Julie Progin and Jesse McLin are a dynamic design duo based in Hong Kong. Through their commercial ceramics studio and brand, Latitude 22N, they have been producing homewares and lighting imbued with the cultures of Hong Kong for customers across the Asia Pacific region since 2009. Through Julie & Jesse, the couple test the boundaries of ceramics production with one-off sculptural pieces. To support and inspire the local design community, they also host talks and exhibitions at their Hong Kong gallery.
The story of the founding of their practice is directly tied to the story of their marriage. McLin proposed to Progin when they were living in New York City, and while discussing the wedding, they came up with the idea to design some dinnerware for the event, “so that we could share what we do with our family and friends,” Progin says. They had a standing date each month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they would go to get inspiration.
On one visit not long after the dinnerware decision, they stumbled across a plate that was made in the Song Dynasty in China, which turned out to be the catalyst for their decision to move to Hong Kong. “On the plate were two deer chasing each other in a forest, a male and a female, and that spoke to us,” says Progin. “We took some pictures and we worked on the patterning, creating a story. When we landed in Hong Kong we were still not married, so we started to think again about making those plates. That’s how we landed in Jingdezhen–we really wanted to visit the source of that plate to see if they were still made there.”
Jingdezhen is a city in China that has been renowned for it high quality porcelain production for centuries. That first trip to the town was made by McLin in 2008, “just to see what was happening there.” He was excited with what he saw and with the possibility of being so close to makers, craftsman, and production facilities, the couple decided to set up a production studio there the next year.
“It’s really important to understand how the craftsman work, so we can also work in consideration of what they need. The more you start creating, you can’t just ship everything back to Hong Kong. It’s a bit complicated,” McLin explains. “So we felt it was necessary to have a space to keep our prototypes, our molds… to keep working and producing there. Then more and more we started to work on personal [Julie & Jesse] projects and we needed space to do that.”
The Jingdezhen studio is staffed by two brothers who studied ceramics at the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute. They communicate with Progin and McLin predominantly through email or occasional in-person visits and stays. “They know us quite well after working together with us for almost ten years,” says McLin. “They know what to do and how to do it, and it’s really up to them to manage how a given project moves along.”
The amount of time Progin and McLin spend in Jingdezhen each year varies–some years they are there for five or six months, other years, they do not go at all–because they also have kilns in their Hong Kong studio, and a lot of prototyping is done there, along with very small production runs, testing, and the work on the very unique pieces for special commissions or Julie & Jesse. “If we need bigger kilns and different types of clays and materials, then we will work directly in China,” Progin explains.
Business for the homewares and lighting sold under the Latitude 22N name is booming. While sales opportunities at home in Hong Kong are predominately focused on bigger sales to the hospitality sector, the company also sells to individuals across the Asia and Asia Pacific region via their website and their Hong Kong based distributor. Their biggest markets are Australia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore. While distribution to Europe and the USA is not something they have been able to pursue, it may be a consideration in coming years.
For those larger quantity sales, Hong Kong is proving a fantastic place to run their business from due to the increasing number of international architecture firms setting up shop in the city in recent years in order to work more efficiently in China and wider Asia. “It’s the most beneficial for Latitude 22N, but there’s also been quite a bit of interest in Julie & Jesse for VIP lounges, lobbies or areas where the company or client wants maybe one or two very unique, kind of odd vases or something more artwork based,” McLin notes. “It’s actually quite interesting how it’s developed; a client could come to us looking for one thing, but once they visit the studio they actually end up with something completely different.”
The diversity of the Asia region is reflected in Progin and McLin’s customer base. Why does their work appeal to such a wide range of people and companies? “Our work is really about Asia, but it’s also coming from an international perspective. It’s a bit of balancing between the East and the West,” McLin explains. “That means that if you’re a Western client, you get it, and if you’re a Chinese or a local client, you get it, too.
“And really, that’s our personal story as well. Julie was born in Hong Kong, this city is her history, and it’s my history now, too. It’s very important to acknowledge and respond to the local aesthetic and sensibility as well as a global perspective, and I think a lot of the big brands or very industrial design brands focus on a plain, global aesthetic without any story behind it.”
A collaboration with Moonzen, a homegrown Hong Kong craft beer brewery gave Progin and McLin the chance to delve into the ancient world of food production in China. Every beer Moonzen create has some relationship to Hong Kong or the China region. When a story broke that archeologists in China had discovered shards of pottery that once housed beer, the brewery collaborated with the research teams, including Stanford University, to recreate the historical beverage. When it came time to release a limited run of the beer, Progin and McLin were asked create the vessels that it would be sold in.
“There was a very particular ceramic aesthetic coming out during that time period. Many, many years ago I was introduced to the ceramics of that culture, so it was really interesting to tie that knowledge from art history class into a real project,” notes McLin. “It was all about being able to produce a useable, functional item that was really responding to the archeological digs, the evolution of vessels, the evolution of alcohol in China, and transportation, because a lot of the ingredients from the original recipe were coming from different regions inside and outside China.”
In another project, Tribute Hotels commissioned Progin and McLin to create dinnerware and in-room accessories that responded to the Hong Kong community. The hotel is situated in a very old, local neighbourhood in Hong Kong, so the designers decided to get out their cameras and walk around the nearby streets, taking photographs of the architecture and other street-side features as they walked.
“Very quickly we picked up on small details in the architecture that one day will probably be destroyed. There were three details that we really enjoyed: the floors, the windows, and the shop gates. The gates in particular had really interesting patterns that would evolve and change from shop to shop,” says Progin of the process. It was these patterns that were eventually incorporated into the tableware sets for the hotel.
With Latitude 22N growing at a steady pace, Progin and McLin are now keen to shift more of their focus onto Julie & Jesse. “Definitely Julie & Jesse needs to move in all sorts of directions,” Progin stresses. “The market for Latitude grows as it grows and it’s already all over Asia Pacific. We really want to show the work we do for Julie & Jesse abroad because it gives a good insight into Jingdezhen and what we’re doing in the city. All of our work archives, in a sense, what is happening in that city, and it’s a dialogue that we want to share.”
Another possibility for the future might be trying to find ways to incorporate the technology innovations coming out of nearby Shenzhen into their work. “There’s a fascinating combination of technology and design and ideas that is being made possible by the industry that’s developing in the region that you could not do anywhere else right now,” Progin says. “I think that’s quite exciting and we’re starting to look into it for ceramics, but we haven’t found a way in yet. If you can work with the industry and mesh technology with your work as a craft designer, then I think that’s very interesting.”
About Julie Progin and Jesse McLin
Latitude 22N is a Hong Kong based design company established in 2008 by designer and artist duo Julie Progin and Jesse McLin. Named Latitude to reflect on the diverse backgrounds of the founders and of their collaborative partners, and 22N for the latitude of Hong Kong, we offer a range of contemporary and creative porcelain dinnerware, home decor, accessories, and lighting under our brand Latitude 22N, very unique limited edition and experimental pieces under our label Julie & Jesse as well as design consultancy services in both ceramics and graphic design.