This month, a retrospective exhibition at PMQ looks back at designer Alan Chan’s love affair with Japan.
Alan Chan is a man of many talents: he’s a product and interior designer, as well as a graphic designer who has worked on everything from packaging to total brand overhaul. He started his career in the 1970s in advertising and design with just a 10-month course under his belt, but he went on to win various awards, including a D&AD award, and his work features as part of the permanent Architecture + Design display at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
For Chan, though, it is his work with Japanese designers and clients from the 1980s on that has been the most significant and memorable – and it is this phase of his career that is documented by MY JAPLAN – Exhibition of Alan Chan’s Works of Design and Art, in collaboration with Gallery 27, Good Design Store, PMQ and Moleskine. The retrospective explores Chan’s longtime connection with Japan, through his work – some of it lesser known than many of his iconic creations – and through his memories of travelling there with family. Here, Chan tells us why this exhibition is so important to him at this point in his career.
Please tell us a bit about the exhibition….
This exhibition is the smallest exhibition I have ever hosted in my life, but it has the biggest heart of all. It shows how Chinese design can also be very international.
My work in Japan started in the late 1980s, and in the 1990s I did so much work in Japan. The projects on show might not be such big projects, but they were so meaningful to me.
You clearly have an affinity for Japan and Japanese design. Why is this?
My connection with Japan came about spontaneously. My design carries a strong dialogue between East and West – it’s been a part of my DNA since the 1970s, when I was with agencies. I suppose it touched the heart of the Japanese customer and client and designer. When they look at my work, there’s a sense of warmth and familiarity. They can feel that this guy is paying respect to their culture. That’s why there was suddenly all this opportunity. I was even asked to be a judge for a ceramic competition, a typography competition….
You’ve published a 1,152-page journal to go with the exhibition. What inspired this book?
Japan’s economy never bounced back to where it was in the bubble in the 1990s, and my own work in Japan is slowing down. I’m focusing on the China market, too, for very obvious reasons. So it was about time to conclude that chapter of my life, and to show the design scene what happened in Japan. I wanted to share with my audience, especially the new generation, that the rest of Asia does have a design presence in Japan. The book also features a lot of my travels to Japan with family and friends. I really wanted to capture those memories.
What are some of your most memorable experiences in Japan?
There are far too many! Many of the most memorable trips were with my family. I travelled to Kyoto once a year to see the cherry blossom, with my mum, my wife, my son, and my daughter. We moved around lots of different temples, and through the tatami rooms.
Another of the most remarkable experiences was the trip I did to launch Mr. Chan tea. The tea was sponsored by Kirin, and you could buy it at all the vending machines there. It was composed of two flavours: oolong tea from China, black tea from the West.
We also did a TV commercial for that one in Vietnam – in Hue, at the Imperial Palace. I spent one week there. There were 50 of us. [Actor] Maggie Q and I were in the commercial. It was really memorable.
Which of your Japanese projects stand out most in your mind?
I did the corporate identity for Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation. They wanted their image to be international, like HSBC – that’s why I created the acronym SMBC. The design also had to carry a strong sense of Japan, so I used the green that is a big part of their everyday culture.
It was big news in Japan – 200 banks merged together. A lot of Japanese press asked why a Hong Kong designer was designing the logo for one of Japan’s major companies.
Then there was the Marunouchi shopping area. It used to be all the IT industry: there weren’t any fashion brands there. I was invited by the Mitsubishi Estate Ltd to work on a concept to liven up the area. I was given a 600-square-metre space and I created the Marunouchi Cafe, which consisted of an art space area, an event area, a self-service vending machine area and IT space. I brought in design elements from various Asian cultures: Japanese, Korean, Chinese. It became very popular for people at lunch and at weekends. The whole Ginza shopping phenomenon was a result of this cafe.
I also designed a clock for Seiko – it’s the most iconic example of East meets West in my work. The clock is a timepiece from the West. At each number on the clock there is a Chinese numerical character that’s missing one stroke. When the minute hand reaches it, the character fills out.
What do you hope to achieve with this exhibition?
I wish the younger generation would come and see it. They may not be aware of the dimensions of my work in Japan.
These days, the young generation just sits on their computers Googling things from around the world. It would be good for them to see a different kind of dialogue on how an Asian cultural perspective can be communicated in Japan.
MY JAPLAN – Exhibition of Alan Chan’s Works of Design and Art runs daily from 12 noon to 8pm at Good Design Store, H401, Hollywood, PMQ. The exhibition is open until 20 February 2016.
Alan Chan Design Company