Founder and Director of Design Systems Lam Wai Ming shares his recipe for success with Christie Lee.
There is whimsical playfulness – or as the French like to say, a certain je ne sais quoi – to the design of Design Systems’ new ‘White Paper’ office (which we covered here) in Hong Kong. Indeed, the combination of function, artistic sensibility and – in founder and director Lam Wai Ming’s own words – the ‘aura’ that certain design details evoke, is what makes the unique design language of Design Systems. Consider the capsule ceiling lamp which illuminates but at the same time, pays tribute to the hotly-hued toy cars of childhood, or the door that blends so seamlessly with the wall, that it would appear be invisible if not for the rectangular ring of light penetrating from the room behind.
How would you describe your design philosophy?
A respected client of ours once told us a story. He asked, “When did art start?” A long time ago – before human civilisation – tribes hunted during the day and returned to their habitat at dusk every day. One day, the tribe chief found that two of his members had wandered off. He realised later that the two had climbed up to a hill to take in the view of the sunset.
This was the special moment when art started. And it’s something that all designers strive for when they add paint to walls or pots. We believe that everything including people, space and objects have their own character. And with one’s character, every object and being manifests its own aura. Aura is like aroma. You feel it, but it is hard to describe, just like you can smell the scent but you cannot catch it. For example, the aura of a good person can cause you to think good and do good. Likewise, the aura of a good space or design can result in fulfilment for the soul.
Feelings and intuition seem to be important cornerstones of your design philosophy. What role does ‘function’ play in all that?
Function and logic are things that we all strive for in the design process. Oftentimes however, we’re so overwhelmed by it that we forget to follow our heart.
What are your views on design trends?
As designers we often make decisions based on a number of constraints, be it geographical or technological. People’s need for tools or habitation never changes, but with all these temporal constraints, the manifestation of such needs changes over time, thus resulting in ‘trends’ and ‘styles’. However, trend and style only partially respond to our needs, and their effect on us is temporary. The ‘aura’ that I previously spoke of is eternal.
What is good design?
At Design Systems we like to consider ourselves as craftsmen rather than designers. Good details can evoke a sense of discovery that makes objects and spaces ‘good to feel’ apart from being ‘good to see’ and ‘good to use’. A thoughtful design gives you aesthetic and emotional satisfaction beyond mere attainment of function or style. It also imbues a sense of intimacy. This is how a home is made of a space, and art made out of an object.
You set up a Shenzhen branch office in 2003. How are the projects/responsibilities being divided up between the Hong Kong and Shenzhen offices?
At that time, we thought we should make use of the manufacturing capacity in China and apply it to our designs. We found that it was very difficult to communicate with the factories if we were only based in Hong Kong. That’s why we set up the branch office. And this operational structure has proven to work very well since it has widened our design possibilities.
You taught environment design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Hong Kong Art School from 2003 to 2006. How is your teaching related to your design work?
At Design Systems our design process is exactly like designing for a final-year thesis. We carry out proper and thorough research and analysis in order to find out limitations and possibilities. Based on such findings, we generate our design concepts, and then create a lot of design options and development to propose a most appropriate design for our clients. We work this way because I used to teach my students to work the same way, so we have to walk the talk. The difference is, when studying at school, our purpose is mainly to explore, whereas in the real world, we’re always aiming to reach specific goals.