MICHAEL YOUNG (1966-)is a British-born designer who works from studios in Brussels and Reykjavik to create technically rigorous, but always humorous products and furniture.
When Michael Young was invited by Magis, the Italian plastic products manufacturer, to design outdoor furniture “with a smile on its face”, he responded with the engagingly cartoonish Yogi sofa, chair and table. At first glance Yogi looks like children’s furniture, not least because the pieces are so low on the ground. Yet this was a deliberate ploy by Young to ensure that, while children can slip on comfortably, adults will feel incongruous. “Yogi places you in a vaguely humorous predicament and forces you to relax,” he says. “You can’t take yourself too seriously.”
Almost all Michael Young’s designs are intended to “put a smile on your face”. Curvily contoured and brightly coloured, his work is invariably imbued with comic book humour. Born in Sunderland in 1966, he studied furniture and product design at Kingston University from 1989 to 1992 and then worked for four years in Space, a design studio run by Tom Dixon.
In 1994 Young opened his own studio in London and a second space in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, which became his home. He has since developed products and furniture for such manufacturers as Cappellini, Magis and Rosenthal as well as interior projects for the Astro Bar nightclub in Reykjavik and the Mandarina Duck store in Berlin as well as completing an architectural project in Taipei. He now divides his time between Reykjavik and his studio in Brussels.
Q. How did you first become interested in design?
A. At school I always thought I would be in a band, I was - but a bad one, it was quite a shock when I realized I was not up to it because I didn’t bother with my exams , mean while all my friends where about to become vets or pilots , I remember the terror. I waited until I was 21 and got into design school at Kingston as a mature student. In hindsight it was good to do it at that age because it was a ‘do or die‘ situation, I had more determination. I saw all this work by Tom Dixon made of scrap metal and was quite struck by it. It really drove me to create a job for myself were I could feel quite free.
Q. What influence has your design education had on your work?
A. I needed time to develop and that’s what design education gave me. It gave me four years in total. The education bit was very fundamental because at the end of the day you can’t teach people to design, all you can do is point them in the right direction, I mixed my education up with practical experience in a workshop as well which was more balanced.
Q. Which of your early projects was most important in establishing your reputation?
A. The first was a woven steel light, it took off quite fast at an international level, and opened up roads into Europe and Japan only months after leaving school. The next was the Smartie (pouf) and then the Magazine Sofa. The press generated about me at this time was insane and it opened up the Italian market.
Q. When you were beginning your career in the early 1990s what were your chief goals as a designer?
A. I left design school in 1992 and really got myself going by 1994, I realised that to get noticed by industry I would have to design in a noticeable way. I lost money on a lot of things but knew I had to go through with it. I was dedicated, and never had another job so I had to make it work. It was a rough ride and the thought of being back there still drives me. By the middle of 1994 I had secured some financial backing which fed me. My chief goal was to work with industry in Italy or Germany.
Q. How have your goals evolved in recent years?
A. I guess I have a lot more opportunities now, so I have been picking things that I have wanted to apply myself to. I enjoy collaborating with other people. I guess I am pretty focused on industrial design projects and interior design now. I really like to embrace the present because things can vanish in your hands.
Q. Which examples of your work do you consider to be most representative of your approach to design and why?
A. Well I think they all do but to explain a few. The Magis Wagon because it looks into an area that remains fairly unexamined and where I can be free to work with the typology and the relationship to engineering. A new cigarette lighter I designed for BAT because it re examines the way one can use a lighter in a very simple way. Also the trestle table I designed for Magis which has been slightly overlooked but was really quite alone out there.
Q. What impact did moving to Iceland have on your work?
A. Up to that point I would say that my work was a product of my lifestyle which really came from London life. At the time of going to Iceland I felt ready to focus on design in a more academic way. I had some nice contracts and I wanted to dedicate 100% to them. Iceland is fantastic for that because there are very few distractions so in that way I learnt how to concentrate on design as a job. I realised that my furniture – my objects – should be my ambassadors, my representatives overseas. If I have been traveling around Europe for two weeks there is no better place to come than Iceland to get life into perspective.
Q. Why are you now moving to Belgium?
A. I will still be in Iceland too for the above reasons. I chose Brussels because I worked there a lot in 2002 and now have many projects in Europe that I need an office location there. For me London has become too dysfunctional. Paris was my other choice but as it turned out I ended up buying part of very a large warehouse with a 2000 square meter garden in Brussels. There are not many cities left where you can do that. Most people would turn the garden into real estate but we will make a boulle pitch, plant a willow tree and design a fishpond. Brussels is not a exactly a happening place in comparison to other major cities, but it has separate set of charms and the restaurants are among the best in Europe. I like the quality of life there.
Q. What are the chief challenges facing designers today?
A. I guess the life span before a product can be copied is in only a year these days, and there are some real good machines out there copying. However it is much easier for (independent) designers than it ever has been because large companies have realised that they can work with designers as opposed to just consultancies. The biggest problem as I see it is the volume of design students been pumped out of education all over the world. The design industry is not large enough to support them all.
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain