Momorobo: Cutesy-chic Shanghai design, with a ghoulish twist

Momorobo: Cutesy-chic Shanghai design, with a ghoulish twist

A Shanghai-Singaporean design partnership has lead to love, marriage and some great graphics
Momorobo -- Sally Zou and Morris Lee
Sally Zou (left) and fellow Momorobite and now husband Morris Lee (right) flanked by one of their designs.

The name “Sally” conjures up an image of a perky gal with a high ponytail and a sunny disposition, and Sally Zou (邹卿) couldn’t have chosen a better English name for herself. The 25-year-old Shanghainese has a girl-next-door appearance that belies cascades of ambition and talent in areas ranging from illustration to jewelry design and graphic design.

Zou works by day as a designer for advertising agency Weiden+Kennedy (who have an insane knack for hiring awesome young Chinese artists), but she found her creative outlet after-hours, through her work with artist collective Momorobo.

Momorobo - Nike Campaign Momorobo's in-your-face designs get prime placement in Nike's Air Max campaign.Though the other two-thirds of the operation -- founder and animator/designer Morris Lee and his programmer/designer brother Eric -- were based in Singapore, Zou found in them a couple of creative kindred spirits, with complimentary skills and sensibilities.

Momorobo: a meeting of minds -- via MSN

Zou says Momorobo, or MMRB, is “very much influenced and inspired by French labels that are made up of collaborators from different backgrounds and culture and work on cross-platform projects," such as Kitsune and Surface-To-Air.

Over the past few years, Zou, Morris and Eric have sunk their teeth into a head-spinning array of different media, from VJing parties at Dada, designing mobile apps and funky fresh magazine illustrations for Milk and Curvy, to branded work for the likes of Nike and Converse.

For years Zou never met her fellow Momorobites in person, but exchanged bits of artistic inspiration via email and MSN.

When I look at her personal work, it just transports me to Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory type of world, surreal but so sweet!— Gino Woo, Creative Director at W+K Shanghai

Somewhere along the way though, Zou and Morris fell in love.

This process was hastened by Morris’ move from Singapore to Shanghai three years ago, and the two got hitched in January of this year.

Sally’s “hubby,” as she giddily refers to him, recently took a job in Montreal, but they still see each other in person every couple of months, and in the meantime continue in their groove of long-distance collaboration.

Cutesy-chic, with a ghoulish twist

Morris launched Momorobo, in 2004, choosing the Japanese-sounding name simply because he liked the ring of it. The nonsense word is somehow apt to describe MMRB’s work, suggesting a cutesy yet maniacal robot.

The aforementioned complimentary skill sets go along way toward Momorobo’s success.

For every project, Zou explains, the work will be allocated to the appropriate person, with tech-y projects typically going to Eric, animation and somewhat spooky illustration projects to Morris, and projects that call for a more vivid, cheerful drawing style going to Zou.

Momorobo - MMRBMomorobo's images show off what the company's known for: innovative design that walks the line between chic, but almost ghoulish. The principle creative then goes away to draft up some imagery on his or her own, before looking to the group for feedback.

Zou, who studied art and design at Shanghai University, cites artistic influences including China’s art world bad-boy Ai Weiwei, Japanese fashion label Comme Des Garcons, and the winsome work of Japanese pop artist Yoshitomo Nara.

With a cursory glance it’s easy to get Zou and Morris’ drawings confused. But Zou points out that, once you’re familiar with their styles, it’s easy to distinguish them. Both have shades of twisted cartoons a la Gary Baseman, but Morris’ illustrations are more demented-Disney, while Zou’s are more Dayglo-New-York-City-subway-graffiti circa 1983.

Gino Woo, Creative Director at W+K Shanghai, describes Sally’s work as “orgasmic.”

“When I look at her personal work,” says Woo, “it just transports me to Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory type of world, surreal but so sweet!”

So what’s next for Momorobo? Having recently finished work on W+K’s cheeky Shanghai City Guide iPhone app, Zou says the group plans to continue in the mobile arena, and she also hopes to release a Momorobo clothing line in Shanghai.

Abby hails from Washington D.C. and bounced around Hong Kong, Singapore, Massachusetts and Egypt before arriving in Shanghai in 2007.

Read more about Abby Lavin