Profile: Michael Young

From studies at Kingston, via Islington and Iceland to Hong Kong, designer Michael Young searched for mass-production techniques that were a match for his way of making, including one of his latest chair designs, made in a Chinese bicycle factory.


Words by Emily Martin

Michael Young is one of Britain's best exports. He gained international success in 1992, soon after graduating from Kingston University, with designs influenced by mass-production methods that proved hugely appealing to the Asian markets. Some 10 years ago he relocated to Hong Kong to set up his successful studio designing furniture, lighting, watches-- even a car -- as well as many other products and interiors that make up his extensive portfolio.

Last autumn I met Young at Coalesse's showroom, sited at the Steelcase WorkLife Center in Farringdon, London, while he was on a visit to the UK promoting his latest chair designed with Coalesse: Less Than Five Chair.

'It's manufactured at the best carbon-fibre factory in China,' Young tells me as he picks up one in the showroom and hands the sleek design to me. I predict a feather-like weight to the chair, but nevertheless its exceptional lightness still surprised me. 'The perception is that China produces cheap-quality goods, but in many respects it's the complete opposite,' he says.

Young tells me that being a full-time resident in China has enabled him to establish key manufacturing relationships, which, in turn, has granted him a 'creative freedom' to bring these kinds of products to market.

The Less than Five Chair is manufactured in a 'refined workshop' that usually produces bicycles. 'To make this chair in Europe as a commercial product would be impossible because carbon fibre is still maintained for Formula One or aeronautical use,' he says, 'whereas the skills [available in China] bring the price point down to a more affordable level. The chair is designed around this structure [which doesn't exist in Europe].'

In the Nineties Young had set up a studio in Roseberry Avenue, Islington, which he describes as 'boutique'. His studio also featured a small workshop where he would make, and sell, his products. 'I was always trying to fake mass production in London; I was always trying to do things that looked liked they were made in their hundreds and thousands, but were actually made in Hammersmith, [in smaller quanities]' he says. Young says he's always felt constrained by the production methods available in the UK. 'I'm not complaining about London [or the UK], but I had a workshop where I was limited to bits of wood and metal and I couldn't express myself creatively the way I wanted to, in it.'

The Less Than Five Chair, designed with Coalesse
The Less Than Five Chair, designed with Coalesse

The Sunderland-born designer stayed in London until 1997, when he closed his studio despite its success and financial backing from a Japanese company. He felt suffocated, so he headed to Reykjavik in search of the creative freedom he so desperately strived for. And while he didn't find it in Iceland, Young was, at least, able to refocus on what he wanted to do. He started to work more with plastics and formed new relationships with manufacturers in Italy. This led him to manufacturers in China and Asia.

Young was able to seek new work within his established Asian network. He went to Taiwan where he worked on more projects and the pull eventually led him to relocate to Hong Kong and open a studio there. 'I've never looked back; the opportunities with the factories filled the missing gap in my creative way of working and thinking,' he says.

Despite China plugging a creative gap, Young points out: 'you can't walk into China and say, "I want to do this, that and that", because it's a very complex environment to work in, with relationships and trust. There is a part of China that is very traditional and it is something that will remain for a long time to come.'

Young has spent the past decade nurturing his reputation in China, and is starting to see it pay off. Being able to use a bicycle company to manufacture a chair is just one example. 'It means I can start to push a little harder, which I do now, because I'm getting older. And more cantankerous,' he says.

Is there is an increasing Western design influence on China? 'More are exposed to Western design, but there are so many different provinces in China and you can't expect them all to be affected,' says Young. 'New-generation designers going out into industry are influenced by outside countries -- despite the fact we still can't read Google. But I don't think it's about destroying a local culture, I think design evolves globally.'

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