Eric Chan is a designer and entrepreneur with close to three decades of experience in both the East and the West. Born in Guangzhou, China, Chan moved to Hong Kong as a child, where he grew up and was educated to a tertiary level. He headed to the US to study for a master’s degree, and it was there that he entered the workplace, eventually founding his own highly successful, globally influential firm, ECCO Design, in 1989. He never forgot his Chinese roots, however, and, it seemed, neither did his former home place. In 2010, he was named World’s Outstanding Chinese Designer by the Hong Kong Design Center.
Speaking about his upbringing in Hong Kong, Chan notes that while his university education in the city afforded him proficiency in the field of design, he also highly values his early immersion in Chinese culture. “Design is a whole experience–it’s not just about where you were educated, your training,” he says. “My [design] education at Hong Kong PolyU was very practical, but I think my time spent in the Chinese community had a lot more influence, and not just in terms of design, but more in terms of holistic thinking about value, aesthetics, and behavior.”
During his time at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he completed a master’s degree, and his subsequent first job at a design agency in the US, he experienced a very different style of education and working practice to what he had been exposed to in Hong Kong. “Both intellectually and practically, my study and work in the US was all about understanding how design influences and impacts people in the long term,” he explains. “I was exposed to a bigger audience, better skills, and more professionalism, as well as a rising sense of the value of design.”
“When you talk about Chinese culture or the East, there are a lot of great historical aspects. Chinese history goes back at least five thousand years. At that time, designers and craftsmen were creating objects, real artifacts, with a rare beauty, soul, and meaning. The design during that period was really rooted in Chinese culture,” Chan notes. According to Chan, unlike in the West, modern Chinese design culture was interrupted by huge social and political upheavals such as the Cultural Revolution, and the subsequent evolution from an agrarian to an industrialized, commercialized society.
Chinese designers are right now going through a process of learning, and they are “going through this process much faster than designers in other societies have before them,” he says. “Right now, we’re in a stage of reflection, discovery, and exploration, and that’s why Chinese design is so interesting right now. We’re on the verge of creating something big, new, and soulful, but we need to make sure that we’re creating things with real value, and exploring the design process in all sectors, commercial or otherwise.”
Once upon a time, so-called ‘Chinese design’ might have meant using older, antique aesthetics in design, such as dragons or other traditional imagery. Now, says Chan, what is more important is the conceptual thinking behind huaren design: what is delicate about an object; how you are going to balance nature and the man-made environment; how you can more intellectually connect family and practice. “In China, designers need to create products with authenticity. The roots of a culture need to be embedded into an object. That’s what we connect with. We have a lot of resources in our long history, but it’s not necessarily about simply linking to the past. We need to explore these resources and find ways to make them relevant in today’s world,” Chan explains.
A clear example of this abstraction of the values, concepts, and material knowledge stored in huaren culture is 9707 Bamboo Chair, a furniture piece created by ECCO Design in collaboration with renowned US-based furniture company, Herman Miller, to commemorate the ten year anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. Unlike his commercial designs, the purpose of this object was to make a particular cultural statement through design. “I needed to capture the meaning of the event: what China meant and what Hong Kong meant at that time,” he explains. Hong Kong has always had a symbolic relationship with Chinese identity, and the handover represented a period of soul-searching for Hong Kong. Through the material of the chair, Chan wanted to reference both high art and the integrity of the Chinese character. Which material would best fit with the characteristics the designer hoped to express through the object?
In Chinese belief, there is a term, junzi (君子), which can be roughly translated as ‘gentleman’ in English, Chan notes. A gentleman, or junzi, has certain qualities, and they are all represented in bamboo. “Bamboo is upright and honest, it’s comprising yet enduring. The branches are very flexible and, at the same time, very rigid. Bamboo is often represented in Chinese high art, so it’s also connected to history. When you consider ecological concerns, bamboo is very ‘green’–it grows quickly and can easily be industrialized. For me, bamboo embodies all these modern cultural and practical Asian relationships. That’s why bamboo was perfect for this project,” he explains.
Ultimately, however, Chan considers himself an international designer. “The world is global. You cannot separate from the global village. Everybody is effecting everyone else. If you do something big, the whole world will know about it, from Africa to Asia to Europe,” he says. “Every successful object has a story, and there’s reasons behind why it exists and why it’s successful. It’s hard to say whether one element dominates another, but I believe it’s a combination of elements that come from both the East and the West. At ECCO Design, we design appliances, telephones, furniture… We don’t want to think about a single market.”
Chan happily admits to being influenced by elements from European, American and Asian cultures, among many other influences, as well as his own particular Chinese background. “When we’re comfortable with our roots, at the end of the day, we design products that people can use and enjoy, and also that are commercially successful and relevant to contemporary culture,” he explains. “I’m not only Chinese or only Western. My American analytical design thinking and methodology empower my ability to simplify complex problems while my Eastern roots enable my sensibility for deeper humanity and emotional value. I’ve benefited from a huge variety of different influences, and that’s why I can call myself an international, or global, designer.”
Being a Chinese-American designer has the advantage of reaching the best of both worlds: the East and West. As Chan notes, China’s economy is booming, and as a result, so is its design industry, which is rapidly evolving. “In my view, product design and the quality expectations of Chinese consumers has elevated. China has evolved from ‘Manufacturer of the World’ and is becoming the ‘Market of the World,’” he says. In recent years, he has noticed a significant improvement in the quality of design in China, and heartily encourages young Chinese designers to push their design abilities to their limit, and strive to break new ground on an international scale. “It’s time for us Chinese designers to offer up our unique cultural point of view and design sensitivity to enrich the global design stage–I hope the next step for China will be the ‘Inspiration of the World.”
About Eric Chan
Eric Chan is the Founder and CEO of ECCO Design in New York City. He has years of international experience in product strategy, design innovation and consultancy. Chan graduated from Hong Kong PolyU and Cranbrook Academy of Art in the USA. He formed ECCO Design with a mission to bring a meta-culture philosophy to the highest level of consultancy for global clients in every major product segment–from furniture and appliances to technology–including Herman Miller, LG, Samsung, Panasonic, Toyota, Haier, and Lenovo. An inventor with over 50 patents in his name, Chan also serves as advisor for a number of tech start-ups, and pushes design integration with wearable and smart connected devices to support the rapidly evolving technology cycle.
ECCO has created multiple-award-winning designs and product innovations. The company’s designs have been featured in museums and design excellence centers globally including The Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum and Museum of Modern Art, New York. He has served as a juror for numerous international design competitions including the IDEA Awards, CES Innovation Awards, IF design awards, and Design For Asia Awards. Chan is a regular guest lecturer at leading international academic institutions including New York University, Pratt Institute, Parson School of Design, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Hong Kong PolyU, and Tsinghua University. He is also an advisor to government-organized design councils from North America to Asia, including those in the US, Korea, Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.