The Surfer and the Storyteller
“The thoughtful act of everyday design teaches us that though we may be a consumer culture, there is room for a reverence of something greater than ourselves.
As part of the Business and Career section of Nha Magazine, the founders of Y Studios were featured in a three-part story of finding meaning in eco-friendly design, how designers strive to make our world last a little bit longer and our lives a little better. It is an ode to the passion of uniting values and work, and of taking the time to think of a world beyond ourselves.
Although this article was first published in 2008, our philosophy in life and design remains intact and relevant ten years later in 2018. The world has changed tremendously, and environmentally concerns are still in dire need to be addressed more urgently. We are nowhere near reducing environmental waste and consuming less as the world population keeps growing.
What can we do better as designers moving forward?
ZERO WASTE: ALL MEANING IN ECO DESIGN
By Han Pham | April 2008 | Nha Magazine
Y Studios is headed by Wai-Loong Lim, an internationally recognized designer who has won awards across the globe. Their products can be found in everyday retailers like Target, and serve customers from head to foot (clients include Joe Boxer, Johnson and Johnson, Keen Foot-wear and Motorola). Their multitiered services hope to connect to both clients and consumer passions on a global level.
Lim’s passion is surfing. Looking at him, a towering man with a mane of black hair not yet dulled by the grey of time, we see that it makes sense.
Surfing takes a certain sense of reckless adventure and patience. You develop an unwavering endurance of things that might make others shrink away: early mornings, the notoriously fierce cold of the Northern Californian Pacific Ocean, the body-carving action of paddling your way to the perfect point—to wait.
And this brings us to the other reason why being a surfer makes sense for Lim—his patience. Surfers wake up early and work hard to simply wait. The perfect wave does not come at every moment, but you keep watch and you get better so that when the opportunity comes, you take it.
This is how Lim and his firm, Y Studios, tackles design—with the laid-back Zen of the surfer, who knows his terrain blindfolded, watches the weather reports like a hawk, and hones his body and mind for the effort of making the free careen across the churning surface of a wave seem effortless.
They design everything from dish sets to wireless sound systems. Along with his co-founder, Lisa Yong, who heads up the research arm of Y Studios, and creative lead George Schnakenberg, Y Studios takes a firm stance on what they do.
“We don’t tout ourselves as a green company,” Lim said to me, just minutes after saying hello.
“Maybe we’re the wrong firm for you to interview.”
He is affable but adamant, offering me chai and sitting back, comfortable to pass up an opportunity to speak about himself and his work if it means labeling himself something that may be merely trendy.
In contrast to the allure of volatile fads, their design philosophy is an enduring one.
“We serve our clients by designing products that fit their needs. It’s not about trying to be ‘green’ or using recycled plastics. It’s about quality for us. If we design a quality product, then it may stay with the consumer longer, and stay out of landfills.”
He sums up their approach in four concepts. “We believe in beauty, simplicity, utility and meaning for everything we design.”
Both he and his business partner, Yong, agree that eco-friendly design is more than a passing trend; it’s built into both the product itself and how consumers live their lives.
“If a product is well-designed, then it can become part of your life for a long time, and that’s eco-consciousness, in a way. It’s a very basic meaning, but it’s an important aspect of what we do.”
THE BIGGER PICTURE
When asked about their transformational moment in realizing the direction of their life’s work, they spoke about learning to think big by feeling small.
Yong, head of the firm’s research arm Y Vision and the storyteller to Lim’s surfer, recalls a film called Baraka, a documentary by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson—a film with no plot, no actors and no script. Instead, the film shows some of the best and worst parts of nature and human life.
Wai the Surfer + Lisa the Storyteller
“It is a collage of life, from Indians bathing in the Ganges, to chicken factory workers in the American Midwest. It’s all held together with this mesmerizing music. It’s a movie that makes you think about your place in the world,” Yong recalls.
“It shows you the scale of life. It reminds you that you are not invincible,” adds Lim.
This quietly humbled awareness makes them design things on a human scale, as they think of new ways to gently shift the way we approach life and the things in it.
One of their simplest products is an elegant solution for an everyday act: eating.
“The Workplace dish set we co-de-signed for Vessel encourages reusability and reduces the use of disposables while eating at the office. A lot of the parts are multifunctional. For example the silicone placemat can also be used as a heat pad for removing your meal from the microwave as well as forming a sleeve to store your dish set in. The utensils are used as a latch to lock the sleeve in place. The bowl and plate can be used to cover each other when you are heating food,” explains Lim.
Workplace Dish Set for Vessel Inc. by Y Studios
“This isn’t green in the sense it’s made from green materials,” Lim says, as he starts unfolding a sample set, turning out bowls and cups, unfurling the sleeve into a heat-resistant mat, “but it’s green in its use. We wanted to circumvent a worker’s dependence on Styrofoam, the fast food lunch. We wanted to create an inviting lunch set for someone to use at work that can be many things—a container, mug, a placemat. It wasn’t about competing for Tupperware but thinking outside the Styrofoam box to create something durable, useful and beautiful.”
