On the same wavelength
"Once you become too accustomed to your surroundings, then your eye starts to die. You stop seeing things, and it’s good to get out and re-energise and then come back into it. So to travel with an eye constantly on design inspiration, it helps build that energy back."
To say that Julie Progin and Jesse McLin’s work spans several latitudes would be a gross understatement. Working in the realms of graphic design, woodwork, textile, ceramics and more, their artistic creations have donned the tables of popular restaurants, the walls of shopping malls, and their vibrant studio space. The pair founded Latitude 22N in 2008 – the coordinates for the city they call home. I caught the travelling duo on their return from the Milan Triennale to discuss the importance of history, re-contextualising the every day, and the fine art of storytelling…
Could you share a little insight into the name, Latitude 22N?
There are quite a few angles to it. When we first started, we were really thinking a lot about cross-cultural exchanges and sharing some of those beautiful ancient ceramics with Western culture. Then we started thinking of the Silk Road and connecting the dots, and the whole idea of Latitude being a way of mapping. It’s a line that has no end, it goes all the way around, it tells an exact position but it also has points all the way around the world. And 22 obviously is the coordinate for Hong Kong, our point of departure…
Is HK as a base uniquely suited to your creative approach?
I think that’s just part of who we are because we are travellers, and our inspirations are manifold. We will always be inspired by what is around us, so I’m sure if we relocated to India tomorrow there would be a lot of influence in the work that comes from what we see. It’s only natural as a designer to observe what’s around them; it just comes out in the work.
Are your designers’ eyes always on while you travel?
I don’t think it ever turns off, and that’s the good part of what we do. I guess every trip is a work trip in a way. But it’s important. Once you become too accustomed to your surroundings, then your eye starts to die. You stop seeing things, and it’s good to get out and re-energise and then come back into it. So to travel with an eye constantly on design inspiration, it helps build that energy back.
What was one of the most surprising sources of inspiration you’ve encountered while travelling?
The last time we were in Tokyo, it was evening sun and we were in a shop that was selling white ceramics. They were on glass shelves and it was amazing how the sun cast shadows from the plates above and below, creating an absolutely beautiful patterning that did not exist because it was shadow. It was very unexpected, but it was so beautifully black and white and so graphic and it was very thought provoking of ceramics – the stuff archaeological digs find to uncover ancient cultures. It’s all about lasting forever, and so the shadow as a pattern as something that lasts for a second and as soon as the sun changes it’s gone was so unique.
What are some important themes within your body of work?
I think re-examining history in a contemporary setting is very important – to know the past, you can better build the future, and there are some very poetic moments that are lost in time. A lot of the monochrome ceramics from the Song dynasty, they came a thousand years before but they have a very modernist 50s Scandinavian feel. I think this is very fascinating, to discover that and put it back into context in the contemporary and play with that.
The work you have been doing in Jingdezhen, China, has become something of a longstanding project. Tell us a bit about the Fragments series that arose…
We’d been going to Jingdezhen for a long time, walking every day past the pile of broken mould shards and plaster moulds broken open and slowly appreciating that rubbish not as rubbish, but as artefacts of mass production. So then we put the pieces back together and we started the project, collecting puzzle pieces and putting them back together. And at that point we really thought that the city would remain the same – that the factories we were working with to get their waste would be around forever. Now they’re gone, and all of a sudden the project became quite rare – the rubbish that was everywhere was no longer there, and it became more and more important to us to record these changes when we started to see that happen.
What were your first impressions of the city?
Jesse made the first trip back in 2008. At the time the airport had no building. The plane landed in the pouring rain and there was nothing – no light, nothing. It was a bit intimidating and of course I had no idea what to expect. There are ceramics made everywhere in the city but a lot of it you wouldn’t know about – it’s down a back alley and around the corner, or done by a family out back making large pots. So it was really about pushing yourself to explore, to walk in the door and to engage with people and that was something very different to really just walk into somebody’s home and start talking to them.