The Subject And Object Of Design

by Marc Almagro
23 Feb 2018

Mr. Kristof Crolla talks about the challenges and the bright prospects of design in the hands of young Asian talents

Handing out awards provides an indication of a particular society’s values. By rewarding what it deems important, a society influences the way people think, often in profound yet subtle ways. In the field of design, awards can leave a long-lasting impression on creators, and reinforce their way of thinking and creating.

“There are many awards out there, and the competition is stiff, says Kristof Crolla, founder and principal of Hong Kong-based practice LEAD (Laboratory for Explorative Architecture and Design Ltd). “The quality has to be there. Unless the design is very well thought through on all level, it doesn’t stand a chance (of winning),” he emphasizes.

Mr. Crolla observes that more people are looking for something beyond the mere presentation of a very well designed product, but something that has a stronger impact on society as a whole, which can be evaluated on many levels.

“What we are seeing a lot of more and more these days are that designers are bringing in historical, nostalgic components in their design (as they try) to define their identity. But there are other types of design that, by working with different types of materials or using materials in different ways, change what is currently conceived in the design industry,” Mr. Crolla explains.

“I think the (design) industry as a whole is quite mature, but it’s also very set in its ways. It’s basically based on paradigms that have been tried and tested numerous times, and I think if you totally subscribe to that, it’s gonna be difficult to stand out and win.” It’s by breaking the mold, Mr. Crolla insists, that one can really stand out.


Design for Market or Culture?

Mr. Crolla places heavy emphasis how a designer integrates social context in his work. “(Designers) must show where, with (their) design, (they’re) contributing to society as a whole – not just with a product but through what it does.”

As a judge at the recent Golden Pin Design Award, which recognizes outstanding designs aimed at Chinese-speaking communities, Mr. Crolla is aware of the economic importance of this specific market. “The Chinese-speaking market is a quarter of the world,” he says, “it’s an up and coming market, and I would say that from a business perspective it makes sense to try to focus on that.”

He makes a point, however, that good design should transcend ‘markets’. “Where designing for the huaren market contributes to design, or where the unique properties of that market lie, and how that influences design approaches, I really wouldn’t be able to tell. It’s definitely not something that we work with.

“I’m sure there are peculiarities in the Chinese speaking market, but I’m not aware of them because I’m an outsider. And I don’t think I will be able to filter out designs that are able to deliver that contribution that they’re looking for,” he continues.

Designing for a ‘culture’, as opposed to a ‘market’, is something that Mr. Crolla understands, however. As rapid and widespread globalization may lead to the loss of cultural identities, thoughtful design may serve as an antidote, as material culture is a potent tool for understanding, propagating and enriching a culture.


Rein In Passion

“One of the strengths of the designers in this competition is the number of people who would throw themselves blindly at creating products that may or may not sell,” notes Mr. Crolla. “You can see that the sheer passion of people is developing; that’s what drives the work forward and that’s a great strength.”

He cautions, however, that some designers might end up designing for themselves rather than for a particular market. “I think that is a risk for the entire design industry. So many design companies go bankrupt after a few years just because they love doing the work too much, and they don’t manage to sell that passion at the right price, to the right clients. An idiot can sell a hundred-dollar bill for twenty dollars.”

Despite this, Mr. Crolla is optimistic that the market will “eventually filter such things out. And I hope that sufficient quality can be able to move through that (filter). I don’t think that’s specific to the huaren market per se; I think that global thing.”

“Because of a younger design talent pool in Asia, or perhaps because it is not as well established as in the West, there is a greater drive. That motivation can really help people move forward.

“That’s one of the reasons why I like to operate now in Asia. If you manage to get the right people on board, you will find a much stronger gung-ho mentality, and it’s very powerful. Usually, if you manage to navigate through the administration and politics of things, you can get things done much faster here in Asia because of this attitude.”


Design Education

As Assistant Professor in Computational Design at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Mr. Crolla is keen on developing young design talent, particularly in the field of architecture. “There is a big difference in the average attitude of students here and in the West, and it has to do with the role models that are available,” he says.

Mr. Crolla observes that Hong Kong does not have a strong architectural design tradition. Although several massive high-rise buildings are being built in Hong Kong, the main requirements from the clients and the government remain producing sellable floor area within the boundaries of what the government regulations allow.

“The good architect, according to that system, is somebody who can maximize that potential and generate the most profits for the client. That does not guarantee good spatial design or good quality architectural design per se.

Mr. Crolla maintains that although Hong Kong is one of the cities with the highest density of building in the world, it has very little space where “careful, delicate architectural solution has been thought up and materialized. And because of that the profession is dangerously leaning towards a business service providing rather than design creative service provision”.

There’s reason to anticipate a bright future despite these. At CUHK School of Architecture, Mr. Crolla shares, the master’s program provides great opportunities for design exploration and creativity, "where the goal is not to produce the staff of the leading, maybe more commercial, practitioners, but to produce the future ‘competitives’ – people who will beak the mold and with that arrive with the more interesting built environment”.

Mr. Crolla proudly mentions that some of CUHK students are now working for leading architecture firms overseas and in Hong Kong – Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Kengo Kuma, Toyo Ito, etc. “They’ve become very desirable assets.”

Even the established firms are seeing that their client bases are getting tired of seeing more of the same design, Mr. Crolla reiterates. “From the client side, there’s a lot of second or third generation coming in now who have inherited these big development empires from their fathers or grandfathers, and they’re interested to do something else or put their own mark on the built environment.” And the market, Mr. Crolla shares happily, is responding positively to it.