The conference room was abuzz. Staff members flocked in and out, greeting me cordially while joking with each other, and soon I was ushered to a seat in the middle of the room. One moment he was singing, the next moment he was showing off his new Epson projector, and before I knew it, all eyes were on me. “What would you like to know?” asked Alan Chan, the Hong Kong-born design and branding maestro whose awards and accolades over his 46-year career can easily fill up this entire article. As I took in my surroundings—the Wan Chai headquarters of the Alan Chan Design Company—I commenced a chat that quickly whisked me into the kaleidoscopic world of one of Hong Kong’s most brilliant creative minds.
“I don’t really consider myself an art collector,” confessed the 66-year-old Chan. A walk around his company office, however, would suggest otherwise. In fact, the designer is obsessed with collecting—and not just art. His voracious appetite has made him the owner of thousands of objects, from Japanese crafts and Chinese antiquities to books, posters, tableware and fashion. “I’m always looking,” he explained. “As a commercial designer, I would say it is my responsibility to be nosy. I have to know what’s going on locally, regionally and internationally.” This hunger for new things has translated into quite a hectic year-round schedule for Chan, who attends most all of the major art fairs and design conventions around the world. These excursions have led to an inadvertent—or perhaps, inevitable—stumble into the world of art-collecting.
Before Chan opened his company with his wife Sandra, in 1980, he had worked at the international agency Grant Advertising in the 1970s whose Hong Kong branch, located in the Prince’s Building office tower in Central, had artworks hanging on its walls. “The expats at the company appreciated Asian culture—it was the first office in Central that displayed art,” the designer recounted. “I’d say that’s when I had my first contact with contemporary art—a Liu Guosong painting,” he added. “When I saw that iconic composition, with a red circle on top, I thought to myself, ink painting can be like this? I was enamored.” Liu, a preeminent artist who propelled the modernization of 20th-century Chinese ink painting, has always sought ways to simultaneously reinterpret and embrace tradition—an impulse that Chan has also exhibited throughout his career, in his tireless effort to stay ahead of the global curve while still being rooted in his Chinese heritage. “I was just at an auction last month bidding on a Liu Guosong painting,” Chan continued. “I didn’t get that work, but I’ll buy something by him eventually. It’s just a matter of time.”
Such serendipitous encounters often dictate the designer’s acquisition process. He has no grand rhetoric behind his collection; instead, he views it as an extremely personal endeavor, as something of a physical archive of his life experiences. “I am very visual, and I look for ‘the moment.’ If I like how the work looks, I will buy it. If I like the artist, I might also buy his or her work just for that reason,” he explained. In retrospect, Chan has realized that he tends to gravitate toward pieces with a strong graphic element, discovering over time that many of the artists whose work he collects have previously studied design. Chinese new-media artist Yang Yongliang is one such example. Formally trained in decoration and design at the Shanghai Art & Design Academy, Yang creates video installations that feature digital landscape compositions with subdued elements of motion.
Another figure whom Chan encountered in his 20s, when he was a budding designer obsessively learning and absorbing Western ideas and visual materials, was adman-turned-artist Andy Warhol. At a fashion show in Frankfurt on a business trip, Chan saw the artist across the runway, and soon after began looking more closely at his work. “That was another epiphany for me,” he recalled, “how he was selling his blatantly commercial objects for money.” His young mind resonated with the Pop artist’s ideas: Chan always saw the boundaries that segregated forms of creativity to be blurry, or even nonexistent. Design, branding, advertisement, marketing and art—for Chan, all are interconnected and components of an inseparable whole. A few years ago at Art Basel Hong Kong, Chan saw an Andy Warhol illustration—a subtle composition of line that spotlights the artist’s draftsmanship. “I thought it would be exorbitant, so I didn’t even think to ask for the price . . . but it turned out to be relatively affordable!” The work now hangs in Chan’s Wan Chai office.
A similar chance encounter led Chan to his first major acquisitions, which were sculptures by Ju Ming. The designer has always admired the Taiwanese artist’s three-dimensional abstractions inspired by tai chi movements and calligraphic gestures, and even paid a visit to Ju’s studio in the 1990s. After purchasing two pieces—one of which is a bronze rendition of Ju’s signature single-whip form—in Taiwan in the early 2000s, in 2007 Chan found himself walking along Hollywood Road in Hong Kong one day when his eye was drawn to the window of Plum Blossoms gallery. On display were three of ten works that Ju had specially created for his first solo exhibition in the United States. For the 1981 show at the former Max Hutchinson Gallery in New York, Ju had selected Maine cypress logs to create a suite of sculptures that would become early prototypes of his most celebrated “Tai Chi” series. “These sculptures were so abstract I didn’t even realize they were Ju Ming’s,” Chan recalled. “I had never seen such large wooden pieces by him. I bought one right away and after an angst-filled evening, went back and bought the second piece! I had to have them!” Chan recounted the story breathlessly, unable to hide his excitement. Now the two sculptures stand proudly in separate corners of the office. We made detours to see them while I was on my way out.
Also at the office, a small exhibition space named Gallery 27 occupies about 150 square meters near the entrance. Works from Chan’s personal collection were hanging on the walls, including a Hajime Sorayama painting, a Liu Xiaodong painted photograph and three Sanyu ink-on-paper drawings. Three early silkscreen-on-paper works by Keiichi Tanaami betray influences from renowned Japanese artist and graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo, who is, according to Chan, his “hero.” One of the two 1981 Ju Ming pieces was installed at the end of the hallway. “The number 27 is very special to me. It’s the date of both my and my wife’s birthdays and, in fact, my daughter just got married on the 27th of December,” Chan explained. Outside of the office, the designer inaugurated another exhibition space, Space 27, in Quarry Bay in November 2015. At the 650-square-meter gallery, Chan is set to curate shows for young artists and possibly hang some works of his own during periods in between.
Standing at the helm of a 300-piece collection, Chan is a curator of stories. “Of course I like to own things I like, but it’s not just about possession. It’s about holding an idea, or a piece of history, in my hands. I relish that feeling.”
By Denise Chu
This article was originally published by ArtAsiaPacific in Mar/Apr 2016 (print content). This article cannot be edited nor shared to third parties without permission from ArtAsiaPacific.