The days of studying at stuffy, strictly silent libraries are over. At least’s that’s the impression that Luke Hughes leaves you with during a tour of the elegantly modern redesign that he oversaw at Keystone Academy’s library. Upon entry one is immediately struck, for instance, by the Cambridge educated designer’s placement of semi-transparent quotes on the library’s hallway windows.
“The whole point is that, as you wander along, you never know which one will catch your eye, thanks to the natural lighting,” the British designer says of the gleaming excerpts from Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Confucius, Zhu Xi and other authors. The plastic film that showcases those letters on the hallway side has the added benefit of offering a semi-opaque layer of privacy for the students studying inside the library, so that they aren’t overly disturbed by passers-by that are peaking in.
Hughes— whose eponymous furniture designing firm boasts clients like Yale and Westminster Abbey— took other measures to make the Shunyi international school’s library more inviting and visually engaging. The entryway, for instance, is arched in a classical Chinese fashion, while its bronze door handles are made in the shape of dragons— European style and the other Asian. The walls sport paintings and photos of other famous libraries around the world, but more importantly Hughes put deeply deliberate thought into the shapes of the furniture, height of the shelves and maximizing natural light, so that the study space could subtly let the students settle in and immerse themselves in their learning.
Below, Hughes tells us more about his muses and how to engage today’s youth about design.
During my gap year between school and university, I went to work in the merchant navy. I was 18. My ship— an old Blue Funnel cargo liner— was sent to the South China Sea for six months. Among our crew was an old Chinese carpenter from Guangzhou. He’d make furniture out of driftwood that he fished out of the sea. So by the time he went back home he’d bring yet another little stool or cabinet to his wife. I was really inspired by that.
By the mid-80’s, books began to emerge in the West about Chinese furniture. There was a particular scholar, Wang Shixiang and the pictures of Chinese furniture in his book just hypnotized me. When I started out as a furniture maker myself I took a similar approach, and noticed a lot of similarities between Western designs and those of the Ming Dynasty, which to my mind, were more refined than those from the Qing. There is an elegance and subtlety that is really moving. So when this job came up at Keystone in Beijing, I jumped at the chance.
All my life I’ve been told: “Oh, you dropped out and became a designer.” I try to dispel that misconception every chance I get. It’s not just about designing a table and putting four legs on it. There’s a meaning behind everything you design— the choice of material, the techniques of production, the ergonomics, the impact on the environment and so on. These are complicated things. Keystone has studios downstairs where students can put things together. I think that’s crucial. Design is not a dropout subject; it’s about coordinating hand, eye, and brain, which is really important.
I also enjoy talking to young people about sustainability. I tried to employ natural light in this library as much as I could. And I told the students about how, if you design things for a long life, you lock up carbon for a long time. So the best thing you can do is not make new things, but of course people are going to, so when you do make them you need to make them to a higher standard so they last.
If anyone wants to pursue a career in design, they need to learn how to truly use their eyes. You can do that by taking photographs, people get artistic doing that. But drawing is even better.
And I’m very pleased that Keystone has art and calligraphy classes. It doesn’t matter what you draw, after a while you begin to not only see the object itself but also the meaning behind it. To me, that’s the key.
Photos: Courtesy of Keystone Academy