A life in the day of STEPHEN CHAN. His life’s rich tapestry woven in work celebrated with humble pride, the enigmatic Hong Kong designer is a mystery of sorts. He speaks candidly with RUSSELL JONES on living designs, bucking trends, inspiring customers and the importance of ‘letting’ creativity flow through him as opposed to ‘from him’. 

Stephen Chan is quick to spot empathy. This is just one of the demure designer’s many gifts most of which he himself appears unaware of. A well-grounded personality, he is no captain of industry, not one to jostle for the limelight. He is content to stand by and let others choose the jewel-studded chalices. He is content with the wooden cup that once was a carpenter’s choice too. His joy comes from serving others, putting others first – and it is a healthy habit too. It puts him in a class of his own. Why? Why would someone so talented, well schooled and accomplished be found so wanting in aggression, pride or prejudice? Does the market exist for a Stephen Chan or does Stephen Chan exist for the market? Let’s find out.

RUSSELL JONES: When did you realise that design was your calling? What were the set backs (if any) on your way to achieving your goal of starting your own firm as a designer in your own right? 

STEPHEN CHAN: From a very young age I was always interested in being creative. As a child I would play with Lego blocks and create my own sculptures and buildings. Academically it was inevitable that I would achieve higher grades in Art & Design-based subjects. I simply enjoyed those classes more and would find myself more focused in this area of study.

I arrived in Hong Kong in 1997 just after the handover, (from Britain to China) to pursue a career in Interior Design – my chosen area of study at University.

Whilst working I realized that I was gaining a lot of job satisfaction from seeing a client being pleased and complimentary on the overall outcome of projects.

In 2006 I decided that I should attempt to run my own business and give myself more creative freedom over projects by being self-employed.

At first it was difficult to gain projects as I was a young aspiring yet unknown designer who hadn’t yet built my company’s portfolio yet. Any opportunities I may have been given were often taken away from me by more sizable firms or designers in better standing. However I persevered and soon enough one small project led to another and they led to larger projects or projects with a wider design brief.

I have continued to study design and design implementation and used every opportunity provided to showcase my creativity, skills and experience with the interior design field. 

RJ: In an ideal world – what would be the purpose of fine design? – i.e to impress? to advertise? to facilitate? to romanticize? 

SC: There are many purposes for design. But one thing is certain in life and it is that first impressions last. Hence in the world of business it is always important to have the face of business to be attractive and be well designed. 

The design itself should represent the identity that the business is running. It should show a business’s character and morals and it is always important to have a welcoming and comfortable surrounding ready for any potential or existing clientele or customer who may visit your premises. 

It is important to show that the business either has a long history or standing within the trade or that it is up to date on current trends and technology. The design should give an impression of all of this.

With residential projects it is no different. However the project is now about an individual or a family. And the visitor/clientele of my customer is basically anybody who comes within the space and uses it.

After a long day at work one must return to their own personal space and relax and enjoy the space either with their loved ones or by themselves. It is now personal. It helps one relax, it makes one comfortable, takes away the stress and worries encountered during the day and prepares one for the tomorrow.

For visitors it is no different than a potential client visiting your work premises. Your residential design shows people who you are, what your tastes are. It shows your financial and economic standing. The design of your residential space is itself an extension of your personality and how you portray yourself.

 RJ: Are there any boundaries to imaginative design given today’s market? 

SC: I think the only boundaries imaginatively are present within the designer themselves. Of course the client will always give the designer a certain brief and preferences. But how these are applied and to what extent, are totally in the hands of the designer.

There will always be current and passing trends that will influence the design style and the application of such. However, it is the sole responsibility of the designer to apply these in a timeless manner. After all the designer has no idea how long the design will stay in place. Hence it is important that the designers imaginative input is applied that however long the design is in place it will still be enjoyed, respected, and admired by users and their visitors for many years to come.

RJ: What are your strengths as a designer? 

SC: I am a flexible person with no particular preferred style. When greeting a client for the first time after receiving my brief I always spend time to listen to the client and engage in general conversation and ask a few questions about their tastes, lifestyle, interests etc.

By having these conversations not only do I build upon a friendly rapport with the client but I will come to understand them better and this is always important. You must know your clients.

Whether the project is commercial or residential if you do not know the client it is impossible to create a design that they will be more than content with.

Hence I am a ‘peoples’ person. I like to listen, to absorb any information given. I will try my utmost to put myself in the same mind and thinking of my clients. 

By understanding the client more and having no preferred personal style I can be more flexible creatively as I am no longer limited by my own ego of what I think is the correct design for my client. The design and my service is all about them.

RJ: What are the main competing factors between designers of repute, in the HK market?

SC: The design market in Hong Kong is reflective of Hong Kong itself. It is overpopulated.

Reputable designers are everywhere and each will have their own design philosophy and application. The amount of choice for a designer in Hong Kong is so great that it is rare that you will run into the same competition for a design project more than once.

 RJ: How do you get designs to be unique to customers? 

SC: Presenting a unique design is all down to how much information you can extract from the clients brief and how you can apply elements of their identity or lifestyle into the design. Often you must however think out of the box and just because the client prefers a certain colour/style doesn’t mean that it needs be applied in a traditional or typical manner. Creativity is the key and applying an abstract or minimal approach to those elements is often how the design becomes unique to that particular project.

RJ: Price aside – what makes You a Designer of Choice? 

SC: I consider myself to be very understanding and approachable. I will never be too proud or egotistic to take criticism or comment. By listening, understanding and respecting the client is how I am successful in my designs. I understand that the design is all about “them” and not about “me”

RJ: What is important to you in this business of design? 

SC: Design is one of the very few professions when every project and every day can provide you with a new challenge and opportunity. 

The opportunity to design a new image for your client or improve on their existing one is inspirational. It is therefore always important to be aware of new products, techniques and trends that may influence our trade. 

Only in this way can we improve ourselves and build our design repertoire. 

But after all my years in design I would consider that design is still the only profession that I can gain total job satisfaction and be proud by creating something that the client is also proud of.

RJ: What prospects do the industry hold for new entrants?

SC: For younger generations who enter the trade the world is their oyster. They actually have a small advantage over more experienced designers in the fact that they may gain more exposure and influence to newer and more modern design approaches and inspiration from media that  more experienced designers have yet to explore. 

Similar to a younger doctor entering their profession. They will be more exposed to newer technology and medical advances than a more experienced doctor. Simply put they are the future and the future of the industry is inevitably in their hands.

RJ: What does the industry have to do to foster talent, safeguard reputation, uplift standards?

SC: Aside from the many courses available at Hong Kong Universities and academic institutes. There are already some reputable associations who vet its members and assure that those members are in good standing and well versed in design or show promise.

I am already a proud member of one of these such associations. And by creating certain levels of membership requirements the current leaders in the industry have already inspired and paved a way for future generations of our profession.

It ensures that current high level members are keeping up to a high standard in the practice of design whilst ensuring that the next generation is prepared to keep to those high standards in a very competitive market. 

By having these associations the designers in the industry can create opportunities to interact with the general public or certain factions within the community and thus making the general public aware of the need for designers and their importance. 

The associations therefore become known entities and represent a general standard of professionalism which in turn will influence new talent to improve themselves and work to become a reputable member of such. 

A gentleman first and an officer after, Stephen Chan will live on in his work, the memories, the joy, the rainbows he creates for others. His work is his covenant with his customer – his promise of living, breathing, expressive design – designs that may be shaped by experience, honed by talent and crafted by will. These will take this humble ‘artisan of the craft’ to new shores – guided by the origin where all begins and before whom every brow must bow. 

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