The Last Designer, Henry Steiner

For someone who once didn’t know what “graphic design”
was, Sandy Choi has become a remarkably skilled and informed

He was in a Yorkshire school where he’d been sent to study
computer science or civil engineering after typically having no
exposure to Art or Music at his Hong Kong middle school.
A discerning and sympathetic art teacher saw promise in him.
She suggested he take his portfolio down to London and try for
the foundation year at St. Martin’s. Sandy wasn’t too sure
what she had meant by graphic design, but gave it a go, and
was accepted.

This story reminds me of Pierre Mendell describing his
inability to find a calling to satisfy him. With nothing to lose,
he enrolled in the school of applied art in Basel. On his
first morning he was given a pencil, a large sheet of paper,
assigned a visual problem to solve, “and I was happy.”

Later Alan Fletcher, my classmate at Yale and Sandy’s
external assessor at St. Martin’s, on learning that Sandy was
going back to Hong Kong, suggested he look me up. At that
interview I told Sandy I was uninterested in paper training
fresh graduates. Since he had grabbed his diploma and run back
to Hong Kong without any practical experience in London,
I suggested he work for a year with Kumar Pereira,
an ex-employee with his own practice, to learn some basic
realities and then come back. Precisely a year later he did and
began a two-year stint in my studio, working, he recalls,
on the Dairy Farm manual, annual reports for the MTR and
Hongkong Land.

What did he learn from me? Not much, he says, and I was not
easy to work with. (My company was considered such a rigorous
training ground that its nickname was Shaolin Ji, after
the tough kung fu temple.) Having now had his own studio for
five years, he sees how demanding one has to be to get
good work from one’s staff.

Sandy’s office is in basic white, one wall covered by
a large bookcase; he has actually read all of his design books.
An orderly, sparse work table. Some posters rectilinearly
aligned on the floor including a recent acquired Tomaszewski.
An esthetic ambiance rooted in the 50’s, familiar and
in which I feel perfectly at home.

He quotes by heart a passage where Paul Rand recommends
simplicity, honesty, objectivity and industry. He thrives on
bringing visual clarity to confusing material and would love
to work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in-house for
one year doing information architecture. His design pantheon
includes Bayer, Cassandre, Lissitzky, Müller-Brockmann,
Chermayeff, Tanaka, Tschichold. I wonder at how Sandy acquired
his deep sense of “contemporary classicism”.

His speakers are playing Kind of Blue by his favourite
musician, Miles Davis. On display is a framed lithograph by
Antoni Tapiès in a style much looser than his design work
but which, along with the work of Jackson Pollock, he feels
has some affinity with Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.
While the love of jazz and abstract expressionism may seem
paradoxical, he is at heart an orthodox modernist and
as such at odds with the visual chaos of Hong Kong advertising
and the risk-free, tasteless locally designed architecture.

Sandy remembers when he worked on finished mechanicals for
my annual report page spreads how, even though they were pasted
up on thin card sheets, the stacks were massive. Today we
have the computer which allows us to organize the same materials
but much faster, without needing any storage space for
camera-ready boards. We also love it for the way it lets us see
immediately, finished and in colour, ideas which used to
take ages to render as comps. Laborious pastels, stats and rubber
cement discouraged making any changes, even if improvements.

This wonderful, fast, obedient machine can be the designer’s
most helpful friend. But it can also churn out lurid, fuzzy,
layered, illegible images, combining as many fonts and stock
photos as desired, maintaining Hong Kong’s visual pollution.
Teaching the computer and new software techniques have replaced
design training. Why should students be bothered with drawing
and conceptual thought when you can turn out, as Sandy says,
the “trendy wallpaper” which satisfies Hong Kong’s clients?

The simple minded Confucianism and lowballing style of our
educational system – deeply distrustful of spontaneity,
originality or awareness of design history – has spawned a lost
generation of practitioners who take inspiration only from
their terminal screens. An army of mouse appendages.

When well into his nineties, the American comedian
George Burns was known for dating a series of very young models
and starlets. Asked why he didn’t go out with women his own age,
he replied, “There are no women my own age.” I ask Sandy to
name some promising Hong Kong designers under forty. He can
think of none. I agree.

I ask him if he feels alone. The question puzzles him, “Why?”
“Well, because many designers feel misunderstood.” “I’m not that
difficult to understand,” he insists.

Yet the mystery of how Sandy developed his deliberate way of
working and his sure taste, persists.

Would Sandy consider working somewhere else, even though he
is at home here? Yes, in New York, San Francisco, London, Tokyo,
Kyoto. Only the last one seems an odd choice. Not a big city,
not a cauldron of modernity. Yet like Sandy, calm and confident;
emblematic of an obsession for order and a profound tradition
of Asian craftsmanship.

I hope he doesn’t go. He is living example of what design
can be about. Hong Kong needs him. We all do.

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