Interview with Manuel Correia da Silva, co-founder of Lines Lab: ‘Creative industries are now part of the city’s political debate’

Manuel Correia da Silva

Manuel Correia da Silva

Founded in 2006, by designers Clara Brito and Manuel Correia da Silva, Lines Lab has provided a place and a time to explore an experimental approach to design. Ceramic lamps, printed silk scarves, or parasols cast a snowflake-inspired shadow mushroom in their studio housed in Albergue SCM, in the São Lázaro neighborhood.
They have changed as the city evolved, said co-founder Manuel Correia da Silva in an interview with the Times. The local design panorama has changed radically, while creative industries have now joined the political debate. According to our interviewee, Macau does not lack creative minds, but building an industry out of creativity and art still remains a challenge. A business mindset combined with designing innovative products is the key, he assures.

Macau Daily Times (MDT) – Lines Lab is known for an experimental approach to design. Has Macau revealed itself as a good starting point for the project?
Manuel Correia da Silva (MCS) – The Lines Lab project started over six years ago. It has evolved as the city has evolved too. When I came back to Macau in 2002, it was a whole different city. The first casino of this new era was being built (Sands). What we felt was that Macau was still a very pure place in terms of design and of experimenting with design. That idea we had in Europe of having a place working as a shop, a gallery, or even a place where we could host concerts… we couldn’t find it here. As the city has evolved in these last 10 years, we have also evolved. So in that sense Macau was a good place to launch this project. But we were always aware that in order to operate in Macau sustainably, we would have to eye nearby markets, because the local market cannot absorb all of our products.

MDT – You and Clara Brito created the Lines Lab brand in 2006. At the time you were eyeing Europe but as the economy in Asia boomed. What markets do you do business with now?
MCS – We have an academic background from Europe. So of course when we arrived here, we had a number of contacts and links in Europe. Since the beginning, and even today, we are still exploring these links with Europe.
Being in a city where there’s an idea of Macau being used as a platform [to reach other countries], we had the impression we needed to explore nearby regions, as well. It’s not easy, because we are dealing with very different markets, some of which are very large. So, the beginning was a learning process. Looking at a map, it was not very difficult to realize that Hong Kong had to be one of our focuses, and it still is. Nowadays there are other important cities in terms of design: Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo. And even in China, as it is such a big country. It’s also important to focus on second or third line cities – the city of Zhuhai, for instance. And in recent years, we made an effort and we saw things evolving. Now with the bridge, the city of Zhuhai is changing. This entire region has potential and we need to understand where to head next.

MDT – Amongst those cities, are there any, where there’s a special sensibility and demand for design products?
MCS – Yes, Hong Kong, for sure; Tokyo; Singapore; Beijing and Shanghai; and as I said we also felt that in Seoul. But if I had to choose one or two, I would say Hong Kong; Taipei, it’s crucial. It’s a good starting point for China, too. There’s a long design culture there. And Singapore. I would say these are the top three in this region.

The Lines Lab founders, Manuel Correia da Silva and Clara Brito

The Lines Lab founders, Manuel Correia da Silva and Clara Brito

MDT – How has design changed in Macau since you established Lines Lab?
MCS – It has changed radically. When I came back in 2002, design [products] weren’t usually on display. There was no one talking about creative industries. Design and creative industries incorporate a wide range of areas. Fashion design, for instance, has a tradition in Macau, particularly because in the 1980s there was an industry dedicated to producing clothing.  What I think has changed began with the first Chief Executive, in his second term, when he pledged the need for a diversification of Macau’s economy and launched this idea of creative industries for the first time. That changed everything, because suddenly it was not only the small enterprises wanting to work in design making an effort, but it was also the Macau government getting hold of this mission.

MDT – What are some of the major challenges and changes faced by the so-called creative industries here?
MCS – Things have improved, but as a small enterprise we are exposed to the usual issues such as labor and rent. Without support from the government, it is sometimes difficult to survive. We have been here for quite some time, so we’ve been able to overcome some of those issues. But I think that’s what has changed. Creative industries are now part of the city’s wider political debate. Suddenly we are talking about companies; it’s no longer just about associations, but about companies and businesses. That’s the major difference and it’s a crucial one, because without that we would be mere ‘subsidy addicts.’ Subsidies given by a government that, while being quite wealthy, cannot guarantee that we are able to build an industry going on this path. That’s the greatest of challenges to these companies: proving that they can build a market and have groundbreaking products to be competitive both locally and internationally.

MDT – We know there’s a market for design products in neighboring regions. But how is that market here? Has the casino industry contributed to opening a market for these companies?
MCS – We have to compare the scale of these [gaming] companies. It is very difficult for them, to interact with us, even if they wanted. They cannot rely on small companies, because we might not be able to respond to their demand. But there are things that can be done indirectly. Companies have understood how casinos work and can adapt and present services or products that can meet their demands and needs. In different areas, new ideas are emerging, and there will be positive effects on these small and medium local enterprises, which are now more aware of how the casino industry works, and they will try to work together. They also have to prepare themselves to think and work in a different way.

