At the mid-career retrospective of graphic designer Hanson Ho last month, visitors might have been surprised to see not a single piece of work he created in the past 16 years.
Instead, the gallery walls were adorned with a salmon-colored semi-circle, a grey square, and framed black rectangles, amongst other simple shapes. These are the building blocks of the elemental and modernist creations by the Singaporean designer, better known as the founder of H55 studio. When Ho thought about looking back at the output of the studio he founded in 1999, he decided to pay homage to the aesthetic fundamentals of his practice instead of staging a “meaningless” show-and-tell exhibition.
“Representation is what we create,” he explains. “But a lot of times while drawing and constructing these symbols and logos, or even letterforms, I began to see the beauty in them as themselves and not that they must represent something.”
As the straightforward title “Shapes (1-15)” indicates, the exhibition consisted of 15 shapes and compositions in the two galleries of DECK, an independent arts center in Singapore made from shipping containers. Visitors were first welcomed by a riot of colorful powder-coated aluminium forms blown up to human scale. At a second gallery above, prints of black rectangles and squares in various compositions sit inside frames that were lined up against the white walls—demarcating a space for contemplation.
Such simplicity, however, was far from simple to produce. Once he decided to feature shapes often found in his work, Ho had to carefully consider how to construct and arrange them in the gallery as any flaws or imperfection would be only more obvious. As if laying out a page design, Ho had his assistant measure the galleries and then built a model to visualize how the works could accommodate its multiple beams and even exit signs.
“The space around the work also plays a very important part in how we perceive these shapes,” he said. “Especially a site-specific work like this where it’s as much about geometry and proportion.”
This calculated approach to aesthetics is what attracted the young Ho to modernist graphic design as a student. Amidst a period of “chaotic” postmodern graphics in Singapore in the mid-’90s, Ho found a way out in the works of German designer Josef Müller-Brockmann and British designer Peter Saville. He started H55 after graduation, and in over a decade, single-handedly created a body of award-winning works for clients ranging from artists to government agencies.
Modernism for Ho is pragmatic beauty. As it can be rationally explained through logic, the works are relatable to clients and applicable to anything from cool music covers to corporate identities. Even so, Ho’s modern designs were not well-received in Singapore during H55’s early years. Determined to do design the way he wanted, the designer smartly targeted clients who understood his language and approach.
Today, his largely print-based designs range from books for Singapore artists Robert Zhao and furniture designer Nathan Yang to identities for national projects like the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize and the annual Noise Singapore youth arts program. It says as much that Singaporeans nowadays are coming to him asking for “as little design as possible” (quoting German industrial designer Dieter Rams) in their projects.
“I don’t think he meant that there should be no design or few elements. I think what he meant is to not let design become too literal as a message,” Ho says. “We always aim for the message to be quite distilled in order to attain a sense of focus and also to provide clarity for the audience.”
Despite this belief that Modernism has a universal appeal, there were visitors to his exhibition who walked out in less than a minute feeling puzzled. To Ho, it’s a sign that Singapore has yet to attain the visual sophistication of societies like Japan or Germany where audiences are more open-minded in the ways they view art and design. He readily acknowledges that anyone could have easily produced a similar exhibition, but how he arrived at it is the difference. To back that up, he produced a new 400-page monograph of the studio’s output for the exhibition. This largely visual publication features over 80 projects completed by the studio since its beginning. It’s a follow-up to the text-heavy booklet (that I edited) published earlier this year that introduced H55’s ideology with 55 commonly used words in his studio.
Such a well thought-out presentation of H55’s output is why many fans and friends were curious if there was more to this exhibition of shapes than meets the eye.
“There are people who came to the exhibition and asked what it meant, because they know that a lot of the work done in the studio is ideas-based or even conceptual,” says Ho. “But the truth is the shapes are here for people to appreciate them as they are.”