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Photo Finish

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DB designer Kevin Chu is taking his sustainable design concepts to the next level with a little help from science and the sun. Elizabeth Kerr reports

First thing’s first. Despite what kind of rumours might be floating around out there, designer Kevin Chu’s series of photocatalysis-enhanced lamps do not eliminate COVID-19. They never have, and they never will. The chemistry-based surface additive used on them “is not a cure, but it reduces transmission” of the bug, he explains one afternoon in
Pizza Express in DB Plaza over a refreshing Peroni.

Photocatalysis is not a magic bullet, but it’s not snake oil either. Kevin has been working with environmental cleaners in his interior design work at COC Design (www.coc.design) and now with product at I Am Sugo. He’s added biophilia creations to his credits, but for him the concept is far from a bandwagon to hop on. He’s been at it for six years.

Kevin looks as switched on as he did back in 2018, when he and his Italian wife, Giulia, were talking about environmentally sustainable design over coffee in IFC. Since then there have been some major changes in his life –an opportunity to reposition his design philosophy and products in light of COVID-19, and the birth of a son.

“Man, he’s a lot of work. Sleeping is a luxury for me,” Kevin says with a laugh. “You have no idea how happy I am to see you here today, to grab a beer, and just get out of the house for a bit.” The ‘poor dad pose’ is bluster, though. As Kevin swipes around for photos to show me of his nearly two-year-old, he stresses he hopes he’ll be able to be the kind of parent that encourages his children to do what makes them happy. That doesn’t mean he can’t lament the terrible twos.

The conversation rambles and weaves, covering everything from the initial, brutal impact of coronavirus on Italy, where Giulia still has family, the fresh hurdles he’s faced in supply chains thanks to petulant trade disputes, the upcoming American election, and Apple’s court fight with Epic Games. The primary topic, however, is photocatalysis.

Photo by Baljit Gidwani

Kevin’s magic lamps
In a nutshell, Kevin is using an improved version of a photocatalytic additive on a series of light fixtures and lamps that react to a wide spectrum of light to passively clean our environment. The concept has been around since the early 20th century, with major breakthroughs coming from Japan in the 1970s. Kevin’s been working with it for six years, and this past summer, he won the 2021 German Design Award (GDA) for the sexy and functional FLY lamp. The GDA is bestowed on products that are more than just good
looking, and the lamp’s ceaseless photocatalytic properties made it stand out.

“Even as a discarded material it’s actually doing something. It’s still working,” says Kevin. “That’s why the GDA gave us an award. And it’s applicable to anything, not just the lamp.”

Currently Kevin’s additive (the tech itself was refined by a local lab, BLG) starts life as a milky white liquid that goes into interior finishings that are applied to various surfaces in the home, from lamps to varnishes. Kevin claims their compound (certified safe and effective by labs in Hong Kong and Germany) is able to cleanse the environment of up to 70% of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in three minutes once the light is on — including viruses and bacteria. The bigger the surface area it covers, the better it works.
But, there’s a difference from older versions.

“So why is this so different? It’s light-based but it’s not necessary for a light to be on all the time. If it’s off it still works,” Kevin notes  enthusiastically. “And existing nanotech has been proven to get into the body and cause some cancers. The particles used in this are about 100 times bigger, and so can’t get into the bloodstream. The gamechanger for us is that we can make an additive for your paint and redo your house. The application is endless.”

Kevin and his scientific partners are working on a version that can be embedded into all kinds of materials for everyday usage, which isn’t a crackpot idea either. Between 2012 and 2015 the European Commission experimented with adding a similar compound to construction concrete in Copenhagen, Holbæk and Valencia to mitigate air quality. They recorded a 5 to 20% reduction in pollutants in a year.

Kevin is still working on getting the scientific paperwork together that would support the compound’s ability to mitigate the presence of things like swine flu viruses and other coronaviruses, including COVID. Needless to say, “You need a level four laboratory for those tests, which are not easy to get into under normal circumstances, and they’re slammed now,” he admits.

“But there are ways to get it done, and we’re exploring those.”

Photo by Baljit Gidwani

On show at Gallery Jeeum
But Kevin is first and foremost a designer, and the lighting options he’s created blend science, sustainability and art without losing their style, and prove the three elements indeed go together. The photocatalysis series includes the elegant, birdlike FLY; Guilin, a stylised mountainscape; the Rain pendant that recreates the ripples of drops on water; the Hutong, mirroring the planning of old Beijing; the striking leaf design of the Foglia; and the fun and funky Omino stickmen with lightbulb heads among others.(Science details and design are both at www.iamsugo.com).

When looking to debut his creations in Hong Kong, Kevin found an ally in Gallery Jeeum owner Shin Eunhye. From the first of this month, the gallery in DB North Plaza is featuring some of Kevin’s sculptural installations in a hygienic space.

“Gallery Jeeum is the first place in the world to exhibit the Guilin light sculpture and the FLY lamps in a public space,” says Kevin of the special editions he created for the show.

“Shin argued there were no art galleries in DB but there are people who like art – who maybe don’t want to head all the way to Central for it,” Kevin says of the gallery which opened in February this year and, as the little sister of the acclaimed Seoul-based Jeeum, represents hip, contemporary artists from all over the world. “During COVID, nobody cares about beautiful things. But we need to, especially right now,” he adds. “Shin saw the potential in paying a bit more for a bigger piece and so
she went for it. This goes beyond just sustainability. Things can be designed to be actively working for the environment.”

Through COC Kevin is trying to make his cleansing additive a standard part of all his institutional work (hotels, offices, restaurants), as well as for consumer product like furniture going forward. The manufacturing batches are small for now, so the lamps aren’t IKEA cheap, but they’re not bank-breakers either. “These are absolutely for
everybody,” he stresses. Just don’t expect miracles.

Photo by Baljit Gidwani

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