MDT – What other clients or markets are possible for local designers?
MCS – Well, there’s another good client, with even greater economic power, which is the government. It lacks a tradition of working directly with these companies, because of independence matters but I believe that the tourism sector would be an interesting tool to promote the city’s design products overseas. The links between these companies and Macau tourism could be interesting to promote the city because a city like Macau can rapidly be labeled as a mere gambling hub, with all its associated issues. So there’s a need for marketing activities, saying that Macau is not just about gaming but also has a lot more to offer. But for that there’s a need for creative industries ‘to sell’ a different Macau.

MDT – As you’ve mentioned, there is a tradition of fashion design in Macau. Lines Lab helped create the Macau Fashion Link in 2010. Did the event contribute to enhancing local fashion designers’ careers?
MCS – The Macau Fashion Link was established in collaboration with the team of architect Carlos Marreiros. What we feel is that being here [in the Albergue SCM] makes sense to work together. It was a challenge that we proposed as we thought there was a need to promote fashion design in a more contemporary way, with glamour. Originally the fashion that was promoted here was very much linked to factories and tailors and not connected to fashion designers.
We thought there was a need to find a balance and we thought of creating a charming place here in the neighborhood. At the same time, we wanted to explore this idea of being closer to other Portuguese countries, so we’ve always invited designers from Mozambique, Angola, China, so that they can exchange ideas. We’ve also tried to enhance its business side, with the pop-up shop, where designers have an opportunity to showcase their products in the market. They were, at times, were invited to these kinds of events, but they still didn’t have an opportunity to actually make business. We already have creative people, what we don’t have is an industry. So the event has that purpose, too.

MDT – You stated recently that for Macau to have a true fashion movement, we would need a fashion school. Do you see that happening in the near future?
MCS – The idea of having a school linked to fashion design and other creative industries would surely have a positive impact in Macau. Having a more ‘university city’, with more young people would definitely be a positive. We can identify the example of the University of Macau that was built outside the city; the influence of all those students will not be as visible. Still, their ideas will certainly spread around town. I don’t know how long it will take to happen [a design school] but I think we are all aware of how important it would be to have a school covering the creative industries. So I think sooner or later people will start launching projects, but we don’t know if it will be a large-scale or a small-scale school of fine arts. It is also important to assess how the local job market would be able to absorb all those students after graduation.

MDT – Has financial support from the government been well implemented? There’s also a new fund for the creative industries…
MCS – I think the government has two strategies. One is providing support to associations to promote workshops, fashion shows, and exhibitions. If we are talking about creative industries however, it seems to me it is crucial to also focus on the private sector, because otherwise we can’t have an industry.
And that’s how the fund emerged. Applications closed recently so we will know in January or February next year. For now we can only plan to assess the effect of the fund next year and probably the next event after that, when selected companies will start working with the money they were granted. The idea of the fund – at least – shows that there’s a need to focus on the private sector. In the beginning companies need support, but it is up to the government to evaluate which projects are able to survive and maintain a presence in the market, without always depending on subsidies. I think the fund can work. Macau’s economy has a limit, we can’t have an infinite number of fashion design companies or video companies, and then it will be a supply and demand law leading. So the projects need to be approached from a business mindset, and make a difference; it can’t be just a designer, there’s a spirit beyond that, because you need someone who thinks there’s a business behind it too.
In Portugal we talk about entrepreneurship quite a lot now, and that’s what we also need in creative industries: fresh ideas, and people who know how to link things, and make a business out of it.

MDT – What projects is Lines Lab currently developing?
MCS – We are in a process of reorganizing our actions. So Lines Lab will continue to focus especially on drawing and designing products. We have always been very flexible, from crafting handmade ceramic lamps to scarves that have been digitally designed…Lines Lab wants to focus on creating and innovating.
We have a new project, Munhub, which is a platform working on commercializing and on the internalization of brands. It includes our brand but it provides services to other brands as well. For now, we are working with mainly Portuguese fashion design companies that are willing to enter the Asian market. We will be participating in fairs with these companies too. So Munhub is one of our focuses now. And that leaves Lines Lab free to work on our creations.
We will work with the events, because in a city like Macau, with so many tourists, we think these events are a good marketing tool for internationalization.

MDT – The challenges that small companies are facing in Macau are often related with labor shortages and rents. How have you been able to cope?
MCS – Yes, those issues haven’t been solved. Actually, they’ve worsened. That’s the greatest challenge of our city. No matter how many subsidies we receive, for someone willing to have a house, a family or a car, and all this becomes absurdly expensive…If this is not solved, Macau will be a city where only wealthy people and large companies are able to survive. So the challenge remains. How have you been able to cope with it? Well, with a lot of effort. We are well aware of these issues. What is more frustrating is to realize that this prevents us from growing further. I don’t want more subsidies; I want to pay a lower rent. With what we would save in rents, I could invest in staff, and if I could have more and better professionals, we could sell more.

Categories Interview Macau