The foursome behind MLKK discuss balancing commercial aspirations with social responsibilities, resurrecting elements from their Hong Kong heritage, and what it means to be designers in today’s crisis-plagued climate.

MLKK. The acronym represents the studio’s four founders: Mavis Yip, Lans Ng, Kian Yam and Kwan Ho Li. The harmonious quartet met while studying architecture at the University of Hong Kong. Yip and Yam then headed to the US, returning to their home city with Master’s degrees from MIT. There they reunited with Ng and Li, who had simultaneously obtained the equivalent qualification in Hong Kong. ‘By chance we got to work on several small projects together,’ says Yip, ‘and we realized we had very similar ideas and methodologies.’ They eventually merged their initials to form MLKK in 2015 with the idea that design should be ‘respectful and sensitive while stimulating its users and surroundings’.

You were all born in Hong Kong. How has your intimate knowledge of the city influenced your practice?

MAVIS YIP: Hong Kong is famous for its high density, and everything here generally happens at a very swift pace. There are a lot of pressures and constraints. It’s the same in Hong Kong’s design industry. We have to be very flexible and adaptive – yet also creative – when facing different challenges.

The founders of MLKK (left to right): Kian Yam, Kwan Ho Li, Lans Ng and Mavis Yip.

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

MY: Trying to go against the tide. We want to take time to understand and uphold the valuable yet forgotten techniques that are unique to Hong Kong. As an example, in Aēsop Harbour City we used in-situ pebble wash as the key material. Very modest yet labour intensive, it was popular in the 1960s and ’70s before being slowly replaced by more efficient materials. The store is located in a high-end shopping mall, meaning there are certain expectations surrounding materiality. We took the extra effort to convince the landlord pebble wash was the right choice – that we could build the store with it. We also worked closely with the contractor to minimize any hiccups during construction, especially since we had only three weeks on site. It was a demanding yet rewarding process.

You’ve worked on a number of Aēsop stores. How did your relationship with the brand begin?

KIAN YAM: In 2013 I was working as the lead in-house architect at Aēsop, where I collaborated with Mavis and Kwan Ho on some store designs. We were fascinated with the idea of exploring local culture and materials, developing ideas from these inspirations and then translating them into spaces that would speak to locals. We were really fortunate that Aēsop appreciated what we were doing – and still does.

Working within the colour and material requirements of a commercial development in Xi’an, MLKK created harmony and character for the Glorious Plaza jewellery store by repurposing the building’s existing perforated steel panels – reducing waste in the process.

What was your first project for Aēsop, and how did it explore your design ideas?

KY: It was in the International Financial Centre (IFC), one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious shopping malls. Tenants are usually required to renovate entirely every two to three years to stay fresh. For us, that’s not ideal from an environmental point of view. We gave ourselves the challenge of creating a thoughtful yet more sustainable solution that’s easy to maintain. After researching environmentally friendly materials, we decided to use cork. At that time at least, in 2016, it was really uncommon to see cork used in a commercial context. We wanted to see if we could push it to the limit, harnessing its sound-absorbing properties to create a soft, quiet and peaceful space. The store feels as if it’s become a gathering point for visitors within a very busy commercial environment.

What’s sustainable now might not be sustainable in ten years’ time

You talk about sustainability, locally oriented solutions, and reviving forgotten materials and techniques. What else is involved in your design process?

KY: Ultimately, we believe design is for the people. In that way, our process is not radically different from those who have come before us. But we try to differentiate ourselves by pushing the limits. And as in the IFC project, we hope to provide thoughtful solutions. Spaces that brighten a visitor’s experience or challenge normal behaviours. We also take on multiple roles in certain projects. We’re collaborating with Build a Music School (BAMS), for instance, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a music school for children in Myanmar. For that project, we’re not just architects but also planners, strategists and project managers.

Aēsop Brisbane translates the city’s saturated blue skies, abundant natural light and concrete textures into a space for contemplation.

Designing a school in Myanmar seems worlds away from your work for Aēsop . . .

KHL: Aēsop is one of the most prominent names in our portfolio – those projects are seen by the public and draw attention. But in the background, we’re always working on other projects – particularly social projects, like the Myanmar music school. They come with different restrictions, different audiences. But for all projects, we try to distil our design thinking and methodology into something relatable for the audience in that context. How can our outcomes serve as relevant examples for our industry? This way of thinking means we can face different challenges and be extremely versatile.

How did you get into social design?

KY: During our early Aēsop collaborations we were exposed to different communities in Hong Kong. We saw a need for designers to contribute their professional abilities towards alleviating social problems. In 2015, the year we started the studio, we were approached by the organizers of the Myanmar music school. That was a key milestone for us. We realized that opening our own studio would help us to work on social projects while continuing our commercial aspirations – to apply our design skills to both sides of the spectrum.

In Houston, semi-polished plaster forms part of a material palette for Aēsop that recalls mid-century industry, a nod to the city’s nickname, Space City.

How else have you developed as a studio from those early days?

KWAN HO LI: Since we began, we’ve been fortunate enough to work on both commercial and social projects around the world. This journey has taught us how to communicate the conceptual and technical aspects of our designs to the various parties involved, from contractors in the US to a local end user in Myanmar. Working with such a diverse range of people has been humbling and enlightening – it’s made us more openminded when dealing with people from different backgrounds. These experiences have moulded us into a studio that doesn’t celebrate the individual designer. We’re more about collaboration and teamwork. That’s why we don’t often publish solo portraits or information about us as individuals.

Do you think the role of spatial designers is changing, particularly in relation to recent global challenges?

LANS NG: In the context of the coronavirus crisis and climate change, we believe designers need to take on a much more significant role, whether that’s socially or environmentally. Many industries are trying their best to improve, and we as spatial designers should do the same. At MLKK, we’re always working on social projects and designing responsibly using sustainable materials and construction methods. We’re devoted to engaging communities through design.

For Aēsop Harbour City in Hong Kong, MLKK revived in-situ pebble wash, a modest yet labour intensive material that was popular in the 1960s and ’70s before being slowly replaced by more efficient alternatives.

KY: We also don’t believe design stops at a certain point. We need to keep learning. The industry is changing; the world is changing. What’s sustainable now might not be sustainable in ten years’ time. The eternal-student mentality is something we picked up during our studies, but it’s in our studio’s character to keep pushing ourselves that much further.

This interview was originally featured in Frame 135. Get your copy here.

Hero image: Since 2015, MLKK has grown to become a team of around ten, including its four founders.