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Designed by Engineers

Ben McCarthy takes a look at his favourite ’default’ products from Hong Kong

Designed by Engineers


October 9th, 2008

Ben McCarthy is indesignlive’s Hong Kong editor. He is an Aussie expat industrial designer currently working with British expat Michael Young.


I always enjoy using efficient, functional and semantic objects which display beauty in their utilitarianism, regardless of their level of ‘design’ or ‘designer’. So, in some kind of ‘supernormal* in Hong Kong’ the following five products are examples of simple, useful, and beautiful objects with a cultural heritage or relevance to Hong Kong.

Red plastic lights


These shades are actually manufactured in Hong Kong (as opposed to china) by a locally iconic manufacturer of plastic goods. These glowing shades can be found all over the city in grocery stores and food suppliers, the theory being that the red glow makes fruit look fresher. The sheer volume of outdoor food grocer’s, and thus the volume of these lights, makes them impossible to miss in even the briefest visit to Hong Kong. Apparently they manufacture a few colours, but my local electrical suppliers only carried red. The story goes that white versions are reserved for pawn brokers or second hand jewellers.

Steel Trolley

The trade of dried seafood in certain areas of the city drives the local manufacture of steel trolleys, sometimes pushing the welding onto the street. The trolley traffic can get heavy during the day, and at night, they’re folded and locked in the street. So even after hours, they become part of the local landscape. They feature a large flat tray, and a folding arm.  The nicest feature is the perforated branding in the back of the trolley which displays the name of the owner, customised at the time of production.

White canvas shoes

I bought a pair of these shoes at the start of the summer as an attractive alternative to flip flops / thongs, and received a few humorous looks and remarks as they are (unknowingly to me) the stock standard issue sports shoe for local school kids. So these minimal canvas loafers carry a common association to painful days of involuntary PE lessons but are also the most basic covered footwear I can find.

Good morning towels

Good morning towels are a basic tea towel, the quality won’t put Harrods out of business, but the Chinese and English screen print on hospital style simplicity is everything you need in a tea towel and nothing you don’t, and I’m attracted to the utilitarian recognition of this in the simple title ‘good morning’. These things are as common as mahjong and could be found in almost every household around the city.

Market Basket

Woven baskets are commonplace in laundries, kitchens, construction sites, and even on the roadside where large shallow circular baskets are used to dry seafood. I found this slightly more cosmopolitan version, designed for grocery shopping, at a hardware / home store – it’s a more traditional alternative to the plastic bag.

*supernormal was an exhibition curated by Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa in 2006 displaying 204 everyday products which exhibited beauty in their simplicity, coined “super normal design – sensations of the ordinary”

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