In a career spanning over two decades, Michael Young, artist who had collaboration with Void Watches has established himself as one of the pre-eminent industrial designers of his generation
INTERVIEW: PRODUCT DESIGNER MICHAEL YOUNG
INTERVIEW: ABID RAHMAN | PORTRAIT: AMANDA KHO
In a career spanning over two decades, Michael Young has established himself as one of the pre-eminent industrial designers of his generation. Young’s output, that’s ranged from furniture to interiors and of course watches, speaks to a singular talent looking to constantly challenge himself but always leaving his unmistakable fingerprints on the product; the notion that any given product is a ‘Michael Young,’ something only achieved by the very best industrial designers.
Feted though he is now, Young’s career began at a time when industrial design was a lot simpler, an era before coffee table books and fawning documentaries. “I actually started in design when you just made one object and you then tried to sell it,” says Young matter-of-factly, a style of plain speaking which points to his upbringing in the North East of England. “And then you would make a little bit of money, make another one and try and find somewhere else to sell it. All of a sudden design has become this massive industry.”
Young’s rise as an industrial designer has closely tracked the rise of the profession in the popular imagination, but his principles, and crucially, design sensibilities have remained implacably the same. “I like to keep my design as simple and paired down as possible. I'm aware that I have my own DNA,” he says before adding that his goal is to achieve an emotional connection. “It means a lot to me if the person has a personal empathy with the object itself. It actually speaks to them whether that's emotionally, whether it's visually or even if it just fits in with their colour scheme,” he says. Young’s approach takes inspiration from designers from the past, particularly those from Japan: “the Japanese masters used to say if something is done well enough it has its own soul and ultimately I would like to think that the objects I design, have enough thought put into them to resonate their own sort of right to exist.”
Never someone to let himself be defined by one product typology, Young looks at design as problem solving, or to sate his own curiosity, a trait that led him to watches. “Watch design has always baffled me. I could never decipher where the design language came from because it's a mixture of Victorian and then all of a sudden Formula 1 racing, all mixed into one product,” Young says adding that the first watch he designed, the now iconic PXR5, was purely for himself as a thought exercise that stayed true to his aesthetic. “I asked myself what do I need in a watch? Simply, I want a watch that tells the time and if I want a watch that tells the time, I want to wear it with different clothes. That's how the PXR5 watch was developed. It was a watch that was very minimal and very flexible, and served no other function than what its intended purpose was, to tell the time.”
What began as a personal design project soon attracted a lot of attention and inevitably the questions of whether the PXR5 could be purchased. “I would go to a design trade fair and people would ask whether they could buy it and the story just grew organically. I made a few hundred and then we got so many people calling. We didn't do any marketing, none whatsoever.” The PXR5, which Young admits is named after a Hawkwind record, became his calling card, in a literal sense. “It certainly became better than a business card. It became something where people would put on their watch and someone would go ‘hey where did that come from?’ ‘Oh this came from Michael.’ I've never seen anything like it,” says Young.
The design features of the PXR5 have typical Young motifs of keeping things simple but more than that, the watch was prescient in the way watch design today has evolved, particularly in regards to the strap and the use of colour for straps. “The fundamental thing was that I wanted a standard, digital screen. And then I worked around that on the easiest way to make an interchangeable strap mechanism,” says Young of his forward thinking approach. “The way this actually curved and fitted onto the wrists, served perfectly for the purpose of just adding different straps and the ease of putting a strap on and taking it off and changing the straps.” The original PXR5 was unique as it came with five interchangeable and colourful straps, something that made it stand out in a crowded market place. “It was like buying a product and there was more parts you could buy for it, which was quite rare for the watch industry,” says Young.
Now celebrating ten years since it was first conceived, the PXR5 is making a comeback and given a new lease of life in collaboration with Void Watches, a partnership that sprang from mutual respect, admiration as well as a chance visit to a design store in Sydney. “David has been developing Void like no other independent watch maker, over the last five years. Actually I was in Sydney some months ago and I was in one of my favourite stores there and I saw Void watches and they were next to my own. The product placement was just perfect,” says Young who was keen to find a home for the PXR5 as much of his time was taken up with disparate group of multinational clients. “I thought Void really knows what it’s doing. It's independent, it's flexible, it's taking advantage of all of the latest techniques, finishes and textures. I just said look this is a great idea, the demand is still there, let’s get the watch back onto the market.”
Despite looking as fresh and relevant as it did ten years ago, the PXR5’s return comes with a few new tweaks and added bonuses. “We are going to launch the watch in its original format, the classic finishes and the classic straps, but we are also developing new finishes, developing more refined straps, a broader range of colours, textures. So I think it's going to take on a whole, new lifespan. The original PXR5 will still be there for the diehard, for the purist collector, but I think ten years later there's so many more opportunities available to us that we'd be foolish not to take advantage of those.”