According to Lim and his team, design is a grand experiment in rethinking the problem and offering a solution, not just in a better product but also in how we use it in our lives.
One of the studio’s key projects, Sonos—the first wireless, multiroom digital music system allowing you to play all your favorite music all over your house while controlling it all from the palm of your hand—demonstrates this approach to be beautifully executed with a subtle design that places a high value on seamless integration with your life.
The first generation Sonos family of products designed by Y Studios
Good design isn’t about flashiness or bragging rights. It’s about something that works so well, you don’t even notice it.
“Music is something that you can choose to have in every room. When we designed this, we wanted it to fit in every room, so we kept the color and form very simple. We paid attention to the materials,” Lim says.
“It’s robust,” snapping his fingers smartly against the casing, “Lift it.”
He geeks out for a minute, spinning the box and pointing out the materials—metal here for better conductivity, perforated plastic from bottom to top there for better performance.
Yong says, “We wanted to create an object of desire, but retain the simplicity and subtlety. It’s beautiful, but you don’t have to show it.”
Lim nods and states, “We design it so it lasts. It has simplicity, meaning, utility and beauty. So you can choose to buy it and display it, or buy it, forget about it, and let it work for you in the background of your life. Although every other audio vision system is obvious, this one doesn’t need to be center stage even though it can be.”
THE “GREEN” WORD
Y Studios’ office is located in an eclectic, vibrant section of San Francisco called Bernal Heights, where dogs and new parents mingle amidst funky coffee shops and intimate bookstores with live bluegrass bands on weekends. It is a funky neighborhood with million-dollar views that encompass everything from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate.
For years, the residents on this slightly rebellious little outpost of the city refused to have their streets paved, preferring to keep the quaint beauty of uneven dirt roads and wildflowers. It is a strangely charismatic place that stands in stark contrast to the shiny newness of the steel-and-glass high-rises being built just a few miles away.
There is a reverence for things old here, for things being given the opportunity to grow old enough to take on character and history.
As it makes sense that Y Studios is run by a surfer, it makes sense that the firm is located here, in this place bursting with beauty and teeming with culture.
“Here in the bay area, there is more exposure to new ideas than in Asia, and you’re encouraged not just to talk about it. You do it. Here, for example, you have signs telling you to recycle. In Asia, if you told someone to recycle, they would say, ‘What are you talking about?’ They’re less prone to naming it ‘recycling’—they do it naturally. They call it reusing things,” explains Yong.
Lim agrees. “Recycling is a western term; in Asia, where sometimes there’s not that much access to a stream of newer things, we tend to learn to retrofit and re-use. It’s about the longevity of something’s use—you can keep using it traditionally or find new ways to use [them]. I remember my mother washing plastic bags and reusing them until they fell apart.”
Yong chimes in, “I remember a neighbor who used to carefully open noodle packets by snipping just the end, so he could reuse it. We might do it because we’re frugal or because we have a reverence for the life cycle of things. In Singapore, we had someone called a ‘garang guni,’ literally a gunnysack man, who used to come and collect our used goods. He would call out ‘Garang! Garang!’ and offer to take away anything: old newspapers, bottles, whatever you had.”
Karung Guni folks on their rounds in neighborhoods in Singapore
“It’s a historical and cultural awareness about reducing your impact; it’s not something that’s driven by the government or a green movement. In China, you have old men and women who collect empty plastic bottles because it’s lucrative. They will actually follow you and wait until you finish your drink and point to your bottle when you finish, to collect and reuse or recycle it.”
Yong, whose career it is to translate the emerging cultural trends and help companies develop culturally appropriate business strategies, takes a long view. “This green movement might seem like a new idea, but it’s not. Maybe it’s more a certain nostalgia—the ability to return to an item and use it over and over. To be able to see more clearly your place in the world, slow down, think and perceive your impact.”
Y Studios is not a green company in the new meaning of the word; it is something that is buried deep inside the way they have always perceived things. Although their company is built on thinking in new ways, unlike most companies stuck in the rat race, they believe time is on their side. Letting ideas marinate and mature, paying respect to the traditions that came before us, valuing quality over flashiness, is at the core of this growing company in the middle of a neighborhood that stands at the cusp of the old and the new.
Lim closes his notepad, which he has filled with sketches of new ideas during our interview, and walks me to the door. On the way, he points to the couch that he and his wife Yong finally chose, after ten years of careful consideration.
“We’re not couch people,” he says offhandedly.
He bids me goodbye, and I can’t help but feel his notebook is calling him to experiment and invent new ways of thinking that move us forward while honoring where we’ve been.
Banner Image Credit: Nathan Ziemanski on Unsplash