruded fins distributing light, creating an Asian silhouette. “It’s the best thing I ever did in 20 years. The light effect is holistic, and that’s all we need.”
And so, for a dyslexic man who was told he’d never amount to anything, Michael Young is writing an amazing book, about great design, and a life in constant evolution.