A native of Hong Kong, Chi-Wing Lee is the founder and design director of product design consultancy, Milk Design. With a portfolio full of several award-winning projects, he has worked with an impressive list of local and international brands that command a major presence in Asia, including Baidu, Philips, Lane Crawford, and Cathay Pacific.
After graduating in industrial design from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Lee decided to pursue a graduate degree in design, which proved to have a profound impact on his career. He received his MA from École nationale supérieure de création industrielle – Les Ateliers, a school well known for its industrial design program. It was ranked the top school for industrial design in France by L’Etudant magazine. Lee stayed for an additional two years after graduating to work in the design consultancy field, which further enriched and deepened his design exploration and practice in Europe.
It was in France where Lee nourished his passion for design. “I was attracted to others’ work because they were doing something very different,” he recalls. “I wanted to learn from them and develop my own thinking. European companies know how to use design and, in general, the public has a greater understanding of design compared to Hong Kong.”
When Lee returned to Asia, it was at a time when Hong Kong was still known for its skilled factories. He started Milk Design in 1998–a full-service design consultancy that was dedicated to offering pure and simple design solutions, just like milk. “I wanted to have something simple,” he explains. “We worked with local companies and also tried to bring our ideas of how to make a product not just by design, but also to try to understand the client’s needs and to work together with their vision.”
Lee was tasked with the mission to create an inspired line of in-flight tableware for Cathay Pacific Airlines in 2007. Milk Design was faced with two new challenges. “The Cathay Pacific tableware was quite an important stage for our company,” Lee notes. “Before this project, we did lots of electronic products, like headphones, but we didn’t do many projects related to our culture. When Cathay Pacific came to us, they said that they needed a change, and because Cathay Pacific is a Hong Kong company, they wanted to have an Asian touch but with modern style.”
Lee turned to an ancient Chinese porcelain technique referred to as “rice grain” for inspiration and mimicked the effect using modern materials. “We needed something durable and we could only use plastic,” said Lee, “so we did the same thing, but with a new application of the ‘double injection’ technique. It was a big inspiration for us, and it turned out that the project was quite successful.”
The tableware garnered accolades in Hong Kong and Macau and since then, Lee has continued to create pieces that reflect huaren (Chinese-speaking people) cultural values in innovative ways. These approaches are apparent in two of his recent works: “A New Bamboo Chair” and the “Wong” chair.
According to Lee, the bamboo chair set out to capture “the values of traditional techniques and renewing them to fit with today’s living standard.” The project, which was commissioned by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, saw Lee working with traditional bamboo craftsmen in Taiwan. Assembled by hand, the minimalist chair design features torch-bent back supports, which gives it the facade of a modern folding chair.
(To better understand the construction process, watch “Making of a Bamboo Chair” on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lC5C5tOS-YM.)
Collaborating with Elmood, Lee also created the white oak and walnut “Wong” chair. The “Wong” chair, takes inspiration from the classical Chinese furniture that gained in popularity during the Song dynasty. Lee adds a modern twist through the incorporation of a unique three-way jointed design.
Lee feels that a lot of traditional techniques are losing relevance today because “they demand too much handwork, or maybe they get outdated.” He also admits that the younger generations “don’t want traditional Chinese furniture.” In order to ensure these techniques remain contemporary, he suggests designers to learn from their cultural past. “If we look at our past, if you look at our culture, you can always find something very smart. We can transform those ideas into today’s design,” he enthuses.
About Chi-wing Lee
Chi-wing Lee is a native of Hong Kong and graduated with a BA in Industrial Design from Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He completed his MA from the ENSCI–Les Ateliers, a top-ranked industrial design school located in Paris. Prior to relocating back to Hong Kong, he worked for France-based design consultancy Rison Pure and was a freelance designer for Habitat. He also worked for Philips Hong Kong before establishing Milk Design in 1998, a full-service design consultancy focused on industrial and consumer products. In 2002, he co-founded the Feel Good home accessory brand and has garnered a number of design awards, including the HKDA Asia Design Awards 09 Silver and Bronze Awards, the Design for Asia Award 2008 Bronze Award, and most recently, the Design for Asia 2016 merit award.